EVANSTON, Ill. — After being ousted as head coach of Northwestern university’s football team, Pat Fitzgerald’s attorney, Dan Webb, said Northwestern’s decision-making has caused damage to his client’s reputation and he is exploring a breach of contract.
Webb confirmed to WGN the comments he made in an article published in the Chicago Tribune Tuesday, where he said Northwestern “made some unusual, bizarre decisions in the past week that seriously have damaged Pat Fitzgerald’s reputation.”
Rick Telander, a former defensive back for Northwestern from 1968-1971 and current senior sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, said he is disappointed by the fallout, but believes the ensuing legal battle is only beginning to brew.
“I guess I’m sad by most of it. I don’t hate Fitz[gerald] or the football program, this got out of hand,” Telander said. “[And] Pat is now resisting this and has counsel. This thing, I believe is just beginning.”
Braden Jones, who played football at Northwestern from 2001-04, confirmed a number of the allegations that were made by players who spoke in the original article published by The Daily Northwestern — the university’s student run newspaper — that broke what type of hazing allegations were being made against the football team.
“Some of the things, like ‘the car wash,’ that was happening when I was there,” Jones said. “It’s a toxic culture that has been perpetuated and passed on. It’s a form of bullying … this was done to me so, I’m going to do it to you.”
Another former Northwestern player spoke out Monday on the toxic culture he experienced while in the program. But this time, the player described instances of racism.
“I had Cinco de Mayo shaved into my head,” said Ramon Diaz Jr, a former offensive lineman at Northwestern from 2005-08. “Specific statements were said to me like, ‘I know you grew up on dirt floors but here we try to keep things clean.’”
Diaz Jr. first spoke to The Daily Northwestern in an article published Monday by the paper that described different examples of racism experienced by three former football players at the university. He was the only player to go on record with his name, while the two other players asked to remain anonymous.
Diaz Jr. said racism, like the statements he mentioned, were commonplace during his time in the program, and that removing only Fitzgerald would do little to solve the problems that he and others experienced.
“I believe everyone on that coaching staff needs to be held accountable,” Diaz Jr. said. “I do not believe replacing Fitzgerald with someone on the roster is going to solve the problem, and it’s an insult to the players suffering if president [Michael] Schill goes that direction.”
Northwestern confirmed Tuesday that Fitzgerald’s assistants and support staff will be retained for the 2023 college football season.
The now former head football coach was fired early Monday evening after fallout that followed the Friday, June 7 release of results from an independent investigation into a hazing scandal surrounding Northwestern’s football team.
When delivering the news to Northwestern’s football team, sources say Northwestern athletic director Derrick Gragg was out of town, and rather than flying back to speak to the team personally about their head coach’s firing, he informed them over Zoom.
After severe hazing allegations were levied by a whistleblower, which was first reported by The Daily Northwestern, the school added to its initial punishment for Fitzgerald, which was a two-week unpaid suspension.
That came from an investigation that was launched late last year into these allegations and was led by former Illinois Inspector General Maggie Hickey of ArentFox Schiff. In her investigation, she found that anonymous whistleblower’s claims against the program were “largely supported by the evidence.”
Here is the letter from Northwestern President Micheal H Schill.
“Dear Northwestern Community:
“This afternoon, I informed Head Football Coach Pat Fitzgerald that he was being relieved of his duties effective immediately.
“The decision comes after a difficult and complex evaluation of my original discipline decision imposed last week on Coach Fitzgerald for his failure to know and prevent significant hazing in the football program. Over the last 72 hours, I have spent a great deal of time in thought and in discussions with people who love our University — the Chair and members of our Board of Trustees, faculty leadership, students, alumni and Coach Fitzgerald himself. I have also received many phone calls, text messages and emails from those I know, and those I don’t, sharing their thoughts. While I am appreciative of the feedback and considered it in my decision-making, ultimately, the decision to originally suspend Coach Fitzgerald was mine and mine alone, as is the decision to part ways with him.
