An open letter to Pat Fitzgerald
In the midst of tragedy, Northwestern's new football coach has some important advantages that can help the Wildcats succeed, writes Bill Curry.
July 8, 2006
I am deeply saddened at your loss. Coach Walker was a good friend, a wonderful coach and a better man. We will all miss him. As you have said, "There are a lot of heavy hearts, but coach would want us to move on."
If I might be so bold, I want to suggest a few thoughts to you as one who has found himself in circumstances similar to yours. At age 37, I returned to my alma mater, Georgia Tech, as head football coach. I had never been a coordinator. I had only been a full-time coach four years, three of those in the National Football League. You are inheriting an incredibly demanding position at one of the nation's most prestigious academic institutions. There are very few who have the vaguest notion about the demands that will be placed upon you.
It is unlikely that you remember the conversation you and I had in December 1995, but I certainly do. I was on your campus as part of a television special on the bowl season. The "impossible" had occurred -- Northwestern was Rose Bowl-bound. You were a major factor in the great season, but you had broken your leg, and would not be playing. You were well on your way to becoming Northwestern's greatest defensive player ever, and I expected you to be angry or bitter over the bad luck.
You were neither.
As we sat in the weight room while the guys went about the business of preparing, your glow was infectious. Your love of football and passion for your teammates permeated every thought as you responded to my queries. The line I remember most clearly is the one you delivered when I asked about Northwestern's tough academic standards.
You said, "Well, most of us are not geniuses. We aren't the smartest guys in the world. We just do the work!" We laughed when I told you stories about my undergraduate struggles under similar circumstances. I remember thinking, "This guy is not just a great linebacker." I recall imagining after the Rose Bowl that the outcome might have been different had you been on the field.
Pat, there is Grace in this situation. As terrible as the pain is for Coach Walker's family, the team, the staff, and the rest of us, there was something prophetic and comforting in his clear instructions about the future. The words of his wife Tammy about you are stunning, considering her burdens at the moment:
"This would have been Randy's choice. The connection of Pat, from his days of playing on championship teams at Northwestern, then coaching with Randy for the last five years during that success, and now becoming the head coach will really keep all of the positive things at NU going in the same direction. As sad as I am right now, I am so happy for Pat and the choice of him to succeed Randy as head coach. I know Randy would be, too. Pat is such a special guy. He and [his wife] Stacy will do a great job."
The combination of your performance on the field, the success of your teams at Northwestern, along with the open approval of your former head coach and his wife, transform the entire communal feel from one of despair to one of expectation. That is rare indeed in these kinds of circumstances, and critically important to your coaches and players.
"It's Fitz!" shout the headlines on the Northwestern Web site. No gloom and doom predictions from the "experts." No petty rivalries within the coaching staff. No wealthy alumni proclaiming that you are not the man for the job. In plain language, that trio of advantages converts to time, patience, and resources for your program. I hope you have immediate success, but if that doesn't occur, you will have much more time than most new head coaches in this quick-fix society. You will have the backing of all those amazing Northwestern graduates, and will be able to stare down your inevitable critics while carefully developing the elements you need.
Despite the tragic nature of this transition, very few new head coaches enjoy the advantages that will naturally accrue to you with the passage of time. As you move through your grieving process, allow yourself to focus on the enormity of the gifts you bring to the program, rejoice in them, and use them. Have some fun! Believe me, the players will respond, give you and the team their best, and remain your friends for life.
Finally, the great coaches I have known all had one thing in common. Each did it his or her own way. Each understood that the leader is obligated to be the consistent, powerful, positive presence, to set the standards, and to live out the value system. Immediately embrace that responsibility with all your heart, freely give your extraordinary gifts, be your own man, and your teams will accomplish great things!
ESPN college football analyst Bill Curry was an NFL center for 10 seasons and coached for 17 years on the college stage.
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