In 2007, the first-year wide receivers coach at Northern Illinois had ambition in his belly, a 26-year-old someday hoping to be a major college head coach. So, he contacted a young, up-and-coming head coach, a 32-year-old a couple of hours’ drive away at Northwestern, hoping to pick his brain.
The two met for lunch in Evanston, Ill., with P.J. Fleck gaining the knowledge he sought from Pat Fitzgerald.
Flash forward a decade later and the two will meet again, when Fleck’s Gophers (5-5, 2-5 Big Ten) face Fitzgerald’s Northwestern Wildcats (7-3, 5-2) on Saturday at Ryan Field in Evanston.
“He’s one of the greatest influences I’ve had in coaching,’’ Fleck, 36, said of Fitzgerald, 42. “We’ve known each other for a very long time.’’
“I thought [Fleck] was just a terrific hire for the Gophers,” Fitzgerald said, “just from our background and our knowledge of each other.’’
Though the two coaches haven’t worked together on the same staff, they’ve been bonded by proximity, first with Fleck’s and Fitzgerald’s ties to the state of Illinois and now with both being Big Ten coaches.
However, they took differing paths to their destinations.
Fitzgerald, a two-time All-America linebacker for Wildcats coach Gary Barnett, was the linchpin of a defense that led Northwestern to the Big Ten title and Rose Bowl berth in 1995 and a share of the conference title and Citrus Bowl appearance in 1996.
How good of a player was Fitzgerald? He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2008.
Fitzgerald went undrafted by NFL teams but spent time with the Dallas Cowboys in training camp before being cut. The leadership he showed as a college player, though, translated into a coaching career.
After assistant coaching jobs at Maryland, Colorado and Idaho, Fitzgerald returned to Northwestern as defensive backs coach on Randy Walker’s staff. Fitzgerald moved up to linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator before his world changed.
On June 29, 2006, Walker died of a heart attack at age 52. Eight days later, Fitzgerald was named head coach.
“Being a young coach thrown in a very, very tough situation, to watch him handle that, it was graceful and showed the leadership he has,’’ Fleck said.
The Wildcats went 4-8 in Fitzgerald’s first season but were 9-4 with an Alamo Bowl appearance two years later. Seven more bowl trips have followed in his 12 years at Northwestern.
Like Fitzgerald, Fleck wasn’t an NFL star but worked his way up the coaching ladder through assistant jobs, then became head coach at Western Michigan in 2013. Along the way, he used the lessons he learned from Fitzgerald at that 2007 lunch.
“The biggest advice I got from him is, ‘You don’t manage people. You lead people; you manage machines,’ ” Fleck said. “The leadership part of a head football coach isn’t for everybody. It’s not just about the X’s and O’s. It’s not just about the wins and losses. It’s about the entire experience.’’
Fleck and Fitzgerald will face each other as head coaches for the third time in Saturday’s game, which will break a 1-1 tie between them.
“To see the success that he’s had has nothing to do with me, but everything to do with the job that he and his staff have done,’’ Fitzgerald said. “They’ve recruited well, developed players great, and it’s been fun to watch him be able to accomplish it.
“I’m a big fan of his except for one game — that’s ours.’’