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MSU, Northwestern have followed similar roads to success

 

Matthew Stevens

 

STARKVILLE -- Fans of the Mississippi State University and the Northwestern University football teams aren't surprised their teams will play on New Year's Day. 

 

Welcome to a new era of football at MSU and Northwestern. 

 

The ability of MSU's Dan Mullen and Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald to convince fans, alumni, players, and staff members that playing in a bowl game on or around Jan. 1 should be a habit, not a celebrated accomplishment is a primary reason why they have helped solidify both programs. 

 

When Mullen and Fitzgerald lead their teams into the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl at 11 a.m. Jane. 1, 2013, at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla., the friends will be able to compare programs that are similar on and off the field. 

 

"We have different programs in a certain way, but then you look at both of them not having that long, standing rich history of football throughout time," Mullen said. "We talk about what foundation you need to build. Their kids have tremendous pride in playing for him, that school, and that community just like our kids from Mississippi." 

 

Mullen has guided MSU (8-4) to bowl games in the past three seasons. He has helped the Bulldogs forget the late downturn the program suffered under coach Jackie Sherrill and the disappointment it experienced under coach Sylvester Croom to emerge as a competitor in the Southeastern Conference. 

 

Fitzgerald, a two-time Bronko Nagurski and Chuck Bednarik Award winner for Northwestern's back-to-back Big Ten Conference title-winning teams in the mid-90s, has taken the Wildcats to bowl games five consecutive seasons. He took over the program July 7, 2006, following the sudden death of coach Randy Walker on June 29, 2006. After going 4-8 in his first season, Fitzgerald has helped Northwestern be bowl eligible in each of the past six seasons. This will be the third time in the past four years the Wildcats will play in a New Year's Day bowl game. 

 

"Pat personifies Northwestern football," former Northwestern coach Gary Barnett said. Barnett coached Fitzgerald at Northwestern and then gave him his start in coaching by hiring him as a graduate assistant at the University of Colorado. 

 

"The honors he received as a player, the way he handled himself as a student-athlete and the name he has made for himself in the college football world, makes it a real natural fit for Northwestern," Barnett said. "Pat loves Northwestern, (and) he will be a guy the Northwestern community can count on to represent them for years and years." 

 

Mullen, who is tied for fourth in school history in career victories (29) four years into his tenure in Starkville, called Fitzgerald before accepting the job at MSU to ask him what it was like taking over a program that didn't have a history of success. Over the years, Mullen has traded ideas and philosophies with Fitzgerald and has asked him for suggestions. Exchanges between coaches aren't new. Earlier this week, former University of Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said he called Fitzgerald for advice before he decided to accept the job as coach at the University of Arkansas. 

 

"Head coaches really don't have a lot of friends in the world," Fitzgerald said, "so we have to reach out to the other guys we got to know as we're coming up through the ranks." 

 

On the field, MSU and Northwestern feature offenses with a spread option look. The similarities are there off the field, too, as both programs don't often get four- and five-star recruits, so they have to develop two- or three-star players to keep the winning tradition alive. 

 

Northwestern may have an advantage in recruiting because it has a national reputation thanks to the school's academic prestige. Only five of the school's 20 verbal commitments for the 2013 class are from the state of Illinois. 

 

There is an emotional element that draws the coaches together, too. Both men coach with passion and intensity on a daily basis. Earlier this season, Mullen received a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct for berating officials in a game against the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Mullen has said playfully after wins and losses he "can be a handful" for his assistant coaches during games. 

 

However, don't expect either man to turn into a quiet, unassuming figurehead anytime soon. That's just not how they operate on the sidelines. 

 

"Sometimes I turn into a knucklehead," Fitzgerald said to ESPN.com "At least I know who I am, and I'm cool with it. "Like I tell (my wife) Stacy all the time, you'll have to excuse my passion. Get over it." 

 

Two years ago, during the few days head coaches have off in the summer, the Mullens traveled to Chicago on vacation to spend time with the Fitzgeralds. Stacy Fitzgerald and Megan Mullen went shopping downtown on the famous Magnificent Mile, while the boys went to a Chicago Cubs game at Wrigley Field. 