“While the independent investigative report will remain confidential, it is important for our community to know the facts.
“During the investigation, eleven current or former football student-athletes acknowledged that hazing has been ongoing within the football program. In new media reporting today, still more former Northwestern football student-athletes confirmed that hazing was systemic dating back many years. This has never been about one former student-athlete and his motives; this is much bigger than that.
“The hazing included forced participation, nudity and sexualized acts of a degrading nature, in clear violation of Northwestern policies and values. I am grateful that — to my knowledge — no student suffered physical injury as a result of these behaviors.
“While some student-athletes believed the hazing was in jest and not harmful, others viewed it as causing significant harm with long-term consequences.
“The hazing was well-known by many in the program, though the investigator failed to find any credible evidence that Coach Fitzgerald himself knew about it.
“As the entire six-month independent investigation was confidential, I only recently learned many of the details, including the complainant’s identity. I spoke with his parents on Friday and the student on Sunday.
“Since Friday, I have kept going back to what we should reasonably expect from our head coaches, our faculty and our campus leaders. And that is what led me to make this decision. The head coach is ultimately responsible for the culture of his team. The hazing we investigated was widespread and clearly not a secret within the program, providing Coach Fitzgerald with the opportunity to learn what was happening. Either way, the culture in Northwestern Football, while incredible in some ways, was broken in others.
“There is no doubt that Coach Fitzgerald has had a tremendous impact on our institution, well beyond the football field. For nearly thirty years, he has given himself to Northwestern as a student-athlete, assistant coach and head coach, and he has positively impacted the lives of hundreds of young men. His players have almost all graduated and represented the University with distinction. Over the last two days, I have received hundreds and hundreds of emails describing how he has transformed the lives of current and former student-athletes. However, as much as Coach Fitzgerald has meant to our institution and our student-athletes, we have an obligation — in fact a responsibility — to live by our values, even when it means making difficult and painful decisions such as this one. We must move forward.
“I recognize that my decision will not be universally applauded, and there will be those in our community who may vehemently disagree with it. Ultimately, I am charged with acting in the best interests of the entire University, and this decision is reflective of that. The damage done to our institution is significant, as is the harm to some of our students.
“In the days ahead, Combe Family Vice President for Athletics & Recreation Derrick Gragg will announce the leadership for this upcoming football season, and I encourage all of you to rally around the young men in our football program as they take the field this fall. As always, the welfare of our students is paramount and we will move forward expeditiously to make the reforms I outlined in my letter, dated July 8.
“Over my ten months serving as your President, I have found the Northwestern University community to be proud, to be passionate, to be supportive, and yes, to be demanding. While today is a difficult day, I take solace in knowing that what we stand for endures. Finally, I am grateful for the partnership and support of the Board of Trustees and Chair Peter Barris.”
Northwestern University President Michael Schill
On Saturday, Schill said in a statement that he “may have erred in weighing the appropriate sanction for Coach Fitzgerald” after more details of the alleged hazing were made public.
Around the same time on Saturday, a letter attributed to the entire Northwestern University football team was released and obtained by WGN, which came out in support of the coach.
Fitzgerald is arguably one of the most prominent athletes and coaches in the history of Northwestern athletics. A native of Orland Park and standout at Sandburg High School, he made a name for himself as one of the greatest defensive players in the history of the school in the mid-1990s.
In 2001, he started his second stint at the school as an assistant under then head coach Randy Walker. Upon his death in the summer of 2006, Fitzgerald was named the head coach and held that position until now.
In his 17 years in that position, Northwestern was 110-101 with ten bowl appearances along with Big Ten West Division championships in 2018 and 2020. In the first of those years, Fitzgerald was named the conference’s coach of the year and in the latter won the Bobby Dodd National Coach of the Year Award.
In December 2022, after a season in which the Wildcats went 1-11, the university began an investigation into hazing allegations that came from a whistleblower. Northwestern acknowledged the investigation in January and it was completed this summer, with the results being released on July 7.
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