Hold the linebackers

Purple Reign talked with Coach Fitzgerald and a pair of incoming Wildcat linebackers about the coach's background as an All-American backer. While Fitz downplayed the impact that his Hall of Fame career has on recruiting, Roderick Goodlow and Damien Proby say that the chance to play for Fitzgerald attracted them to Northwestern.

Like any good football coach, Northwestern head man Pat Fitzgerald is well-versed in coach speak. Take, for example, a recent interview with Purple Reign in which Fitz proved his fluency.

He waxed eloquent about "the culture of our program," about how Northwestern "focuses on who we are, and what we're about." He even told Purple Reign straight up, "I don't put a lot of stock into what you guys say."

No doubt, he talks like a coach. That's why it was a bit surprising when, in the same interview, he compared himself to a 1980s pop star.

"I'm kind of like the Artist Formerly Known as Prince," Fitzgerald said, "because my reputation precedes me."

Wait a sec – that wasn't part of the script.

Fitzgerald was addressing a question about his days as a Northwestern linebacker, and in particular if he thinks being an All-American backer has helped him and Northwestern recruit the position.

If Fitz's reputation does indeed precede him, that may be a boon for the Wildcats. Because his linebacking legacy isn't lost on recruits.

"It was pretty amazing to see what (Fitz) had accomplished," said incoming Wildcat and three-star recruit Roderick Goodlow, an outside linebacker/strong safety from Dallas. "He understands the system and how to play the position from being a part of the Big Ten and being a part of a linebacker conference. It made me think I can do the same things he did."

Northwestern fans know well the things Fitzgerald did. Playing linebacker for NU from 1993-96, Fitz was a two-time All-American and won the 1995 Nagurski and Bednarik Awards, given annually to the nation's best defender. In 1996, he became the first player to win both awards twice. All of these achievements earned Fitz an induction into the College Football Hall of Fame.

Fortunately for NU, Goodlow and fellow linebacker Damien Proby know their history. Indeed, it helped draw them to Northwestern.

Goodlow had a handful of colleges to choose from, receiving scholarship offers from Nebraska, Notre Dame, Kansas, Wisconsin and others. But he did his homework on Fitz, and he liked the idea of having a Hall of Fame linebacker at the helm.

"It played a huge role in my decision," Goodlow said. "I mean, it's huge to have a coach who definitely understands and knows everything there is to know about a position. Anything that needs to be learned by a linebacker, anything that I need to know as a linebacker, he'll be able to tell me."

Proby, the League MVP as a senior at Law Vegas' Cheyenne High School, is listed by Scout as the No. 48 strong-side linebacker in the nation. He drew scholarship offers from Oregon State, UNLV and San Diego State, among others. But those schools, of course, don't have a Hall of Fame linebacker as their head coach.

"I thought about that a lot," Proby said. "When he came and visited my house and spoke with me and my mom, he talked a lot about being a linebacker. It will be nice to see what he sees and how he reacts to certain situations because he's been there."

Certainly there are other factors in these linebackers' decision to go to Northwestern. Academics were a consideration, especially for Proby, who brings a 4.0 GPA to Evanston. And Goodlow admits that he simply loved Northwestern; he committed just two days after his official visit.

Still, having one of the best linebackers of the 1990s now roaming the sidelines made the choice a bit easier.

"That's definitely one of the reasons I made the decision," Goodlow said. "He was one of the best linebackers in the NCAA, so you might as well have him coaching you."

Added Proby, "The experience that (Fitzgerald) brings to the field and off, you can't really get that too many other places. He'll help with all the little thing you gotta know. He'll know, ‘Look here, attack there, be aggressive there.' That will help me a lot because he has seen it all."

Two other backers are listed in the 2009 class: Will Studlien, a two-star recruit from Sunbury, Ohio, and two-star Oswego, Ill., native Tim Riley. Neither player received the number of offers that Goodlow and Proby did, but Studlien was named Ohio's Division III co-Defensive Player of the Year.

Of course, Fitzgerald doesn't talk up his past, and he downplays the impact it has on recruiting linebackers. After his Prince reference, Fitz settled back into a more traditional tongue.

"I want every young man who comes to our football program to know what my passion is, and that's to make them the best young man they can be. That's my passion," Fitzgerald said. "It doesn't matter (what position they play). Everyone here gets all of me, and they better be ready and buckle it up."

Thanks at least in small part to Fitzgerald's linebacking achievements, the Wildcats will have a pair of linebackers, Goodlow and Proby, buckling it up for NU instead someone else.

Prince surely never had that much luck on the recruiting trail.

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