Pat Fitzgerald Out at Northwestern — Who is Fit to Replace Him?

With Pat Fiztgerald gone, who looks appealing already as someone who can elevate Northwestern out of its current predicament?

Pat Fitzgerald, embroiled in controversy over the report of hazing allegations within Northwestern football, was fired by the university Monday evening — ESPN’s Pete Thamel and Adam Rittenberg reported.

The campus newspaper, The Daily Northwestern, first broke the news of the alleged hazing last weekend by speaking with an anonymous Wildcats player. That player not only gave an account of the reported hazing acts, but a second NU player confirmed the details with the school publication. Fitzgerald was originally placed on a two-week suspension, but now the university officially parts ways with the coach who went 110-101 overall at his alma mater.

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What Northwestern Needs to Seek in Next Head Coach After Pat Fitzgerald

Whoever the next head coach is will definitely have a mess to help clean up. But not only that, the next leader must adhere to the strict high academic standards in place on campus, plus prepare to navigate this program into a newly revamped Big Ten Conference with USC and UCLA coming on board in 2024.

Given the current state the program is in, this gig is better suited for the following:

  • Someone who has worked in a Power Five setting with a rigorous educational structure
  • A coach currently working with a high academic plan in place
  • Lastly, someone who has been in a situation where they had to take a program from the abyss and make them a bowl team

The Wildcats are not only trying to navigate through the fallout of the Fitzgerald regime, but the program sunk to 1-11 last season.

Who Should Northwestern Target? Ex-Head Coaches Include Past Big 10 Leader

Time to sort through who we feel are the right fits to lead this program in 2024, post-Fitzgerald. Beginning with former head coaches from the college game:

Bill O’Brien: Given his past work at Penn State following the Joe Paterno scandal, O’Brien will have many believing he’s perfect to lure Northwestern out of this hole. The downside is O’Brien may attract NFL teams if he improves the New England Patriots’ offense this fall.

Still, he’s likely going to be on some shortlists among media members for NU. Plus, universities rarely turn down guys representing the Nick Saban coaching tree—a tree O’Brien is in.

David Shaw: The fact Shaw was interviewed for the Denver Broncos head coaching gig gives off this indicator… he’s not done coaching. Shaw, 50, will likely have no issue adjusting to the academic culture in Evanston, Illinois—having coached at a place identical in structure at Palo Alto, California, with Stanford.

Shaw, though, had difficulty leading the Cardinal in the era of NIL/transfer portal and came off as a head coach who was stuck on the old principles. He’ll have to adjust to the new climate of CFB to have longevity here. But the man who went 96-54 in the Bay Area is considered a fit for NU.

Kliff Kingsbury: Ironically, Kingsbury was mentioned by CFN’s Oliver Hodgkinson back in January as one NU should hire following the Wildcats’ 1-11 mark. His name will resurface among head coaching circles now that the former Arizona Cardinals head coach is back in the collegiate game.

While he’s currently entering season one in an offensive analyst role at USC, Kingsbury went 35-40 overall at Texas Tech, which included three bowl trips. While Wildcat fans would potentially go crazy over the Air Raid on campus, Kingsbury’s Red Raider teams unfortunately won no more than eight games each season he was in Lubbock. Plus, the current allure of L.A. and the Trojans’ eventual move to the Big Ten makes it hard for Kingsbury to leave.

Current Head Coaches Who Are Worth Looking at

Outside of former head coaches, this gig can potentially attract current ones. And one at the top of the list just recently experienced his first New Year’s Six bowl at his own institution of strong academic stability.

Willie Fritz: He guided Tulane, which requires at least a 1360  score on the SAT or a 30 in the ACT for admission, to the program’s first-ever Cotton Bowl win and completed a school record-tying 12 victories.

Perhaps what could coax Fritz is a bump in pay. He earns well under $2.5 million at Tulane. Dependent upon the max amount for Fitzgerald’s buyout, NU could give Fritz a heftier amount. Fritz, however, told ABC 26 in New Orleans (h/t Football Scoop) back on January 23 that he wants Tulane to extend him so he can retire in the Bayou.

Matt Campbell: The Iowa State head coach will continue to have his name attached to whatever P5 opening there is given his current body of work in Ames—which includes leading the Cyclones to five bowl appearances and producing a rare seventh-round find named Brock Purdy of the San Francisco 49ers. He also recently produced the No. 15 overall pick, Will McDonald IV.

Campbell, however, may be facing the hot seat this fall at ISU as his team fell to 4-8 last season. His Cyclone teams have regressed since the 2020 Fiesta Bowl-winning season that ended in a 9-3 campaign. Returning to a bowl game, though, would make him a serious contender here.

