Big Ten

After Northwestern makes 'commitment to a championship,' Pat Fitzgerald ready to take Cats to next level

"A commitment to a championship."

It was clear what was on Pat Fitzgerald's mind as his athletics director announced a 10-year contract extension that will keep the Northwestern alum the head football coach at his alma mater through the 2026 season.

As much as the big extension announced Tuesday along the Magnificent Mile was about what Fitzgerald has already accomplished, it was equal parts an investment in the belief that his program is ready to take the next step.

"I think we've been close, but close isn't good enough," Fitzgerald said Tuesday. "We've had multiple 10-win seasons and some that even when we got to nine we had a chance to backdoor in. But it's not about talk, it's about putting together the action.

"I think we've got a really good plan. I think we tweak it and we change it. But we've just got to continue to drive the guys to be the best we can be. They're working really hard.

"It's not going to happen because you talk about it, it's going to happen because you go out and do it. I like the direction that we're headed, but there's no doubt that's the goal and now we've got to keep grinding on it."

The next step is competing for and winning a championship at Northwestern. That's no easy task in a Big Ten annually populated with some of the best teams in the country. While Fitzgerald has accomplished arguably more than anyone who's had the job before him, those people didn't have to go toe to toe with the Urban Meyers, the Jim Harbaughs, the Mark Dantonios and the Paul Chrysts, among others.

But that's what this day and this extension were all about: Northwestern reaching the next level.

At a place so synonymous with academic excellence, athletics haven't always been the chief priority of the university. But the financial commitments being made now are enormous. In addition to Fitzgerald's sizable new extension, a gleaming football facility is under construction on the shores of Lake Michigan.

Similar commitments are being made to the men's basketball program — Chris Collins had his own near decade-long contract extension announced Tuesday, and his team's home is getting a complete renovation after the program's first-ever appearance in the NCAA tournament — and the huge resources that come with being a member of the Big Ten are being allocated in an effort to get Northwestern on more equal footing with the hulks of the league.

That's only possible, though, because Fitzgerald has created the opportunity. During his first 11 years on the job, he's turned in a pair of 10-win seasons, two bowl victories and carved out a recruiting niche at an academic powerhouse while competing in one of the toughest conferences in college football.

Fitzgerald's teams have won. And now the university has rewarded him for it, all the while signaling that it's time — it's possible — to win bigger.

"I think it shows a commitment to a championship," he said. "It shows that we're — the cool phrase is 'all in' — we're committed to doing what needs to be done to help our student-athletes be the best they can be.

"There's a direct correlation to our success and a commitment from the university to athletics. That's not sugarcoating it, that's the truth. We haven't sacrificed what we stand for academically, if anything we've enhanced it. We haven't sacrificed our character, in fact I think we've enhanced it. And so I think we've embodied and embraced the values and what the university believes in. The university has seen value in that.

"I think the university sees that they're getting a commitment back from the athletic department, in particular Chris and our programs, that we're going to embrace what the university stands for even though we're working our butt off to compete for championships consistently."

It's not just pie-in-the-sky bluster, either. Northwestern has put up double-digit victories before, played in Jan. 1 bowl games. And this season looks particularly ripe for a real shot at a spot in the Big Ten title game, with the Cats returning the conference's leading rusher in Justin Jackson and boasting the most stable quarterback situation in the West Division thanks to third-year starter Clayton Thorson.

But of course this extension isn't about just 2017, it's about the next decade of Northwestern football. And if the previous decade of Northwestern football is any indication, than Fitzgerald certainly seems to be the guy that continue the evolution of his program and live up to the university's commitment.

There's no doubt that he's itching to do just that.

"We're owners, not renters, and I think we've made that statement as a staff," Fitzgerald said. "The momentum that's going on on the recruiting trail for us right now is unmatched. Our brand, I mean we're cool. Northwestern's kind of cool now. You come here and you win and you compete for championships.

"We're talking about the privilege that Chris and I have, and that's humbling, but more importantly I think it's a statement to every recruit, every family, that our programs, our university is committed to championships. We're going to do it the right way, we're going to do it the Northwestern way. We believe in that, we believe in it with everything in us.

"For me to be able to look at (recruits in the 2019 and 2020 classes) when they come on campus and say, 'I'm going to be your coach. These are going to be your coaches. This is going to be our leader, our director of athletics. And this is where we're going.' We're just getting started.

"This has been a great blessing. I'm very thankful, but highly motivated. Highly, highly motivated."