As a two-time All-American linebacker, Fitzgerald was a leader of Northwestern's historic Rose Bowl team in 1995, which started the transformation of the program. As a head coach, he forged the era in which Northwestern would become a consistent winner. Locked into a long-term contract, he will soon see the groundbreaking of state-of-the-art facilities along the Evanston's beautiful lakefront—a ‘game-changer,' as he has termed it.
Northwestern isn't the Big Ten bottom-dweller it used to be, but one negative still haunted it; a mountain not climbed by the Wildcats since 1949. In bold lettering atop the program's list of goals, it simply states: ‘Win a bowl game.'
Standing atop a podium inside EverBank Field, hardware in hand, Fitzgerald struggled to put the victory's importance into perspective.
‘‘We talk to our guys all the time," Fitzgerald started to the crowd on hand. "I say, ‘Act like we've been here before.' ‘‘Well, we've never been here before."
The script was perfect for Northwestern. The defense forced four interceptions of quarterback Tyler Russell, and sealing the victory with a Quentin Williams fourth-down sack. A unit that has folded in games past rose to the occasion in the final quarter. On offense, NU showed its versatility on offense, with Trevor Siemian stepping in to pace the unit.
The purple party started as the clock's remaining seconds ticked away, and continued throughout the day. Wildcats of past and present hugged, laughed and even cried tears of joy.
"This one goes out to all the Wildcats that have been here before us," Fitzgerald said after the win.
But who better to represent that group than Fitzgerald—one of the most celebrated figures in Northwestern history. The triumph marked his 50th victory as NU's head coach, making him the program's all-time wins leader.
What was his reaction to the milestone?
"If it was just me, then how selfish would I be?" he expressed to the media. "It's about our young men, all the great young men that I've had the privilege to be their head coach and very privileged to helping them to grow and be the best they can."
On a personal level for Fitzgerald, the win meant much more than he would ever admit. It brought new joy after past postseason failures—as a player, assistant coach, and a head coach. It also solidifies his legitimacy among head-coaching elite. His foremost focus was on the former; not the latter.
Fitzgerald spent the postgame pandemonium with his players, coaches, and supporters of the program. A special moment came in an interview with former teammate Sam Valensizi, now the sideline reporter for WGN Radio. The two enjoyed a warm embrace during the interview. An emotional Fitzgerald was reduced to two words: ‘Go Cats.'
Led by its proud son, Northwestern reached a milestone achievement the program has longed for. The Gator Bowl victory is a defining one for Pat Fitzgerald. But his big smile wasn't about personal any accomplishment.
"This is not about me or about us," he said. "This is about all of us. It's about our program."