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Death To The NCAA

Northwestern Has Bigger Problems Than Pat Fitzgerald

LINCOLN, NE - OCTOBER 2: Head coach Pat Fitzgerald of the Northwestern Wildcats watches the team warm up before the game against the Nebraska Cornhuskers at Memorial Stadium on October 2, 2021 in Lincoln, Nebraska. (Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images)
Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

There is essentially no way to rationally conclude that Pat Fitzgerald shouldn't be fired as the football coach at Northwestern. Either he knew and encouraged the culture that led to the hazing allegations made by several current and former players, or he knew and stood by, or he didn't know but his staff did, or he and his staff didn't know but they recruited the players who did the hazing, or at the baseline he caused the only man at the university who could fire him to become angry enough to fire him. One can never embarrass the boss unless one is the boss, in which case someone else gets scapegoated and fired as a warning to the others.

The only question then, other than whether Fitzgerald gets paid the remaining $42 million on his contract, is whether this was just a football problem or something more endemic.

A comprehensive view of the program by Extra Points' Matt Brown indicates that a lot of people didn't want to know a lot of things on a lot of subjects until forced to know them, which suggests fairly strongly that Fitzgerald is merely the most expensive of the athletic department's cultural problems, and that when he leaves he should not be alone.

The tipoff, as Brown suggests, is that school president Michael Schill first announced a two-week suspension for Fitzgerald under the boys-will-be-boys clause in his contract, then read the student newspaper and saw a fuller view of the hazing problems, doubled back and fired Fitzgerald on his own, saying exactly that in the press release without mentioning the name of athletic director Derrick Gragg. Maybe this is just Schill taking charge after jumping to the less justified and more lenient conclusion, or maybe this is Schill finding out that football, baseball, and cheerleading scandals suggest a fouler smell than just Fitzgerald. Before it was brushed aside as a relevant organ by Amalgamated Football LLC, the NCAA used to call this "a lack of institutional control.”

It is certainly clear that Northwestern’s journalism department is run more competently, but now that we get a broader view of the school's athletic shortcomings we can see that this is not a terribly high bar to clear. The baseball coach Jim Foster is accused in an HR investigation of bullying and abuse, and two years ago a cheerleader filed a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment and racial discrimination. This seems like an awful lot of lawyer involvement for one of the last academics-before-athletics schools in the Power Five.

Schill came in as president in fall of 2022, and Gragg predated him by about a year, so the cheerleader scandal predates them both, but the football and baseball issues are fresh, and because the football problem relates to the school's only cash cow and its highest salaried employee it is the most notable one. Fitzgerald has been defended as "a good man" by media folks who find his old-school ways (anti-labor, anti-cellphones, etc.) charming and characterful, but the hard part about having total control as Fitzgerald did is that "total" is a big word. Not knowing isn't a defense when you have total control; it's an admission that there are things happening on your watch that you don't care about, and that's if we assume Fitzgerald is telling the truth, something that few folks are prepared to accept on his word alone.

Fitzgerald is keenly aware, though, of what he must do next, which is to retain a lawyer "to take the necessary steps to protect my rights in accordance with the law." He knows there is still $40 million and change at stake here, and if it cannot repair his reputation, it can insulate the days between now and his next job, because the football business doesn't always make distinctions about who knew what or when, but it does make distinctions about who knew whom. Fitzgerald has friends, and one will surely offer an assistant's job until such time as he becomes a desirable hire again, at which point he can make a better effort to learn about what's going on around him, or at the very least to pay more heed to the little things when he's won two in-conference games in two years. That's the other thing about having total control—even at Northwestern, it's a lot more appealing when you win.

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