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Exuberant coach Pat Fitzgerald has made football relevant at Northwestern

Coach PFitzgerald gets hug from offensive lineman Brian Mulroe final seconds Northwestern’s victory New Year’s Day against Mississippi State Gator

Coach Pat Fitzgerald gets a hug from offensive lineman Brian Mulroe in the final seconds of Northwestern’s victory New Year’s Day against Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla. | Stephen Morton~AP

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Updated: February 7, 2013 6:47AM

Michigan 94, Northwestern 66. Buzz kill, anybody?

NU was in full celebratory mode last week after one of the most significant football victories in its history, a New Year’s Day thumping of Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl that concluded a rare 10-victory season. No one would dare dispute athletic director Jim Phillips’ proclamation that Pat Fitzgerald is the best coach in America.

Two nights later, the basketball Wildcats drew unbeaten Michigan in their Big Ten opener. Coach Bill Carmody wore the forlorn look of a hungry kid who’d had his lunch money stolen as the Wolverines ran a layup drill against his depleted team. So much for football momentum carrying over to basketball.

When does spring practice start?

Not long ago, Fitzgerald and Carmody were running on similar tracks. The football Wildcats would go 7-5 or so, finish in the middle of the Big Ten pack and use the TicketCity or Alamo bowl for their holiday reward.

Sort of like winning 18 to 20 games in basketball, finishing in the middle of the Big Ten pack and heading off to the National Invitation Tournament.

Fitzgerald, though, was deified for achieving those results, and look at him now: a 10-3 season, capped by one of only two victories by his conference in bowl games, this one against a school from the big, bad Southeastern Conference. Chicago’s Big Ten team currently claims Chicago’s most compelling sports figure.

Carmody? Not so much. In fact, some NU supporters continue to cast covetous eyes at Duke, Stanford and Notre Dame and wonder why the comparably brainy Wildcats can’t do better
in hoops.

It’s not fair to compare the coaches. Fitzgerald comes with built-in credibility, having been a great player on an NU Rose Bowl team. A little small and a step slow for the pros, perhaps, but that’s of no consequence on a campus that reveres him. Fitzgerald was only 31 when Mark Murphy asked him to take over after Randy Walker’s unfathomably untimely death from a heart attack in 2006. In seven seasons, he has accumulated more victories than any other Wildcats football coach. And he’s just getting started.

Fitzgerald is naturally charismatic, carrying himself with the easy confidence of one who has succeeded in a physical endeavor and knows what it takes. He’s street-smart, with a knack for saying the right thing at the right time, and he’s unashamedly old-school, peppering his conversations with ‘‘Go, Cats’’ exhortations that would seem cornball if they weren’t coming from such a true believer.

Carmody, a less tall, more reserved Conan O’Brien, looks almost unnatural in purple and simply isn’t wired for spouting ‘‘Go, Cats’’ at every opportunity. And ESPN did him no favors during the telecast Thursday. There were several cut-aways to a smiling Fitzgerald greeting well-wishers in the Welsh-Ryan Arena stands while Carmody’s outmanned squad was getting pounded on the Welsh-Ryan Arena floor.

It was hard to think of them as colleagues, even as Fitzgerald tried to rev up the somber crowd.

Carmody is a good guy and a good coach. He just isn’t ‘‘Coach Fitz.’’ Like anyone else on the NU campus who isn’t, he’s going to suffer from the comparison.

And if it isn’t one thing, it’s another with Carmody. Two years ago, Kevin Coble’s petulant hissy fit over follow-up treatment for a serious foot injury sabotaged a season. NU’s inability to win a close game last season well might have been a byproduct of John Shurna’s crushing workload. (The tough but spindly senior wore down while playing nearly 38 minutes a night.) This season, injuries and academics have idled the Wildcats’ two best players.

Maybe it was asking too much to end a 63-season bowl drought and a forever NCAA tournament exclusion in the same year. NU remains a football school. Let that sink in for a minute.

The Bears, of course, are in the market for a coach, and couldn’t that present an interesting dilemma for an influential gentleman named Pat Ryan, who has built half of Northwestern and holds a seat on the Bears’ board of directors. You think he might wonder how Fitzgerald would look in blue and orange?

There is precedent: The 49ers’ decade of dominance began when they stayed in their neighborhood on a coaching search and hired
Bill Walsh off the Stanford campus in 1979. Worked out pretty well
for them.

Maybe some other time. It’s not sound management strategy to fill one hole by creating another, so the Bears can look elsewhere. Fitzgerald is better off where he is. So are the Wildcats.

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