Fitzgerald: Top 'Cat Once Was Nothing More Than a 'Pioneer'
Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald credits high school days at Sandburg with setting the foundation for his future success.
When current Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald was in junior high school, his older sister Jacki used to get him out of class early to go watch Sandburg playoff football games.
“Back then, they had Wednesday afternoon first-round playoff games,” Pat Fitzgerald said. “My sister took me to go watch the Eagles play. My goal and dream was always to play Friday night football at Sandburg. Growing up, I couldn’t wait to play at Sandburg. Once I got there, it lived up to all my expectations.”
Tagging along with his older sister was nothing new for Fitzgerald.
“I’m six years older than him, but we are very close to this day,” said Jacki Frederking, who is a 1987 Sandburg graduate and is currently a Dean of Students at Shepard High School in Palos Heights. “I tried to involve him as much as I could in everything I did.
"He used to come with me to games, running around with his friends and a Nerf football. He was always mature for his age. When he was 18 months, he looked like he was 4. We had a park behind our house in Orland Park and when we were younger, he was playing baseball and football with all my friends. He knew all the big kids.
"They’d want him to be the ball boy, but he got right in there with them. Looking back, that may have helped set the tone as far as his competitive nature, but he was always sports-minded and competitive.”
Fitzgerald’s passion for football began at an early age when he played for the Orland Park Pioneers youth team in second grade. He’s been thriving in the sport ever since.
While at Sandburg, Fitzgerald was promoted to the varsity as a sophomore for the playoffs and then had two stellar seasons for the Eagles as a star linebacker, including leading them to an 8-3 record during his senior year in 1993.
“The people at Sandburg were great, the academics prepared me for the rigors of college and it just had a family feeling,” said the 37-year-old Fitzgerald, who met his wife Stacy in high school. The two now have three sons. “I always liked the pride and school spirit every Eagle had, which was representative of the community.
“What stands out to me about those days was playing with a great group of guys that I grew up with. It was like a brotherhood. Playing for great coaches like (the late) Tom Seliga, Larry Lokanc and Mike Navarro was just a special experience. I forever will be indebted to them. Larry (Lokanc) was my linebacker coach and was instrumental in me coming to Northwestern and setting the foundation. They had as big, if not the biggest, impact outside of my family when I got to Sandburg.”
Seliga was Fitzgerald’s head coach at Sandburg, while Lokanc served as the team’s defensive coordinator and Navarro was the sophomore coach before taking over the program for the next nine years following Fitzgerald’s senior season.
Fitzgerald credited Lokanc with helping him realize his potential.
“Pat was part of a talented group of kids, and he was the elite person in the group,” Lokanc said. “His sophomore year, we brought him up during the playoffs and he got a little playing time. That usually didn’t happen to sophomores at Sandburg at the time.
"He was a hard-working, solid kid and a leader. He probably didn’t know how good he was, like most kids. He wasn’t the type of kid that was cocky and knew he was the best player on the field, even though people around him could see he had God-given abilities.
"He worked hard enough to eventually realize he had those abilities and turned into the type of person he is today. Pat never forgot where he came from. He’s involved in the school and will drop everything if Carl Sandburg calls him for something."
Lokanc later had the privilege of sharing state football championships with his sons at Providence Catholic as an assistant coach.
Luke and Lance Lokanc were both part of state championship teams with the Celtics and are now following in their father’s footsteps. Luke Lokanc is an assistant varsity football coach at Lincoln-Way Central, while Lance Lokanc is an assistant varsity football coach at Lincoln-Way East.
Larry Lokanc used the tough love approach while coaching Fitzgerald.
“We always had a good relationship,” Lokanc said. “I was kind of forced on him and he was forced on me (as a coach). I might have been tough on him to the idea of not trying to be his friend, but trying to get the best out of him. You have to know how much a kid can take and ride that.
"One thing he needed was to get in the weight room. He had the upper-body strength, but his lower-body strength was a little below average. His junior year, there was a group of about four kids that used to come in at 6 in the morning and all they did was squats. That brought the kids closer and helped bond the team. More kids started coming because Pat had that kind of effect on people.”
Decision of a Lifetime
After graduating from Sandburg, Fitzgerald had scholarship offers to play at the next level and eventually chose Northwestern.
“No. 1, it was close to home,” Fitzgerald said. “My whole family lives on the South Side and my mom and dad live in Orland Park. I wanted to get a great degree, and I wanted to play in the Big Ten. Northwestern was the best opportunity for me and it ended up being the best decision I’ve ever made outside of marrying my wife.”
Fitzgerald went on to have a history-making career with the Wildcats, leading them from his linebacker position to back-to-back Big Ten championships. He twice was named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and became the first player ever to win both the Bronko Nagurski Trophy and Chuck Bednarik Award as the national defensive player twice in 1995 and 1996.
Despite his immense success, Fitzgerald admits the jump to the college game didn’t go well early on.
“I was just happy to have a scholarship,” Fitzgerald said. “I think part of the issue I had in my transition from high school to college was I felt like my goal was to get a scholarship and I achieved that.
