CHICAGO — If Pat Fitzgerald truly dislikes the Iowa football program, he does an incredible job of hiding it.
The rumors about Fitzgerald disliking the Hawkeyes have persisted for years, ever since he suffered a season-ending ankle injury against Iowa as a junior linebacker at Northwestern in 1995.
Fitzgerald now is the head football coach at Northwestern and the youngest head coach in the conference at 35.
He was asked about his feeling toward Iowa on Tuesday at the Big Ten football meetings.
He not only denied that he dislikes Iowa but went out of his way to praise the Iowa program as a whole.
“There is no better team in the conference from a coaching standpoint and a team that plays together than Iowa,” Fitzgerald said. “I think it’s a pretty good rivalry (between Iowa and Northwestern) from that standpoint that it’s two teams that do it the right way and two teams that play their butts off.”
The fact that Fitzgerald was speaking on the record, obviously, had something to do with what he said.
But why would he gush about the Hawkeyes when he didn’t have to, unless that’s how he feels?
Maybe it’s a love-hate relationship.
Or it could be that Fitzgerald feeds his dislike by defeating Iowa, considering his record is 3-1 against the Hawkeyes.
But even when talking about his team’s success against Iowa, Fitzgerald is careful not to say the wrong thing.
He points to luck and to how Iowa has a recent history of self-destructing against his team.
“I don’t think we’ve had a secret, I think we’ve been fortunate,” Fitzgerald said. “When we’ve won, we’ve won the turnover battle. And that doesn’t matter if you’re playing Iowa or Illinois State or Vanderbilt or anybody on our schedule. You’ve got to be able to take care of the football.
“You look at last year; we get a freak play and we get a turnover in the end zone. So now we have momentum. That whole game changed on one play. It’s football, man. You get lucky. You get fortunate.”
Fitzgerald was referring to when former Northwestern defensive lineman Corey Wootton sacked Iowa quarterback Ricky Stanzi in the end zone late in the second quarter of last season’s game. Stanzi not only fumbled on the play, which Northwestern recovered for a touchdown, but also suffered an ankle injury and did not return to action.
Iowa had four turnovers in the second quarter alone and went on to lose for the first time in the season — and for the third time in a row against Northwestern at Kinnick Stadium.
“You can’t hope that they’re going to make mistakes,” Fitzgerald said of Iowa. “They just don’t make mistakes.
“And I think we’ve had the anomaly game against them where they’ve made a couple turnovers here and a couple turnovers there and a couple mistakes and we’ve been fortunate to take advantage of it.”
Fitzgerald admits that the series has gotten tense over the years. He said Iowa fans shared their feelings about him as he took the field at Kinnick Stadium before last season’s game.
“We’re public enemy No. 1, there is no doubt,” Fitzgerald said. “I couldn’t share with you what some of the people said to me walking out of the tunnel last year. They love me.”
Fitzgerald was special as a player, the first to win both the Nagurski and Bednarik Awards as the nation’s best defensive player in 1995 and 1996.
He also was at the center of Northwestern’s improbable rise to back-to-back Big Ten champions in 1995 and 1996 under former head coach Gary Barnett. The Wildcats finished 15-1 against Big Ten opponents during those two seasons.
Barnett supposedly planted the seed of discontent toward Iowa during the early stages of his seven-year reign as the Northwestern coach from 1992-98.
He basically used Iowa as the measuring stick for his program.
He also supposedly used a comment by former Iowa coach Hayden Fry to inspire his players.
As the story goes, Iowa had just demolished Northwestern 49-13 in 1994 at Kinnick Stadium, and while Fry and Barnett were shaking hands at midfield after the game, Fry reportedly said to Barnett that he hoped that none of his players got hurt during the game.
Barnett supposedly considered it a slap in the face of his program. And from that point on, defeating Iowa was a major part of his motivation.
“I know when coach came, he had the utmost respect for coach Fry,” Fitzgerald said. “I remember more what he said to us behind closed doors. He said, ‘If we want to take the next step, we’ve got to compete and be able to beat Iowa on a regular basis’ because they were a team that was kind of at that next level from a consistently winning standpoint in Big Ten play.”
Barnett won three of his last four games against Iowa, with Fitzgerald leading the way in two of those victories at least most of the way.
The 1995 victory was bittersweet because of the ankle injury, which included breaks in two spots and all his ligaments torn.
Fitzgerald still remembers the play like it happened yesterday instead of nearly 15 years ago.
“It was a toss sweep to their outside zone, and we knew they did a really nice job of cut blocking, and I got cut,” Fitzgerald said of Iowa. “I was trying to get up and like three guys fell over the top of me.
“It was a bad deal. It was cold as hell. At that point I was freezing my ass off.”
One thing Fitzgerald doesn’t have is sympathy for Iowa. What’s happened recently in the series still doesn’t erase years of frustration and humiliation.
Iowa still has a 46-22-3 advantage in the series, including 23-9 in Iowa City.
“They’ve beaten us quite a bit; I’m not going to cry a river for them,” Fitzgerald said.
“Look at the record. I think the Hawkeyes have a piece of our hind parts in Iowa City, some of the worst (defeats) I’ve ever been a part of as a player.”
Like is the case with so many things, the truth probably is somewhere in the middle. Or it could be that some things are better off not being said publicly.
You judge for yourself.
Reach Pat Harty at 339-7368 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football