 

It may be strange to think of Fitzgerald, who is in his seventh season as coach at Northwestern, as an elder statesman in the college coaching ranks, but at 38 he still is one of the youngest coaches at a Bowl Championship Series program. 

 

"We're not young anymore," Fitzgerald said when speaking of himself and Mullen, who is 40. "You'll see when you meet me, I've got gray hair. You sit in this role long enough, you age pretty quickly." 

 

Fitzgerald was a standout linebacker at Northwestern and helped lead the Wildcats to a 10-1 regular-season record in 1995 and a berth in the 1996 Rose Bowl, the school's first appearance in Pasadena, Calif., since 1949. Fitzgerald was unable to play in the game, however, after breaking his leg in the next-to-last game of the 1995 season against the University of Iowa. Fitzgerald returned for the 1996 season to lead the Wildcats to a second-straight Big Ten championship and a berth in the 1997 Citrus Bowl. 

 

Some consider Fitzgerald to be the best Wildcat in school history. He is the first two-time winner of the Nagurski Trophy and the Bednarik Award. He also was inducted to the College Football Hall of Fame in 2008. 

 

Fitzgerald's coaching career began quickly before he landed back at his alma mater as a linebackers coach. The death of Walker to an apparent heart attack created a void in the program. Walker had become the Wildcats' first coach to lead three teams to bowl games. He also was the Wildcats' first coach to guide three straight teams to four or more Big Ten victories in a season. 

 

At 31, Fitzgerald became the youngest head football coach among Football Bowl Subdivision schools until Lane Kiffin, just six months younger, was hired by the University of Tennessee on Dec. 1, 2008. 

 

Under Fitzgerald, who is one victory away from breaking the school's all-time record, has helped transform Northwestern from a team Big Ten opponents counted on for a victory to the one Wildcats' fan count on being bowl eligible every season. 

 

"I have respect for him," Mullen said. "Look at the success he's had, and not just short-term success -- consistent success -- shows he's one of the premier coaches in all of college football." 

 

In 2008, Northwestern earned a berth in the Valero Alamo Bowl against the University of Missouri, its first postseason appearance since the 2005 Sun Bowl. In 2009, the Wildcats returned to a New Year's Day Bowl game, their first since Fitzgerald played in the 1997 Citrus Bowl. Last year the Wildcats became 

 

bowl eligible for a fifth straight year. With that sustained run of success, Northwestern's fifth-year seniors will leave school as the program's all-time winningest (36 victories). 

 

"It's hard to believe any former Northwestern athlete bleeds more purple than Coach Fitz," said Mike Kafka, a former Northwestern quarterback who is with the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles. "His enthusiasm and passion for his alma mater is unmatched. There's no question he is going to be the face of Northwestern Football, and perhaps Northwestern Athletics, for years to come." 

 

Off the field, the Wildcats are reaching unprecedented academic heights. Recent years have seen the Wildcats double the number of players earning Academic All-Big Ten awards under Fitzgerald's watch, from 16 in 2006 to a school-record 32 in 2010. Each of the past four years, the football team registered a combined team grade-point average above a 3.0 for an academic quarter, including a program-best 3.14 for the winter quarter in 2012. 

 

While many analysts keep waiting for Fitzgerald to leave Northwestern because of the school's academic demands, he makes no excuses about the higher academic standards and doesn't feel they prevent his program from competing at an elite level. 

 

"I think it's a major reason we've had so much success in that we've had to target high character, highly committed, highly intelligent kids that understand what it means to be at Northwestern," Fitzgerald said. "We believe with our administration's support and the type of kids we bring into this program, we can compete to win the Big Ten every season." 

 

Eleven years ago, Mullen and Fitzgerald met as assistant coaches (Mullen as offensive coordinator at Bowling Green University and Fitzgerald as an assistant coach at Northwestern) on the recruiting trail. On Jan. 1, 2013, MSU and Northwestern will meet for the first time. Both men continue to work to make sure matchups like this one aren't a surprise. 

 

"You learn a lot about guys on the road and their character and who they are," Fitzgerald said. "Dan is the best in the country. It's one of those situations where it's going to be fun. You always love to compete, and when you get to compete against a friend, it makes it that much more special."

 

 

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