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COMMENTARY

Fitzgerald's Time Is Now

July 16, 2006|Mike Downey | Chicago Tribune

When you are young and abruptly thrown into a stress-filled job, as a Northwestern grad is in "The Devil Wears Prada" film -- her character attended an Ivy League school in the book -- what everybody wants to know is if you are too wet behind the ears, in over your head.

Pat Fitzgerald is going to have to put up with a certain amount of highly judgmental appraisal in this area. He undoubtedly will appreciate some of it. He also is bound to resent a good deal of it, as well he should.

How young is "too young" to be a Big Ten university's head football coach? At 31, Fitzgerald is now by five years the youngest man to run a Division I-A college program. But he is not 31 going on 13. He can handle this.

Less than three weeks ago he was Randy Walker's apprentice. By the morning of July 6 he was the Northwestern coach's eulogist, by nightfall his successor.

Heir apparent is a term that some have tossed around casually. Fitzgerald even mentioned wistfully at a news conference that Walker was fond of saying to him, "In 2012, buddy, I'm going to turn it over to you."

Yet who knows what fate could have had in store for both men by then? Fitzgerald was, as they say, an up-and-comer. He could have been coaxed away from Walker's staff by 2012 to be a head coach someplace else, reluctant to force his friend's hand at pinpointing a retirement date.

In any case, Northwestern had no chance to draw up a long-range game plan. There wasn't even time to say a prayer for the suddenly stricken ex-coach, let alone take a few weeks to think things over before lobbing the job in the new coach's direction like a Hail Mary.

"I wish he was older, but fate intervened," Northwestern Athletic Director Mark Murphy.

Fitzgerald sat attentively by his side.

"But he's ready," Murphy declared.

That is what every person with a purple heart, broken by the Northwestern coach's sudden death, is about to find out.

From that kickoff against Miami of Ohio on Aug. 31, Fitzgerald will call all of the Wildcats' shots. On that last day of September when he steps onto a field at Penn State and spots 79-year-old Joe Paterno on the opposite sideline, or in late October, when the sound of his voice is being drowned out in Michigan by more than 110,000 fans, Fitzgerald will endure baptisms of fire.

We might as well get this "too young" issue addressed right now, however, once and for all.

It is a crock of nonsense. It is immaterial and irrelevant. Fitzgerald, a leader on this school's 1995 Rose Bowl team and a trusted aide on its future bowl teams, is either going to be a successful coach or a failed coach, but his age has nothing to do with it.

Thirty-one isn't young. There was a time in this country when a typical man of 31 already might have a child in his teens, might have seen armed combat, might have voted in two or three presidential elections.

To think of 31 as too young to do anything -- except, perhaps, be president -- is an insult, a slap in the face.

Mike Krzyzewski was 34 when he became Duke's basketball coach. Would he have been unqualified three years before? Was that a gig less stressful than Northwestern football?

Jon Gruden was 35 when the Oakland Raiders made him an NFL head coach. Would he have been unprepared at 31? Was giving orders to Al Davis' brutes in Oakland a less demanding job than coaching college kids in Evanston?

Again, how young is too young?

Northwestern once had a prince of a fellow named Ara Parseghian as its head coach. When he got the job, he was 33. This hardly turned out to be a dark day in the long history of Wildcats football.

Unfortunately, everybody has a spin. Notre Dame's experiment of hiring a 25-year-old Terry Brennan as its head coach back in 1954 is cited by some as a failure, underscored by a two-victory season in '56.

The trouble with that argument is that Brennan's teams did win 17 games in his first two seasons -- with Frank Leahy's recruits, perhaps, but successful all the same -- and also put an end to Oklahoma's NCAA-record 47-game winning streak in 1957.

Cops once stopped Brennan on his way to a Notre Dame game. He looked so young they refused to believe he was the coach.

Fitzgerald might need to endure such indignities in the months to come.

In the meantime, he made a very strong first impression in his first day on the job -- fiercely confident, properly humble, very mindful of the twist of fate that brought him the job, astute enough to recognize that simply being given the job "doesn't give me instant respect."

Is he young? Yes.

Is he too young? What do you want to do, check his ID?

Pat Fitzgerald ought to remind everybody that a lot of people kept insisting until last year that Joe Paterno was too old. Funny, they didn't say that when Penn State won the Orange Bowl.

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