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July 28, 2009

Fitz Bits

CHICAGO - Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald has always been an early adapter when it comes to technology in college coaching. He made a name for himself as one of the most prominent texters in the game, and several of his recruiting prospects have mentioned Fitzgerald's extensive use of Facebook. Brandon Vitabile even committed to Fitzgerald online using a web camera a couple weeks ago.

But even a 21st-century coach like Fitzgerald isn't atwitter about Twitter, even though he quickly established his own page this spring.

"I don't get it," said the fourth-year head coach, who has 901 followers on his Twitter page and claims that MSNBC's Darren Rovell is his "Twitter coach." "I do it, but I don't get it."

Fitzgerald laughs about wasting time online reading tweets about what a celebrity had for breakfast, but he takes part in it because he uses all of the tools at his disposal to build trust with the prospects he's recruiting.

"That's what recruiting is all about," he said.

Fitzgerald said that he doesn't really enjoy burning out his thumbs by sending text messages either, but he does it because he knows that recruits use it regularly. Facebook, he says, has become one of his favorite sites for the same reason.

"Recruits are on there daily, multiple times a day," he says. "It's a great medium to build a relationship."

Fitzgerald also uses Facebook as a sort of litmus test to find out if a prospect is a good fit for the program. He knows that high school kids will often put inappropriate pictures on their page, and he is not afraid to alert a player's parents or give the player a warning if he sees something that he doesn't like.

"We won't offer a scholarship until we've seen the kid's Facebook page," he says. More than once, in fact, he's asked a recruiting target to take certain pictures off of his page before he made an offer.

"We make sure we guard the gate," he said.

When asked what he would think if a player committed to Northwestern primarily because of his Facebooking skills, the coach laughed.

"That's probably the wrong kid for our program," he said.




Deep thoughts: Fitzgerald once again talked at length about the depth of his football team this season, a theme he hit several times on Day 1 of the event.

"We have as much competitive depth as we've ever had," he said.

Fitzgerald took it a step further, saying the Wildcats' depth today is far superior than it was when he played at NU from 1994-96. Last year, he pointed out, nine Northwestern starters missed at least one game because of an injury.

"That would have been devastating" when he played, he said.




Going small: Fitzgerald said he was very happy about how his 2010 recruiting class is shaping up. While NCAA rules prohibit him from talking about individual recruits until they sign their letters of intent in February, he said that he is thrilled about the players who have committed to NU thus far. He anticipates his class to be completed before the end of the 2009 season and he says that it will consist of only 13-15 players.

"We're working off of 13 (scholarship slots) as coaches," he said.

That number is small because the Wildcats have played just four true freshman over the last two seasons - Jeremy Ebert and Jeravin Matthews last year and Drake Dunsmore and Josh Rooks in 2007. So, in essence, they have five classes represented in the 85 scholarships, an average of 17 per class. Add walkons earning scholarships and the number of scholarships available each year shrinks even further.

Fitzgerald added that it is just a coincidence that the Wildcats have three players from central Florida and not one from Chicagoland.

"It's cyclical," he said. "It's an anomaly more than anything. We haven't changed anything."




Between the Ivy: The possibility of Northwestern playing a game at Wrigley Field generated a lot of buzz at Fitzgerald's table. The coach said that he's amenable to athletic director Jim Phillips' idea, provided that the game makes sense in terms of player security and finances.

Fitzgerald stressed that talk of scheduling a game is still in its infancy stages, and he said that there are safety concerns because one end zone would provide only two feet or so between the end line and the stands. The field would be laid out from third base to the right field line.

Fitzgerald said he would be humbled to walk the same sideline that George Halas and other Chicago Bears greats did at Wrigley, and he also let out this little-known fact: when the Bears played at the Cubs ballpark from 1921 to 1970, the 10-yard markers were 29 feet apart, instead of 30, to accommodate the shorter field.

Illinois coach Ron Zook visited Wrigley to assess it as a game venue and said Monday that he would relish the opportunity to play the rival Wildcats at Clark and Addison.

Whoever the opponent turns out to be, the contest would be a home game for the Wildcats. Fitzgerald said that while he likes the proposition as a one-time deal, he is opposed to regularly giving up home dates at Ryan Field.




Pick your poison: Fitzgerald reiterated the stance of his predecessor, Randy Walker, when discussing the possibility of kicker Stefan Demos being a triple threat for the Wildcats in 2009. But he doesn't view his fallback position as a great alternative, either.

"I would prefer not to have Stefan Demos handle all three," he said, referring to punting, kickoffs and placekicking. "But I would prefer not to have a freshman kicker (Jeff Budzien), either. So we'll have to work that out."




No room for No. 51: Fitzgerald isn't sure whether defenses have caught up with the spread offense in the Big Ten, but he is certain that defensive recruiting has. He said that the kind of athletes playing on the defensive side of the ball in the Big Ten are "amazing," able to run sideline-to-sideline and play the run and pass with equal dexterity.

"A kid from Sandburg High School wearing a neck roll wouldn't be playing middle linebacker in the Big Ten anymore," he said, referring to himself.




Going to school: One look at the 2009 schedule makes it obvious that Northwestern must be successful early in the year in order to match or surpass the 9-4 record it enjoyed in 2008. The Wildcats face four beatable non-conference opponents, plus Minnesota and Purdue - two Big Ten teams that they defeated last season - in the first six weeks of the season. They then close the year with five 2008 bowl teams in a grinding six-game stretch.

One thing that will make life much more difficult for Wildcat coaches in is that all four schools on the non-conference slate have new coaching staffs. Towson (Rob Ambrose), Eastern Michigan (Ron English), Syracuse (Doug Marrone) and Miami of Ohio (Mike Haywood) will all break in new head men in 2009, meaning that Fitzgerald's staff will have to do some extra research to figure out what sort of systems each coach will employ.

"We're looking at high school tapes" to scout Ambrose, Fitzgerald said.




So long, media guides: In past years, reporters covering Big Ten Media Days were handed a Big Ten canvas bag containing the media guides for all 11 conference programs. The net weight of the bag seemed to be a metric ton.

This year, however, media members received an empty canvas bag and a Flash drive containing .pdf files of each guide. Net weight: about 2 ounces.

Fitzgerald is in favor of the electronic evolution of print guides, and not to save writers from lower-back strain. It saves money for the program and Fitzgerald likes the idea of "putting it online," where it can be updated continuously and appeals to the "point-and-click" world of today's recruits.



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