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Pat Fitzgerald feels his way over a slippery slope of testimony

Updated: March 23, 2014 6:23AM



Make no mistake: the weeklong hearing before the National Labor Relations Board pitted Northwestern’s football players against the university.

And that put Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald in a bad position when he took the stand Friday. Fitzgerald has a responsibility to his employer, but speaking out against his players could damage the football program he has built.

Turns out Fitzgerald had no choice. Neither the university nor the College ­Athletes Players Association necessarily intended to call Fitzgerald to the stand, but the hearing officer made certain he would testify. Courtroom sources told the Sun-Times that the hearing officer said in private meetings with council, “If you don’t call him, I will.”

But as Fitzgerald testified for more than three hours, he was as elusive on the stand as former Northwestern quarterback and CAPA founder Kain Colter was on the field.

That was a good thing—not necessarily for the university’s case, but for its football program.

Even when baited by university attorneys, Fitzgerald resisted the opportunity to fire back at Colter, who had been critical of his ­leadership. Instead, Fitzgerald cited his experiences as a linebacker at Northwestern to support the university’s case.

Fitzgerald didn’t admonish his players; he galvanized them to come to his support.

Northwestern center and 2013 captain Brandon Vitabile released a statement on behalf of the team via email saying that they “believe our desire to have a voice has been cast aside.”

The statement went on to read: “We could not be happier, nor could we ask for more from our staff, coaches, and ­administrators. They have always acted with our best ­interests in mind.”

Even when opposing council cross-examined Fitzgerald, he resisted emotion.

On one occasion a CAPA attorney questioned Fitzgerald on his family life and the support of his wife — a line of inquiry nearly as inappropriate for the setting as the cowboy boots that attorney elected to wear.

Which side Fitzgerald helped more with his ­testimony won’t be known until weeks from now — when a decision is rendered on the issue from the regional director of the Chicago NLRB office.

Each side had its ­moments.

But after every game when Fitzgerald addresses the media, he will point out if his team went without injury. And even in a loss, he will call that a good thing.

Was Friday a good day? Well, at a bare minimum, he walked out of the ­courtroom with his ­program unscathed.

Email: sgruen@suntimes.com

Twitter: @SethGruen



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