Here’s the full transcript of Pat Fitzgerald’s press conference at Big Ten Media Days.
COACH FITZGERALD: Good morning, everyone. And it’s amazing, shocking and almost surreal for me to be here for my 10th media kickoff. It’s a great honor and it’s humbling. I just want to say thank you to everyone for all that you do for Big Ten Football, and I also want to welcome our three new coaches, obviously Jim Harbaugh to Michigan and Mike Riley to Nebraska and Paul Chryst to Wisconsin. Obviously, two of the three have great Big Ten roots and Big Ten ties. And I want to welcome them back to the league. And welcome, Mike, who I’ve known for a number of years. I think for all of us, it’s football time. And how about with that, we open it up for some questions.
QUESTION: Coach, obviously you guys had your 20th anniversary from your Rose Bowl team. What experiences from that did you share with your football team today?
COACH FITZGERALD: I haven’t shared a ton with them yet from a standpoint of the exact Rose Bowl reunion weekend, but that will be something that I will share with the guys during camp.
For myself, I get a great opportunity to see most of my teammates on a frequent basis. But there were a handful of guys that I hadn’t seen in a number of years, and we had a Friday and Saturday event. And by about Wednesday that following week, my wife, Stacy, looked at me and she’s like, wow, you look tired. I’m like, I wasn’t out that late, you know. We’re hanging out, but we weren’t like we were back in college. It kind of dawned on me a little bit. I wasn’t anything but just emotionally drained of seeing guys again and reconnecting and the bonds that we had and the brotherhood that we have.
And those will be the things that I’ll share with the team when we get going. I think the hallmark of those teams that I played on when we had the great success and went 15-1 in the Big Ten was that brotherhood and the chemistry. We loved each other. We didn’t all like each other, but we loved each other. And I think again where we’re at right now as a program, you know, you look at all the close games when we went to five straight bowl games that we won and now look at the last two seasons — and that was one of our hallmarks. We won those games. The last two seasons we haven’t done that.
I really think that glue that keeps it all together is that brotherhood and chemistry, and that’s not forged during training camp. That’s forged when a team is born in January all the way through training camp. There will be a lot that I’ll share, but it’s not uncommon that I don’t share that with them daily anyways.
QUESTION: Coach Harbaugh was just up there talking about getting to know you when you were out at his camp. What did you learn from him and what inspired you to go out and be, I think, the featured speaker there?
COACH FITZGERALD: Well, Jim asked. That’s the reason why I went. It fit my schedule. It almost didn’t. My flight going up there was delayed. And if you recall, that was game six of the NHL Finals. So there was no doubt I needed to be back in Chicago for that game. It’s no secret I’m a pretty large Blackhawks fan.
So my flight — I didn’t think I was going to make it. We sat at O’Hare for two hours. A thunderstorm went through. And I literally went — Rick Finotti, DFO, picked me up. We went from the airport basically up and spoke and I got on a plane and went right back. Didn’t get a lot of time to spend with Jim, but we’ve seen each other on the recruiting trail back when he was at Stanford. And we’ve known each other for a little while. And I’ve got a ton of respect for not only the job he’s done as a coach but remember his playing ability and especially here as a Bears fan. How can you forget he was quarterback of the bears? Great to have him back in the league. And like I said, the other two great coaches, too. Great to see Paul back and great to have Mike at Nebraska.
QUESTION: Over the past three years or so, would you say there’s been a pretty interesting rivalry brewing between Northwestern and Nebraska?
COACH FITZGERALD: We’re 1 and 2. So I wouldn’t call that interesting. I’d probably call that disappointing from our perspective.
And I’ll go back to the relationship that I had with Bo and his staff. That was — those were, I mean, backyard street-fight games that we’ve been in in the last three years. We’ve been successful in one and you know, we had opportunities in the other two.
I said it when Nebraska came into the league internally that especially, I assumed, that we were going to go to an east and a west. That was going to be the team that in my opinion, outside of the traditional teams in our conference, is going to be the beacon that we’re going to have to try to become to win a Big Ten championship. And I think I’ve been right on.
The atmosphere out there on game day is special. And we’ve had — I think we’ve been out there twice now, and this will be year three. So it’s a great place, and it seems like it’s been fun for our fans. I mean, I even saw something where there’s a debate on “Who’s NU?” It’s cool. That’s what college football is all about.
QUESTION: With the success of the Big Ten in bowl games last year, do you sense a buzz that maybe wasn’t around a year ago just about the conference and maybe the shift in the national scene?
COACH FITZGERALD: Well, I think how your league is perceived really depends on, first of all, who do you play in the nonconference and win? And when you look at the Big Ten, the way that things are structured currently, you’re going to have four weeks worth of an evaluation from a national perspective on where our conference is at based on head-to-head matchup games with power five teams. And then we’ll go through the Big Ten gauntlet. And then we’ll have that same evaluation happen then in the postseason. And if we have a bad weekend in the nonconference schedule — for example, obviously we’re playing two important power five games for the perception of our league. A very daunting challenging game against Stanford and Duke.
And this is no disrespect, but I doubt we’re going to get the same credit if we beat Eastern Illinois and Ball State as you’ll give us if we beat Duke and Stanford. And I understand all that, but that’s what shapes the narrative of the conference, are those individual power five matchup games.
