Lawyers say Northwestern fired coach Pat Fitzgerald for a reason

Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Senior Writer July 11, 2023, 7:08 PM ET

Close College football journalist. Joined in 2008. Graduated from Northwestern University.

EVANSTON, Ill. — Northwestern fired coach Pat Fitzgerald for a reason, his attorneys told ESPN on Tuesday, setting up a potential legal battle between the College Football Hall of Famer and his alma mater.

Attorney Dan Webb said he was in communication with Northwestern’s general counsel, who informed him of the termination due to Fitzgerald, who has led the team since 2006 and was a former two-time national defenseman of the year at school. University president Michael Schill fired Fitzgerald on Monday afternoon, citing a partly “broken” team culture following an investigation into hazing within the program.

Webb is researching legal strategy and has not filed a lawsuit but cites “two different major breach of contract claims” with Northwestern, as well as significant damage to reputation.

Northwestern has yet to tell Webb whether they want to withhold any remaining salary on Fitzgerald’s 10-year contract that was signed in January 2021. Fitzgerald owes the school more than $40 million.

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Webb told ESPN that in addition to Fitzgerald’s employment contract, Northwestern violated an oral agreement reached between the coach, Schil, and the university’s general counsel last week. Northwestern on Friday announced a two-week unpaid suspension for Fitzgerald, one of several countermeasures after an investigation into hazing allegations found the claims were “largely supported by evidence.”

An investigation by attorneys Maggie Hickey and the firm ArentFox Schiff found no evidence Fitzgerald or Northwestern coaches knew about the hazing activity, but they did have opportunities to find and report the behavior.

“I don’t understand how you can dismiss someone for a reason when they are [Northwestern] admit that their own attorneys have no evidence that my client ever knew anything about the alleged hazing behavior,” Webb said. know nothing [the incidents].”

Webb said Northwestern’s general counsel, Stephanie Graham, confirmed to him that the school and Fitzgerald had agreed to the suspension two weeks before Friday’s announcement. He added that Graham told Fitzgerald and his agent, Bryan Harlan, that “this is the only thing that’s going to happen.”

Northwestern declined to comment when asked about the verbal agreement and reasons for Fitzgerald’s dismissal.

“Under Illinois law, an oral agreement is a contract,” said Webb, former US Attorney for the northern district of Illinois. “They had all the facts available to them. They thought the appropriate punishment would be a two-week suspension without pay. That was their judgement. They made their decision. We agreed to follow it, and we issued a statement in their support.

“So they have now violated the verbal agreement and seriously damaged his reputation. And for no reason. This whole series of events by Northwestern, I can’t fathom it.”

Webb contended that Northwestern “had no new information” between the first two weeks of suspension for Fitzgerald and his firing, noting that the hazing details reported Saturday by The Daily Northwestern reflected what Hickey had been told during the investigation.

Webb was open to an out-of-court resolution, but also noted the reputational damage Fitzgerald had suffered from his firing.

“There are major reputational issues that will be part of that,” he said. “If we go ahead with the litigation, it’s going to be a huge damages case because he can claim damages for the remaining eight years on his contract. And the next 10 years, he can’t recoup it. So you’re talking about a huge amount of money.”

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