"I just wallowed about and was happy to be there and for some reason that manifested into negative action of me not being the best I could be. That was not what I was taught by my family or coaches. It was a painful lesson and something I regret, but I’m glad I learned it.”
Fitzgerald always relied on his family, which included his parents, Pat Sr. and Florence, and sisters Jacki and Tricia, for support. They were especially needed in 1995 when Fitzgerald endured the most difficult period of his entire playing career.
After leading Northwestern to a 10-1 regular-season record and its first Rose Bowl appearance since 1949, Fitzgerald was unable to play in Northwestern’s 41-32 loss to USC after breaking his leg in the next-to-last game of the season.
“It’s a lot easier to think about now than it was back then,” Fitzgerald said. “It was the worst feeling and I didn’t handle it maturely. I felt sorry for myself. My teammates and everyone were great, but I felt sorry for myself. It was a lesson I learned in my life. When I look back it taught me how much I love this game.”
Fitzgerald returned for the 1996 season and helped the Wildcats secure a spot in the 1997 Citrus Bowl, where the Peyton Manning-led Tennessee team pulled out a 48-28 victory.
Fitzgerald started 23 games at Northwestern, compiling 299 tackles, five forced fumbles and three interceptions and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2008, becoming the 15th Northwestern player or coach enshrined. At age 33, he was the youngest person ever inducted.
“I was honored and humbled by that, but that had a lot less to do with me and a lot more to do with the great coaches at Northwestern and players I played with,” Fitzgerald said. “I was happy to be part of a group that had a lot of success in my last two years.”
Fitzgerald didn’t get drafted by the NFL after his remarkable collegiate career, but signed with the Dallas Cowboys as a free agent.
He played in three preseason games before taking a year off from the sport he had played nearly his entire life.
“I’m a realist,” Fitzgerald said. “I couldn’t outrun an alligator and my game was more suited for the college game than the pros. I’m just grateful for the education Northwestern provided me and being able to play the great game of football. I’m indebted to every opportunity Evanston gave me since I left Sandburg. It’s a surreal feeling.
"After my sophomore year (at Sandburg), I knew I wanted to be a high school teacher and coach. When I got to college and saw that level, my thought process changed a little, but I knew I wanted to be a coach.”
Fitzgerald returned to the college game in 1998 and served as a graduate assistant under former Maryland head coach and current linebackers coach at Penn State Ron Vanderlinden and served in the same capacity at Colorado in 1999 under former Northwestern coach Gary Barnett. He then earned his first full-time coaching job at the University of Idaho in 2000 before another life-changing moment occurred in 2001. Then-Northwestern head coach Randy Walker asked Fitzgerald to return to his alma mater in 2001 to serve as an assistant coach.
Fitzgerald was being groomed by Walker to become the head coach, but that opportunity came much sooner than anyone imagined. Fitzgerald took over the program at the age of 31 after the unexpected death of Walker in the summer of 2006.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity, but I wish I was still the linebacker coach and Randy Walker was still the head coach,” Fitzgerald said. “We try to live up to his legacy every day.”
Despite being the youngest coach in NCAA Division I by five years at the time, Fitzgerald has flourished in the position the past five seasons.
Northwestern has made three straight bowl appearances, including the past two years on New Year’s Day. His success was rewarded Tuesday when Northwestern Director of Athletics and Recreation Jim Phillips announced a new 10-year agreement to keep Fitzgerald on the sidelines through the 2020 season.
“It’s paramount for Northwestern football to have great leadership,” Phillips said in a news release. “There is no better individual to lead Chicago’s Big Ten team than Pat. He is a tremendous teacher and truly values developing young men athletically and socially.
"Our football program is having unprecedented success–on the football field, in the classroom and in the community–and that is due to Pat’s outstanding leadership.”
One person certainly not surprised by Fitzgerald’s accomplishments through the years is Navarro.
“He is a special person and has my total respect,” Navarro said. “What he’s done at Northwestern is remarkable. I couldn’t be prouder of him. It’s nice to know someone we may have had a little bit of influence on along the way has gone on to do everything he has done. It’s nice to see someone like Pat be successful. He works hard and treats his players well. They will run through a brick wall for him. He’s always had a strong desire to be successful and that’s a trait he still has today as a coach.”
Fitzgerald takes just as much pride in what his players do in the classroom as on the field.
Northwestern had a school-record 32 players earn Academic All-Big Ten honors in 2010. The team had a combined grade-point average above 3.0 for an academic quarter for the third year in a row and earned the AFCA’s Academic Achievement Award, which is given to the top football program for graduation rate for the fifth time since 2002. In the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate report, Northwestern recorded a perfect 1,000 APR index.
“We have great young people and the best people in the game right now,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m proud of our young men and assistants for everything they have done, but we’re far from satisfied and this is not where our destination is. We want to win the Big Ten, win a national championship and have 100 percent graduation. We have the graduation part, but we’d still like to accomplish the other two.”
Fitzgerald couldn’t be happier at Northwestern and has no intentions of ever joining the NFL ranks.
“I’ve got my dream job and hopefully Northwestern wants me to be its head coach for a long, long time,” Fitzgerald said.