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Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

College Football Coaches Love To Get Upset About The Internet

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Photo: Joe Robbins (Getty Images)

College football coaches, as a general rule, are a weird group of people. The job seems built to attract a specific type of deeply strange person—take the most obsessive and ambitious and aggressive gym teacher possible, then pay him millions of dollars and make him one of the most recognizable and relentlessly public authority figures in a conservative-skewing population group. A sort of compound interest bears down on the people at the center of all this, with each year in the public eye and each new contract causing these coaches—who are already extremely weird dudes, bluff rectangular men that believe they should be in charge at least in part because of how little they sleep—to become progressively stranger and more abstract in their performance of themselves.


And it is a performance. The nature and notes of that performance will naturally vary from one program to another, but coaches that last long enough learn how to reflect the specific delusions of their fan bases back at those supporters in a way that flatters them. So Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh is a hard-driving success freak who is absolutely wild with self-belief, and Clemson’s Dabo Swinney is ostentatiously prayed-up and defiantly proud about what he can’t be bothered to care about, and Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy is a fluffy paranoiac bellowing about Fake News and snowflakes and calling it fiery leadership. And Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald is... well, actually this is a good question. What is Pat Fitzgerald going for, here?

Just to lay out the context, Fitzgerald is here responding to a reasonable question about his team’s offensive approach in a profoundly listless loss to Michigan State last weekend. If you have followed Northwestern’s football team at all over the last decade, the nature of the team’s listlessness in that effort is familiar to you. All of it should be familiar—Fitzgerald has been the coach since 2006, and coordinator Mick McCall is in his 11th season, and while they’ve built a reliably competitive program during that stretch, their teams also play a style that lands somewhere between “conservative” and “righteously constipated.” If Fitzgerald were going to alter his approach, for any reason, it would probably have happened by now. A big part of his job, just in terms of him playing his part, is not changing anything, for any reason.

It’s that last bit that helps explain Fitzgerald’s wildly pissy response to what was an unremarkable and fairly straightforward football question. The answer to the question is buried somewhere in there—Fitzgerald, you will not be surprised to learn, thought that doing The Northwestern Things would be enough to get his team the win—but the other side of a 31-10 loss is not a great time to talk football. So, swiftly, Fitzgerald decides to do something else. He begins with some umbrage—“well we just take 90 hours and play Wii and golf all week,” he sneers, a little too hostile to be withering—before making a sharp right turn into a familiar coachly safe space. “I understand there’s 40,000 experts on Twitter that can call plays for me,” he says, “so, my email address is hashtag I don’t care, okay. So shoot that out.”

Fitzgerald is not the first college football coach to treat himself to a Modern Life Is Rubbish digression here or there, although I’m fairly sure he’s the first to suggest that he’s too locked in on football to know what an email address is. He knows, of course, because Fitzgerald lives in the same world as everyone else and is a guy with a job. (He has, in fact, been on Twitter for long enough to have gotten in hot water for a tweet about Jeremy Lin that doubled as a swipe at NBA Players These Days; at the time, it was reported that he composed and sent his own tweets.)

But this bit, just like Fitzgerald’s July monologue on how smartphones have created a generation that lives in atomized, arch, infantilizing self-performance (true enough) or his 2018 rant that the Run Pass Option offenseis the purest form of communism” (???), falls under the more performance-oriented part of his job. The same can probably be said of Swinney’s swooning dismay at the very idea of paying college athletes, or Gundy’s humorless hostility to the local press. These particular weirdos come by these weird stances and expressions honestly, but also this is just another way for them to signal their in-charge coachiness. The obvious posturing is, in some sense, the point—they are making their performance of Colorful Local Authority Figure big enough for the people in the back to see.

There’s also some deflection going on here—this blog is about Pat Fitzgerald and not about how Northwestern’s Hunter Johnson, a blue-chip recruit and transfer from Clemson, averaged under six yards per completion against Michigan State, after all. But finally this is also just a coach being a coach. That is, it’s two things at once. It’s one of those hyper-confident, ultra-ambitious gym teacher types authentically bumping up against the limits of his capacities—he thought the thing would work, but for some reason it didn’t—and something more purely theatrical. In his combination of smug and unearned condescension and blustering doofiness, Pat Fitzgerald is just a coach playing his part as he understands it, as broadly as he knows it needs to be played.

David Roth is an editor at Deadspin.