Barnett: Northwestern fan support could factor into Pat Fitzgerald's coaching future

David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

As the biggest game of Pat Fitzgerald's coaching career looms, one former Northwestern coach muses about Fitz's future in Evanston.

Pat Fitzgerald may be at Northwestern forever. Or as close to forever as football allows, anyway. He's only 38 and already in his eighth season at the helm of the Wildcats, and the program is thriving. He's also a former All-American linebacker for the 'Cats, playing an integral role in Northwestern's stunning rise to glory in the mid-'90s, so the bond here is deeper and truer than just about any coach's connection to his school.

So what breaks that bond? Retirement in 20 to 30 years, or will something come up sooner than that? An NFL job? An elite college? Or maybe something that — and this will sound heretical — sours him on Northwestern? Here's what Gary Barnett, Fitzgerald's coach during the Rose Bowl run, said about that possibility to the Chicago Tribune:

What he also can't envision is Fitzgerald leaving Northwestern for another college job. Barnett said years ago that NU officials would need to improve facilities and increase the salary pool for assistants to keep Fitzgerald. They have done both, though ground has not been broken on the $220 million lakeside facility.

Barnett believes the USC vacancy would not interest Fitzgerald because he wouldn't want to raise his kids in Southern California. As for potential interest from Texas, where calls for Mack Brown's job have come from heavyweights such as Longhorns great Earl Campbell, "they want someone who will wear (cowboy) boots and jeans and hang out with the donors," Barnett said.

"What will eat at him," Barnett said, "is if there's as much red in the stands as purple Saturday night. That gnaws at you. But with the support (the administration) is creating, I think he is too smart to (leave)."

The issue of fan support is real. It's not that Northwestern fans take a lackadaisical approach to supporting the team, it's that the fan base is small compared to the rest of the Big Ten. Ohio State's is enormous, and it is wholly plausible that the Buckeye fans overwhelm Ryan Field this Saturday — remember what they did all the way out in Berkeley a few weeks ago?

But really, Barnett's right: it looks like the administration's doing what it takes to keep Fitzgerald around long-term and he doesn't seem like the job-chasing type; otherwise he probably he would have been gone already.

What it would take to ruin this relationship is likely a sustained dip in production from Fitzgerald (which seems unlikely, but these things happen) or a considerable de-emphasis in football's importance at Northwestern from the administration. That facility never getting built, for example, or some other weirdness with the sport, like a fourth division getting created for football powers and Northwestern not approving of its standing within it.

Other than that, though ... it's hard to imagine what it would take.

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