(AP) EVANSTON, Illinois — After handling its reaction to the claims poorly, Northwestern dismissed coach Pat Fitzgerald on Monday amid a hazing controversy that called into doubt his management of the program.
Fitzgerald, a former All-American linebacker who was a key member of Northwestern's 1995 Big Ten champion and Rose Bowl squad, experienced a swift fall from favor following his departure. A perennial feature on any list of college coaches with the most job security, the 48-year-old Fitzgerald had a solid foothold at his own university and was well-established there.
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Northwestern President Michael Schill stated in an open letter to the student body that the team's culture ultimately rests with the head coach. "The hazing we looked at was pervasive and obviously not a secret inside the team, giving Coach Fitzgerald the chance to find out what was going on. In any case, the Northwestern Football culture was flawed in some respects despite being fantastic in others.
Fitzgerald coached Northwestern for 17 seasons, posting a 110-101 record. In addition to winning five bowl games, he guided the Wildcats to the 2018 and 2020 Big Ten West titles. But in his final two seasons, they had a 4-20 record.
In a statement given to ESPN, Fitzgerald said that he had given his lawyer the go-ahead to "take the necessary steps to protect my rights in accordance with the law."
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Derrick Gragg, the athletic director, would reveal "the leadership for this upcoming football season" in the following few days, according to Schill's letter. The first game is on September 3 versus Rutgers.
I understand that my choice won't be welcomed by everyone and that some people in our community could violently disagree with it, Schill wrote. "I am ultimately responsible for making decisions that are in the best interests of the whole University, and this choice reflects that. Both the hurt to some of our students and the harm done to our university is serious.
In June 2021, Northwestern hired Gragg. He was hired after Mike Polisky resigned amid growing criticism for being named in a sexual harassment complaint brought by former Wildcats cheerleaders against the Big Ten university.
Fitzgerald had already been suspended for two weeks when the school announced on Friday that a probe by lawyer Maggie Hickey of the firm ArentFox Schiff had not discovered "sufficient" evidence that the coaching staff was aware of ongoing hazing, despite the fact that there had been "significant opportunities" to learn about it.
Prior to taking over Northwestern in September, Schill served as president of the University of Oregon. In his letter on Monday, he stated that the investigation's findings will stay private. However, he noted that 11 current or former athletes admitted the hazing in the program throughout the probe.
"The hazing included forced participation, nudity, and sexualized acts of a degrading nature, in clear violation of Northwestern policies and values," wrote Schill.
Fitzgerald said in his statement that Hickey's inquiry confirmed his denial that he was aware of any hazing taking on within the program.
Following Ms. Hickey's exhaustive inquiry, "Northwestern and I reached a mutual understanding regarding the appropriate resolution last Friday," he stated. This contract provided for a two-week suspension.
Therefore, I was shocked to find that Northwestern's president unilaterally canceled our agreement without giving me any notice before doing so, which led to the termination of my position.
The Daily Northwestern released a report on Saturday outlining claims from a former athlete who alleged specific incidents of hazing and sexual assault after Northwestern issued its punishment for Fitzgerald. According to the investigation, Fitzgerald "may have known that hazing took place."
Due to this, Schill confessed in a message to the university community that he had concentrated "too much on what the report concluded (Fitzgerald) didn't know and not enough on what he should have known." Schill continued by stating that he intended to consult with university administrators, board of trustees members, and faculty senate leaders to determine his next course of action.
In his statement on Monday, Schill stated, "Since Friday, I have repeatedly referred to what we might reasonably expect from our head coaches, our teachers, and our campus leaders. And that's what motivated me to take this action, I guess."
Because the six-month probe was private, Schill said in his letter on Monday that he only recently discovered many of the specifics. After speaking with the student's parents on Friday, he talked with the complaint on Sunday.
After the tragic passing of then-coach Randy Walker in 2006, Fitzgerald—who was elected into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2008—was chosen to take over as his alma mater's head coach.
After Fitzgerald's ban was revealed, several active and retired athletes sprang to his support.
Without naming the author, "The ENTIRE Northwestern Football Team" signed a letter that was shared on social media and stated that "Coach Fitzgerald has consistently prioritized the well-being and development of his players throughout his tenure, and we stand behind him in his unwavering commitment to our team."
Three former Northwestern players described a "culture of enabling racism" in a piece that The Daily Northwestern published before the school officially confirmed Fitzgerald's resignation.
Following the school's announcement of intentions to construct a new Ryan Field in September, there is unrest among the football program. The proposals aim for a cutting-edge stadium with fewer seats and a stronger focus on the spectator experience.
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