Just a few years removed from being named the best defensive player in college football, Pat Fitzgerald found himself away from the game, working a job in sales.
That was until he got a call from his former defensive coordinator, Ron Vanderlinden.
“I said ‘Pat, are you happy doing what you’re doing?’ And he said ‘Not really,’ ” said Vanderlinden, Penn State’s current linebackers coach. “And I said, ‘I think you’d be a great football coach and I’d love to have you come coach with me.' It didn’t take too much coaxing, I think in the back of his mind he thought ‘I’d like to be a football coach.’ And he had all the built in intangibles.”
At the time, Vanderlinden was the head coach at Maryland and in 1998, as a graduate assistant, that is where Fitzgerald got his coaching career started. Fitzgerald — who played at Northwestern from 1993-96 with Vanderlinden as his defensive coordinator — quickly ascended in the coaching ranks, and he went from Maryland to Colorado to Idaho before landing at his alma mater in 2001 as a linebackers coach.
Fitzgerald has been at Northwestern ever since and in 2006, at the age of 31, he took over the program for the late Randy Walker. In six-plus years at the helm, Fitzgerald has compiled a 45-36 record.
Though the two will be on opposite sidelines and battling each other this Saturday as Northwestern visits Beaver Stadium, Fitzgerald said he and Vanderlinden have a very close relationship.
“Obviously, this week, we’re competitors against each other,” Fitzgerald said. “But I love him like a second father. I have the utmost respect for the way his young men have played.”
Fitzgerald’s playing time at Northwestern and Vanderlinden’s coaching career at the school (1992-96) almost perfectly overlapped and the two most memorable seasons were the final two that the duo was in Evanston, Ill.
In 1995, the Wildcats had their best campaign in history as they went 10-2 and made the Rose Bowl. Led by Fitzgerald at linebacker, their defense allowed just 15.1 points per game — good for seventh in the nation.
The following season, Northwestern went 9-3 and finished ranked 15th in the AP poll. Though it didn’t pan out of Fitzgerald at the next level, he was awarded the Chuck Bednarik Award (for the nation’s top defensive player) in both 1995 and 1996 — the first two years of the award’s existence.
“He was a hard-working player. He was very smart as a player and he had a passion to be the very best he could be and also to help his team be the best it could be,” Vanderlinden said of Fitzgerald. “He was a driven player, determined to put Northwestern on the map in football.”
Fitzgerald said he felt well prepared to play when Vanderlinden was coaching him more than a decade and a half ago.
“I have the utmost respect for Vandy as a teacher, as a man,” Fitzgerald said. “[He’s] someone who taught me really everything I became as a player and I’ll be forever indebted for that. He just was incredible. I always felt like he overturned every stone.”
There has been only one player besides Fitzgerald to win the Bednarik Award multiple times. That player was Penn State linebacker Paul Posluszny, who won the award in 2005 and 2006 with Vanderlinden as his position coach.
Posluszny and Fitzgerald are just a few examples of successful linebackers coached by Vanderlinden.
Former Lion linebacker Dan Connor also won the Bednarik Award in 2007 and through four weeks in the NFL season, the Dallas Cowboys’ Sean Lee and NaVorro Bowman of the San Francisco 49ers — both former Penn State linebackers who played under Vanderlinden’s tutelage — are the league’s top two tacklers.
“You look in the NFL and you see the guys that he’s coached, I think that they’ve taken the fundamentals he used and they’ve carried it over to the NFL,” junior Penn State linebacker Glenn Carson said. “I think that’s what’s really working for them. I was watching Sean [Monday night against Chicago] and he really doesn’t miss tackles. And I think that’s a lot of the fundamentals that he got at Penn State, learning under coach Vanderlinden.”
Strong linebacker play has been a staple at Penn State for years, and since Vanderlinden took over the unit in 2001, he has coached many successful players. This year is no exception.
Michael Mauti, Gerald Hodges and Carson are all averaging more than six tackles per game and are leading a defense that is in the top 15 in the nation in points allowed per game this season.
Mauti has a team-best 48 tackles and two interceptions and Fitzgerald said he sees why Mauti gets so much attention. Fitzgerald called the senior an “impressive guy” and “terrific leader,” but the Wildcats’ coach has noticed more than just Mauti.
“Carson and Hodges and [Mike] Hull are very good football players and they have a very, very solid linebacking corps, not just one guy,” Fitzgerald said.
Northwestern isn’t known for its linebackers like Penn State, but the team does have two of the Big Ten’s top 12 tacklers in Chi Chi Airguzo (39) and Damien Proby (37) and its defense has allowed the second fewest rushing yards in the Big Ten.
Fitzgerald said one of the first places his eyes go when he watches a game are to the linebackers and Proby noted having a head coach who played his position is beneficial.
“Coach Fitz, he has great eyes himself, being a linebacker in the past, and he still has those instincts now,” Proby said. “He’s able to tell us some different things to read, some different things that we can key watching film. And any point we know we can walk up to coach Fitz’s office and he’ll have a sit down with us.”
Vanderlinden said he originally thought Fitzgerald had the skills and mindset to be a successful coach. And though he has never won a bowl game as a head coach, Fitzgerald has led the Wildcats to four in a row, and is off to a 5-0 start this season.
“I think Northwestern made a great hire in making Pat the head coach,” Vanderlinden said. “I think it’s terrific for Northwestern to have someone who is not only the caliber a person and coach, but to have one of their own leading the charge.”