Comfort and joy: 'Tis the season of job security for Fitzgerald, Hammock

The termination season started sooner than normal for several major collage football coaches, leaving Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald with a timely summation of the landscape many of his fellow competitors encounter.

"This is a profession of 'What have you done for me a second ago' right?" Fitzgerald said. "That's what you sign up for. It's definitely bigger than that when you're in this role."

Student-athletes have been allowed to transfer at a more liberal rate without sitting out for one full season, putting more pressure on coaches to retain a competitive core.

Michigan State achieved instant success this season through the transfer portal, and reports of coach Mel Tucker finalizing a 10-year, $95 million extension surfaced as more high-profile positions opened.

While Power Five schools Florida, LSU, USC, Washington, Virginia Tech, TCU and Washington State search for head coaches before their respective seasons end, there are no such worries at Northwestern or Northern Illinois, thanks to the faith and vision of their respective athletic administrations and the loyalty of the head coaches to their alma maters.

Northwestern's decision to give Fitzgerald a 10-year contact last January glows despite the Wildcats' current 3-8 record. Fitzgerald doesn't need to reinforce his job security to recruits or their parents.

At DeKalb, NIU's resiliency helped coach Thomas Hammock receive an extension through 2026 despite going winless in his second season in 2020.

Under Hammock's watch, the Huskies recovered from an overtime loss in their home opener to Wyoming and a 53-point defeat at Michigan on consecutive weekends in September to earn the Mid-America Conference West Division title.

Despite a 42-21 loss to Western Michigan in the regular-season finale, NIU was assured of playing in the MAC championship game on Dec. 4 at Detroit.

Meanwhile, Fitzgerald is determined to turn around a losing mark as soon as the Wildcats conclude their regular season against Saturday at Illinois.

"In a lot of ways, guys have learned some valuable lessons that they will take into starting next week to get themselves ready when we open up spring ball at the end of February," said Fitzgerald, who fielded one of his youngest teams after a veteran group led the Wildcats to a 7-2 record in 2020, capped a Citrus Bowl triumph over Auburn after holding a potent Ohio State offense to 22 points in the 2020 Big Ten championship game.

"We've got to really improve in some areas that aren't on the field. And it starts and ends in the weight room. We got to get a lot stronger across the board. It manifests in the work you put in. I know our guys will be focused on doing that."

It hasn't hurt that Northwestern is in the midst of a massive facilities upgrade, starting with a $270 million lakefront practice facility. The Wildcats will need to play some of their future home games at an alternate site as Ryan Field undergoes a $480 million renovation, but the seeds have been planted to allow Fitzgerald to compete more on an even playing field with the elites in the Big Ten as well against the few legitimate academically inclined schools.

Sure, there will be many alums and fans who demand impressive results for the millions invested. But it starts with stability at the top, as Northwestern running back Andrew Clair can attest to.

Clair started his college career in 2018 at Bowling Green but had to adjust to a coaching change after one season.

There was a new playbook, new teaching methods, different workouts and even adjustments at the training table.

"It's just trying to figure out and learn each other, which can be trouble especially when getting into a new season," said Clair, who transferred to Northwestern prior to the 2020 season.

Fitzgerald and Northwestern might have started a trend, as Penn State coach James Franklin disclosed in a statement that talks that started nine weeks ago culminated in a 10-year extension announced Tuesday.

But the timing of Fitzgerald's contract silenced his candidacy for other openings, a sense of tranquility not afforded Franklin until recently.

"I couldn't be more excited about the future." Fitzgerald said. "I'm very thankful for the trust and respect to have me in the leadership role. I'm very thankful for the commitment from the university to the program."


Northern Illinois coach Thomas Hammock celebrates the Huskies' win over Georgia Tech Sept. 4 in Atlanta. Associated Press
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