Posted by Adam Jacobi
As expected in a report from the AP yesterday, Northwestern announced today that head coach Pat Fitzgerald has just signed a new, 10-year contract that keeps him with the program through the 2020 season. The exact terms were not disclosed, and as a private university Northwestern is not obligated to disclose them, but Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune is reporting that Fitzgerald is signed for about $1.8 million per year.
"It is paramount for Northwestern football to have great leadership," said Director of Athletics and Recreation Jim Phillips in a statement released today. "There is no better individual to lead Chicago's Big Ten Team than Pat. He is a tremendous teacher and truly values developing young men athletically, academically and socially. Our football program is having unprecedented success -- on the football field, in the classroom and in the community -- and that is due to Pat's outstanding leadership."
By inking Fitzgerald to this long-term deal -- one that looks like the first step of a "lifetime" contract -- Phillips and Northwestern reaffirmed their commitment to long-term stability in their revenue-generating sports. This is a two-prong strategy, both of which of are mandatory for this approach to work: patience and aggressively incentivizing success. The patience keeps coaches around even if their first few seasons aren't marked by meteoric rises in the polls, and the incentivizing (usually in the form of contract extensions) keeps them around when bigger-named schools start sniffing around at the first hint of success.
For example, in basketball, Bill Carmody is in his 11th year at the helm of the Wildcats' basketball program, and he's still never gotten them to the NCAA tournament. And yet, they've never gone at all, under Carmody or anybody else, so using tournament bids as a condition for employment would be wrong at a school like Northwestern. Phillips recognizes this fact, which explains why Carmody was given a contract extension this January, but most other schools without a history of success usually follow a pattern of firings or resignations every four years or so, and the cycle of futility usually continues unabated. You can't expect to build a successful program in four years. Sure, it can happen, but it usually doesn't -- there's far too much time spent on rebuilding. And now, as Carmody prepares for his twelfth season with Northwestern, that program is as strong as it's ever been. Think that'd be the case if there had been two or three firings between Carmody's hiring and now?
Similarly, Fitzgerald came to Northwestern as a 31-year-old with no previous head coaching experience, having been an assistant under Randy Walker until Walker's untimely death before the 2006 season. Since taking over for Walker, Fitzgerald is 34-29 in five seasons with no bowl victories. Ordinarily, a BCS coach who averages a 7-6 season and can't win a bowl game in three tries isn't going to get a 10-year deal made. But this isn't an ordinary BCS school, this is Northwestern. That may sound pejorative, but the fact remains that Northwestern hasn't won a bowl game in over 60 years, so just like with basketball, it would be wrong for Phillips to judge Fitzgerald on postseason successes at this point, and he knows that. Fitzgerald still needs time to keep improving the program and its track record of success, and giving Fitzgerald a 10-year contract sends the message to him, his players, and his recruits that Northwestern is granting him the freedom to do exactly that. That sounds intuitive and obvious, but how often does this type of commitment actually happen at the schools without strong athletic traditions? Think about that the next time you see one of those schools give up on a coach after 3-5 years.