Pat Fitzgerald’s ascent hasn’t been lost on Missouri coach Gary Pinkel.
In July 2006, at age 31, Fitzgerald became the youngest major college football coach when he was announced to lead Northwestern’s program. In 1983, at the same age, Pinkel completed his final season as Washington’s wide receivers coach. The following fall, he began his seven-year tenure as the Huskies’ offensive coordinator. At age 39, Pinkel earned his first head-coaching position at Toledo, where he stayed for 10 years before arriving at Missouri before the 2001 season.
Missouri (9-4) vs. Northwestern (9-3)
WHEN: 7 p.m. Monday
WHERE: San Antonio
RADIO: KFRU/1400 AM
On Thursday, the two men met at Silverhorn Golf Club in San Antonio as headline participants at the AT&T Golf Classic, the kickoff function to Alamo Bowl festivities. Missouri (9-4) meets Northwestern (9-3) in the Dec. 29 bowl game in San Antonio.
“It’s amazing,” Pinkel said in a teleconference. “This guy has a great reputation, as you know.
“I’m a little envious that he’s that young and it took me longer to get to this spot.”
Before his coaching career, Fitzgerald established himself as a Northwestern defensive standout. The former linebacker was named a first-team All-American in 1995 and ’96. He constructed a reputation as a strong leader on the 1995 squad that helped the Wildcats earn a surprising 8-0 Big Ten Conference record and the program’s first Rose Bowl berth since 1949. On Tuesday, Fitzgerald was honored in New York as a newly inducted member into the College Football Hall of Fame, becoming the 15th player or coach with Northwestern ties to become enshrined.
Fitzgerald took over a program stricken by tragedy. From 2001 to summer 2006, he served as a secondary coach, linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator under former Northwestern coach Randy Walker. In June 2006, Walker died of a heart attack at age 52, two years after being diagnosed with myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle.
“It seemed like a blur thinking back to when we lost Coach Walker,” Fitzgerald said in the teleconference. “I’m very proud to say that we have done the best job we can to continue (Walker’s) legacy. … I’m just humbled and honored to continue on his legacy.”
This season, Fitzgerald has done so with success. Northwestern seeks its first 10-win season since the 1995 Rose Bowl team, which finished 10-2 after losing to USC. Fitzgerald’s record stands at 19-17.
The Alamo Bowl represents Northwestern’s first postseason appearance since losing to UCLA in the 2005 Sun Bowl. After the 1949 Rose Bowl victory over California, the Wildcats have lost five consecutive bowl games.
“There’s a lot that’s out of our control week in and week out, and what is in control right now is the way we prepare to take on a great Missouri football team,” Fitzgerald said. “All we can do in this opportunity is go 1-0.”
Said Pinkel: “Both teams are 9-3, both teams want to win 10 games. I think we’re singing the same song on both sides of the fence.”
Fitzgerald impresses Pinkel. Fitzgerald is a rising star in the profession, though 33-year-old Lane Kiffin's introduction as Tennessee's coach on Dec. 1 means Fitzgerald no longer is the youngest coach leading a major program (Fitzgerald is 34). Still, Pinkel recognizes the task before him.
“They’re very physical and tough,” Pinkel said of Northwestern. “That comes from his personality and what he’s about.”
PLAYOFF THOUGHTS: Both coaches were quizzed about their postseason preferences. Pinkel revealed he's in favor of a plus-one model, whereas Fitzgerald prefers the current system.
“I like the BCS system … but I’m of the plus-one theory,” Pinkel said. “You maintain the bowls, you maintain all of the BCS bowls, one plays four, two plays three, and the goal is to get in the top four, and then you have one more game. To me, you maintain the integrity of college football.”
Said Fitzgerald: “I’m fully in support of the BCS system and the bowl games. The plus one, I haven’t done enough research to understand that.”
PINKEL ON BIG 12 SOUTH TIEBREAKER: Pinkel failed to offer insight into possibility that the fifth Big 12 Conference tiebreaker will be changed following season’s end. On Saturday, Oklahoma appeared in the Big 12 Conference football championship game because it ranked higher than Texas and Texas Tech in the BCS rankings on Nov. 30 (Oklahoma stood second, Texas third and Texas Tech seventh). At the time, the three Big 12 South leaders were 11-1 overall and 7-1 in conference play.
“We’ll wait and see,” Pinkel said.
J-SCHOOL BOWL: Some in the media have dubbed the Alamo Bowl, “The Journalism Bowl” in recognition of the nationally renowned journalism programs at Missouri and Northwestern. Both coaches played to the story line.
“There’s the power of the pen, the Internet and TV camera,” Fitzgerald said. Northwestern journalism graduates have “made sure to point it out crystal clear the challenges that they have internally in their offices.”
Pinkel said: “I’ve always had great respect for the journalism school."