Dave Clawson: His name was mentioned by several analysts as a possibility for the Stanford gig following Shaw’s resignation. It’s easy to understand why, considering Clawson’s own body of work at a high academic institution like Wake Forest.

Clawson has coached near the area before, from 2009 to 2013 at Bowling Green. He’s 149-133 at WF. However, his string of success with the Demon Deacons—including a current school record of seven straight bowl appearances—could make it hard for NU to coax Clawson into coming over. But he’s worth reaching out to.

Jeff Monken: Potentially, the Army head coach may see his name catapult to the top of the list here. For starters, he’s no stranger to the state of Illinois, having been born in Peoria. Secondly, prior to Army, he coached at Georgia Tech and Navy—two places that require a stout GPA to get in.

It would be a huge jump for Monken to take over at NU. That would include bringing a more exotic-looking flexbone option offense over to Evanston—which would be reminiscent of the 2012 system the Wildcats tried to run. Monken, though, is running his scheme out of the shotgun more. Furthermore, his 102-65 overall record as a head coach while working with a strict educational regimen makes him a strong candidate for NU.

Jim Leonhard: If it’s between two former Wisconsin Badgers, Paul Chryst and Jim Leonhard, it’s the latter who will likely generate more buzz.

Leonhard, 40, brings more of a youthful and energetic presence to the sidelines, which was seen when he handled interim duties for the Badgers. After not being retained by new Wisconsin head coach Luke Fickell, Leonhard did enough to get on the NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles’ assistant coaching radar before pulling out. Given Northwestern’s place among the worst defenses in the Big Ten (12th overall in 2022), perhaps NU can pivot to a younger defensive guy to shore things up.

K.C. Keeler: If there’s a dark horse candidate for this gig among current head coaches, the Sam Houston State head coach is the one worth monitoring. Keeler, 63, not only turned SHS into an FCS juggernaut with an 85-27 record accompanied by the 2020 FCS National Championship, but his coaching just elevated the Bearkats into the FBS realm this fall as they’ll be a full-fledged Conference USA member.

MORE: K.C. Keeler is a True Molder of Men

But there’s more: Keeler grew up in Emmaus, Pennsylvania—located in Big Ten country as it’s an hour north of Penn State and an hour west of Rutgers. He’ll know the recruiting territories. At his age, however, Keeler may be more convinced to ride out at SHS for the rest of his career. Still, it’s not often that a past FCS coach can look appealing to a Power 5 school. Keeler has a resume that could attract Northwestern.

Coordinators Who Could Appeal to Wildcats

Say Northwestern pivots to luring in a fast-rising coordinator. The Wildcats don’t have to look far for that.

Sherrone Moore, Michigan: He’s surfacing as a head coach in the making. The 37-year-old offensive coordinator has experienced life at the top of the conference with back-to-back Big Ten titles. And he’s helped construct one of the nation’s best offensive line units in Ann Arbor.

If the Wolverines deliver one of the nation’s best offenses with Moore now having full reins for the first time in his career, best believe Moore will likely be a head coach somewhere in 2024. Northwestern has a chance to keep him within the conference.

Brian Hartline, Ohio State: Hartline is another assistant worth scrutinizing as a potential future head man. As passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach for the Buckeyes, he helped oversee the breakout campaign of Marvin Harrison Jr. and turned Jaxson Smith-Njigba into a 2023 first-rounder.

Like Moore, he too gets the entire offense to himself, and a big 2023 output will make the 36-year-old head coach material. He could make himself marketable for the Wildcats.

Tommy Rees, Alabama: If Northwestern, though, wants to go outside of the conference, the first-year Alabama offensive coordinator Rees is likely going to surface.

Rees has been in Evanston before as a 2015 grad assistant. At 31, he can bring an infusion of energy with his youthfulness. However, this season will be his first running the entire offense… and he’s doing it with Saban next to him. But a successful OC campaign could get Rees to join Lane Kiffin, Steve Sarkisian, and O’Brien as past OCs who earned a coaching elevation.

Ryan Grubb, Washington: He’s the dark horse assistant to watch, and he’s operating at another place with its own rigorous academic standards.

As the right-hand man for UW head coach Kalen DeBoer, Grubb has installed high-powered offenses at Fresno State in 2021 (No. 1 in the Mountain West Conference with Jake Haener as quarterback) and, most recently, was the OC behind the best air attack in the Pac-12 with the Huskies. Grubb is also familiar with the recruiting territories surrounding NU, having coached at Eastern Michigan with DeBoer and being a native of Iowa. Another breakout season under DeBoer could mean Grubb earning his head coaching elevation.

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