And if things are going great and you have a great nonconference schedule and those matchups, then you go into the bowl season, then you are the conference to beat in bowl season. And then the narrative changes based on how you do in about three or four or five or six games.
And then we go through the whole offseason and say, Wow, look at this conference. They’re up and they’re down. And I’m a little jealous of you guys. It’s kind of fun to watch. I don’t get to watch it unfold. And as a fan first, it’s awesome. That’s what makes college football special.
QUESTION: There’s been so much attention about Jim coming back to Michigan. Is that good for the rest of the Big Ten and does it kind of — I don’t know, maybe up the buzz about the league a little bit?
COACH FITZGERALD: You know, I think there’s that old saying there’s no such thing as bad publicity. So I’m sure — I don’t want to speak for Jim. We haven’t spoken about it. But I’m pretty sure he’s excited to go coach his team.
There’s a lot that’s probably been on his plate in this offseason. And typically as a coach you want to get around your guys and coach your team. And I’m sure he’s handled it incredibly well. I haven’t followed it that close.
I just followed him outside. I told him, I was going to get in the back of the media horde and start asking him questions about my talk at his camp and see if he remembered anything I said and put him on the spot a little bit.
It is what it is. He had a great playing career. The success he had at all of his stops speaks for itself. And I wish him all the best of luck except for one game, against us. So say the same thing about all the coaches.
QUESTION: When do you think you’ll make a starting quarterback? And what did you see from maybe all three guys in the spring?
COACH FITZGERALD: I’m a little surprised it took this long for that question, but we’ve been here before. You go back over our time when we’ve had quarterback change. We’ve got a pretty good blueprint on how we go about doing the evaluation. You’ve obviously got the statistical side that we have plenty of information from spring, and then that will kick back in here when we start up a week from Monday back on the field.
From a standpoint of where things are at from a general standpoint, at the end of the spring is we broke everything up into thirds on the field. There wasn’t a clear separation. Did Mick and I want to have that separation happen? Yeah, we would have loved to have it happen but it didn’t.
And we’d rather have it happen organically than to force something. And at this point, we’re not ready and prepared to inject right now and be forceful either because all three guys have had a good summer from a leadership standpoint. I think they’re all in really good shape, and now we’re going to roll the ball out and let it play.
We will then also have off-the-field evaluations and a lot of that has to do with all right, now that we’re in camp and now that we all know September 5th is coming, who’s truly going to be the guy that walks onto the field — we don’t huddle as you know — and make the other 10 guys on the offense better? Who’s going to raise the level of our offense? If we want to get to our goals, that has to happen. I’d love to have that happen in the first week. Will it? I don’t know. And I don’t want to put that type of expectation on that process.
And then we’re going to talk to the rest of the guys, especially on the offense. You know, when you’ve got young men coming back like Vitale and Jones and Mogus — and I can keep going on and on with some of our seniors — Mick and I will have candid conversations with those guys privately on who they feel and who they trust the most.
And I think that subjectivity, obviously, as a coach you’ve got to trust your gut and experiences and all that. But I think Mick and I do a pretty good job of listening to the team and what they think is best. We’ve used that in the past, and it’s been a pretty good indicator. Who do the guys truly trust?
That goes back to the time in the locker room, in the apartments, all the little things that we don’t all see that really makes a difference. So when it’s third and 4, he gets in a huddle and says, Listen, we’re going it with this concept and if I don’t like it, I might check the player. I’m throwing it to you now, Teddy, even though the concept says go over there. There’s that type of trust built up. And all three of those guys have those type of qualities, but somebody has to emerge and separate them self.
QUESTION: The recruiting cycle has sped up considerably the last couple of years around the country. Sophomores committing now. How does that affect your program when not only do you have to monitor whether they’re going to develop athletically but whether they’re going to be able to meet admissions at Northwestern?
COACH FITZGERALD: That puts a lot on our coach’s plate from a standpoint of getting now — it used to be the fifth semester transcript. Now you’re getting the fourth and third semester transcript. And that’s a pretty good early indicator of where the young person is going to be academically.
But from our standpoint, we can’t talk about admission status until after the sixth semester on our campus. So it’s the old risk/reward for us from the standpoint of if the kid fits our profile after three semesters of high school, we’ve got to put him on our list now initially.
So maybe where five, ten years ago our pool was really tight and really small. Now as you’re looking at that sophomore class, you can’t be too quick to judge and too quick to evaluate because at least for our admissions standards there’s at least half of their academic credentials ahead of them.
I have a real hard time doing a character evaluation of a young man who doesn’t have a license yet. My whole life changed when I got a car. The good news is there was no Twitter and Snapchat and cell phones. That’s a hard thing for kids today. And I’m not feeling sorry for them. It’s a life that they live.
But there’s so many choices that are made kind of at 16 years old to 18 years old that a lot of scrutiny has been put on college coaches for who we recruit and it’s appropriate. We should. We control that and who we bring into our cultures and who we bring on to our campuses and who we bring on to our programs.
But with the acceleration of recruiting and not having earlier access to those recruits, you’ve got to really be diligent and you’ve got to have your checks and balances. Otherwise, you could set yourself up especially at a place like ours for really wasting your time on a prospect that maybe six months program won’t fit your program. Thanks very much.