Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Senior Writer July 11, 2023, 4:55 PM ET
Close College football journalist. Joined ESPN.com in 2008. Graduated from Northwestern University.
EVANSTON, Ill. — By Monday afternoon, Pat Fitzgerald had been the face of Northwestern football.
He is the program’s most accomplished player of the modern era, a key figure in the 1995 Rose Bowl revival that changed the trajectory of the bottom-dweller program, College Football Hall of Famer and winning school coach (110 wins) – responsible for two Big Ten West Division titles and five of the program’s six bowl wins. Fitzgerald has turned down offers from other college programs and NFL teams to remain at Northwestern, announcing after the team’s 2018 Holiday Bowl win that he would be a “Wild Cat for life.”
On Monday, university president Michael Schill fired Fitzgerald after an investigation into hazing allegations.
The firing of Northwestern’s most high-profile football alumni rocked programs and universities, and left many questions unanswered. Schhill has only communicated by letter to the campus community, and athletic director Derrick Gragg has been traveling overseas until Tuesday.
“You changed the trajectory of this place for 30 years,” a Northwestern source told ESPN on Tuesday. “I don’t see how we get out of this any time soon. It’s catastrophic.”
Here’s a look at Evanston’s tumultuous weekend, how it ended for Fitzgerald and what the program holds next.
How did we get here?
On Nov. 30, a Northwestern soccer player emailed Kristina Minor, the school’s senior associate athletic director for compliance, with the subject line: “NORTHWESTERN FOOTBALL HAZING.” In an email obtained by ESPN, players reported “extremely disturbing and heinous hazing situations” within the program. Players, who have left school, describe the practice of “running”, in which a group of older players restrains a younger player – often a new player who blunders on the court – and engages in sexual behavior.
Northwestern responded by launching an investigation and hiring attorney Maggie Hickey and the firm ArentFox Schiff to oversee the proceedings. The investigation, which ESPN first reported on in January, interviewed former players, coaches and current staff. On Friday, Northwestern announced an investigation had found evidence to largely support the whistleblower’s claims, but that they had found no evidence that Fitzgerald or any of the other trainers had any knowledge of the hazing activities. However, investigators concluded that trainers “had an opportunity… to spot and report hazing behavior.” The school released only an executive summary of the findings, which included few details and no name other than Fitzgerald’s. The coach received a two-week suspension without pay as part of several actions from the school, including the football locker room supervisor who refused to report to Fitzgerald or staff.
The story took a turn Saturday when a whistleblower detailed his hazing allegations to The Daily Northwestern, a student newspaper. Other former players corroborated all or part of the complainant’s claims. The current player released a statement signed by the team, strongly supporting Fitzgerald. The current cast said the allegations were “exaggerated and twisted” and that Fitzgerald was “not involved in the alleged incidents in any way, shape, or form.”
But late Saturday night, Schil released a letter suggesting he needed to reconsider Fitzgerald’s penalty. Schhill wrote that he initially focused “too much on what the report concluded [Fitzgerald] doesn’t know and doesn’t know enough about what he should know.”
After nearly two days of silence from Northwestern and additional media reports, Schil called Fitzgerald on Monday and fired him. Fitzgerald held a brief staff meeting and then spoke to the players in an emotional team meeting on campus. Several players expressed their anger that neither Schil nor Gragg was present at the meeting.
Schell announced the dismissal in another letter, writing that on reflection, Northwestern football culture had been “destroyed” in several ways, and that Fitzgerald was “ultimately responsible for the culture of his team.”
In a statement late Monday, Fitzgerald wrote that he and the school had agreed to his initial suspension, and he was shocked when Schil “unilaterally withdrew our agreement without prior notice and subsequently terminated my employment.”
His 17-year tenure as coach of Northwestern has come to an end.
What’s next for Pat Fitzgerald?
Rece Davis was ‘appalled’ by Northwestern’s hazing claims under Fitzgerald
Rece Davis talks about Northwestern firing head coach Pat Fitzgerald amid widespread hazing allegations.
Fitzgerald may pursue legal action against Northwestern. In his statement late Monday, Fitzgerald announced he had asked powerful attorney Dan Webb, former US Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, to “take steps necessary to protect my legal rights.” Northwestern announced in January 2021 Fitzgerald had signed a new 10-year contract with the school, and the coach still owed more than $40 million, according to sources.
Fitzgerald, 48, will stay connected to Northwestern football through his son Jack, a strict freshman for the team. He was eventually able to seek other training opportunities, even though he and his wife are both from the Chicago area, and they have two youngest sons who are also still in school.
