What Explains The Popularity of NU Football Coach Pat Fitzgerald?

My latest piece on Wednesday for ChicagoSide

He’s never won a bowl game. His career record in the Big Ten is 26-30. And, this season, his Northwestern Wildcats, while compiling an impressive 9-3 record, were perhaps best known for squandering leads.

Nevertheless, Pat Fitzgerald remains as popular in Evanston as the Purple Line, and is considered among the most highly respected football coaches in all of America.

So, how’s that work?

In today’s pressure-packed, results-driven, big-money college sports environment, it hardly seems possible for a major conference coach to enjoy a level of popularity that exceeds his on-field accomplishments, especially after seven seasons at a school. Yet, that’s the story of Pat Fitzgerald—a story unlike any other in college football today.

“Coach Fitz is a fascinating study,” said Chris Emma, who covers Northwestern athletics for FOX Sports Next and Scout.com. “But he’s doing things the right way, and I think that helps a lot with his public perception.”

On New Year’s Day in Jacksonville, Fla., Fitzgerald will lead 20th-ranked Northwestern against SEC foe Mississippi State (8-4) in the Gator Bowl. The 38-year-old coach—who starred at linebacker for NU during the Rose Bowl heyday of the mid-1990s—will be shooting for the first postseason victory of his career, having suffered through frustrating losses each of the past four seasons.

Meanwhile, the NU fan base is hoping to see its first bowl win since the Wildcats beat Cal 20-14 in the 1949 Rose Bowl. In the 63 years since that California dream, Northwestern has lost nine consecutive bowl games, a drought so epic and so unlikely that you’d have to be a fan of the Cubs or Buffalo Bills to relate.

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