While other successful Northwestern coaches have gone to other jobs — Ara Parseghian to Notre Dame, Gary Barnett to Colorado — Fitzgerald sees Northwestern as a destination. He was heavily involved in the fundraising and $800 million redevelopment plan of Ryan Field. Several sources around the program questioned whether the stadium project would proceed without Fitzgerald at the helm.
“I don’t think the stadium will be built,” a former Northwestern staff member told ESPN.
What’s next for Northwestern players?
Northwestern held morning practice for players on Tuesday, though the shock of the previous few days hasn’t abated, according to sources. The team will begin pre-season training in August, but who will appear and who will lead practice is still unknown.
Defensive coordinator David Braun, who was hired in January, is managing the program and will soon be named caretaker coach. Braun, one of four new assistants for the 2023 season, previously had no affiliation with Northwestern and was absent due to alleged hazing.
Many players, some of whom voiced their support for Fitzgerald, walked away from Monday’s meeting upset and hurt, especially in the absence of campus leadership. Gragg briefly joined the meeting via Zoom but, according to sources, turned off his camera after the opening statement and did not answer questions from the cast. He returned to campus on Tuesday. Schil did not attend Monday’s meeting. Braun and offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian spoke to the group, sources said.
“I saw other people’s faces while Gragg was talking, a dozen or so, and I saw a lot of angry expressions and shaking his head when he spoke,” one player told ESPN. “I’m also one of those people. I’ve spoken to a lot of the other players. Everyone was mad at Schil and Gragg in their decision and the fact that nobody showed up in person and Schil didn’t even Zoom; it just shows how cowardly they are .”
NCAA rules allow Northwestern players to enter a transfer portal for 30 days following a head coach change. Northwestern doesn’t have any players officially signed to the portal yet, though sources in and around the program tell ESPN that several are considering the option.
What’s the long-term coaching situation at Northwestern?
Northwestern hasn’t announced leadership plans yet, but barring any surprises, the team will be led by an interim coach for the 2023 season. Gragg, hired as AD in 2021, looks set to lead the search for Fitzgerald’s successor.
Northwestern’s level of interest and job appearances vary. Northwestern went 1-11 in 2022, its worst season since 1989, and is only 4-20 since finishing No. 10 nationally in 2020. move on, and the fallout from Fitzgerald’s firing and hazing scandal will be significant. There may also have been administrative unrest, as Gragg and Schhill received criticism on campus and elsewhere.
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But Northwestern is also a member of the Big Ten, providing financial resources few programs can match. The school has dramatically upgraded its facilities, and the redevelopment of the overdue Ryan Field will be the cherry on top.
Northwestern may be hesitant to pursue candidates with direct connections, especially those who worked or played under Fitzgerald. But New York Giants offensive coordinator Mike Kafka, a rising star in the NFL lineup and former Northwestern quarterback under Fitzgerald, could be an attractive option. Alabama offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, who began his coaching career at Northwestern in 2015 and was interviewed for the Wildcats’ OC job, is a Chicago area native who will soon have the opportunity to lead a program. Former Wisconsin defensive coordinator and interim coach Jim Leonhard is another option.
Schools can also look to established head coaches like Wake Forest’s Dave Clawson or Duke’s Mike Elko, who won ACC Coach of the Year honors during their debut season in 2022. Perhaps Gragg will gauge interest from former college coaches in academically oriented schools. , such as David Shaw (Stanford) or Derek Mason (Vanderbilt).
How will the administration handle this?
General consensus: pretty bad.
The university, Fitzgerald and the complainant were satisfied with the way the investigation was conducted, according to the statement and conversation with ESPN. But Friday’s conclusions and limited summary releases didn’t sit well with reporters.
“It’s being covered up,” he told ESPN. “It was released on a Friday during the busiest holiday [week] this year. They do not release the results of the investigation because they are a private institution. And they give you a two week suspension in the dead period summer recruiting. Somehow they thought that this information wouldn’t be revealed at some point?”
Schhill’s change of position comes after significant media and public backlash on Saturday. He met Sunday with trustees Northwestern, who according to sources varied in their opinions about whether to keep Fitzgerald.
Even when Schil finally spoke up, it came in the form of a letter. Neither Schil nor Gragg spoke to reporters on any of the forums.
“No communication, no plans,” said a source. “The players are sitting there, like, what’s going on? The coaches are sitting there, what’s happening?”
Gragg, who has been doing Zoom meetings with the players, finally met with full staff on Tuesday after returning from vacation. Gragg informed the assistant coaches, support staff and strength staff that they would be retained.
Gragg’s status would go on to be notable, as criticism from alumni and others increased against him. Northwestern’s baseball program is also faced a scandalwhich involved alleged intimidation and abusive behavior by a trainer Gragg hired.
Both Northwestern administrators have damage control to do in and around an obviously broken football program.