Chris Hamdorf had a strong inclination where his close friend and college teammate Pat Fitzgerald was headed in life.
“Fitz loves Chicago,” said Hamdorf, a former Northwestern quarterback and a 1993 graduate of Iowa City High. “And I think without saying it out load, we all knew that perfection for Fitz would be coming back to coach the Cats one day. I don’t recall him ever saying that out loud because at the time when you’re playing there it kind of seems far off to be thinking about. But we all knew that’s what he would like to do one day.”
Fitzgerald, 38, achieved his dream by becoming the football coach at Northwestern in July 2006, although, under sad circumstances. He was promoted to head coach after Randy Walker died from a heart attack that summer.
Fitzgerald was 31, making him at that time the youngest coach in the Big Ten and in NCAA FBS by five years. Now in his eighth season as coach at his alma mater, Fitzgerald is second behind Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz — whose team Northwestern will face Saturday — in longevity among Big Ten coaches.
Hamdorf thought strongly that Fitzgerald would be successful as the Northwestern coach, calling him the perfect fit for a school that is different than its Big Ten counterparts in terms of culture and academics.
A native of the Chicago suburb Orland Park, Fitzgerald was one of the key pieces to Northwestern’s rise to prominence under Gary Barnett as an all-America linebacker in the mid-1990s. Fitzgerald knew the landscape when he was hired and knew what obstacles Northwestern faced in areas such as recruiting because of the school’s high academic standards.
“I knew that Fitz would be absolutely the perfect guy for us regardless of how many games he wins just because Fitz does things the right way,” said Hamdorf who lives in Minneapolis and is vice president of national accounts for Sharp Electronics. “He’s very, very engaged with all the players and thinking about their lives and their careers.
“And that’s what we strived for at Northwestern and Fitz gets it. And now he’s won a lot of games, too, which makes it even better. We’ve got the guy we want there and I knew he’d be successful dealing with the guys.”
Hamdorf, who is married and has three daughters, said he still talks to Fitzgerald at least once a week. Hamdorf believes that Fitzgerald will stay at Northwestern, even if some of college football’s superpowers come knocking. The Wildcats are currently mired in a three-game losing streak, but the program is also coming off a 10-win season and the first bowl victory in school history.
Fitzgerald also has caused fits for Iowa and will bring a 5-2 record against the Hawkeyes into Saturday’s game at Kinnick Stadium.
“If I were to guess, I think he probably would stay,” said Hamdorf, who was an all-state quarterback at City High as a senior in 1992. “Absolutely, I think he could coach at a higher-profile school or in the pros one day. I think Fitz would be 100 percent capable of doing that.
“But I think Fitz wants to establish Northwestern as a regular significant team in the Big Ten, always having the chance to win the Big Ten title, always going to bowl games. I think he loves Chicago and I think he sees more possibilities at Northwestern where a lot of people wouldn’t. I think that’s what Fitz is all about. He may surprise me and will go some place one day. But we’ll see. My guess is he’ll probably stick around.”
Hamdorf and Fitzgerald were in the same 1993 recruiting class at Northwestern. Hamdorf grew up as an Iowa fan, serving as a ball boy for the Hawkeye men’s basketball team. He was thrilled when Hayden Fry rebuilt the Iowa football program in the early 1980s, and the thought of turning down a scholarship to Iowa was unimaginable at one time.
But then Hamdorf met Barnett and was touched by his recruiting pitch at Northwestern, which in the early 1990s was a Big Ten cellar dweller.
“The way coach Barnett put it to me, he said you can get on the train going down the track at 100 miles per hour in the right direction and that’s great and you’ll feel good about yourself,” Hamdorf said. “Or you can stay on the train tracks on a train going the wrong direction, stop it, get it turned around and going in the right direction.
“He said I guarantee you in life, if you do the second thing you’re going to remember it a lot more than doing the first thing. And that’s exactly what he said to me. And myself, personally, I’ve always been kind of guy when everybody is going one way question why they don’t think about going the other way.”
Hamdorf ultimately picked Northwestern over scholarship offers from Iowa, Wisconsin, Kansas State and Arizona State. He played mostly as a reserve, but his recruiting class helped lay the foundation for future success.
Hamdorf figures he spent about 95 percent of his freshman year hanging out with Fitzgerald. They not only lived next to each other in the dormitory, they also took many of the same classes and had similar interests.
“Fitz is a real competitive guy, as I am,” Hamdorf said. “If we weren’t playing football, we were playing basketball or pingpong or anything we could do to have fun and try to beat each other at something.”
Hamdorf denied speculation that Fitzgerald has a strong dislike for Iowa dating back to his college days. Fitzgerald suffered a broken leg against Iowa in 1995 and the injury prevented him from playing in the Rose Bowl that season. Speculation grew from that, although Fitzgerald has never said anything critical of Iowa publicly.
“I don’t think Fitz hates Iowa by any means,” Hamdorf said. “Iowa was a very good program when I went to (Northwestern) and Fitz went there. It was certainly a program that we wanted to try and be as good as or better than while we were there.
“Gary Barnett said Iowa was one of the programs that we looked at and said, ‘Hey; here’s a good program that year in and year out performs and goes to bowl games and always is in the mix.’ And that’s what we wanted at Northwestern, too. I think it probably would have been a little bit unrealistic thinking, ‘Hey, we want to be Ohio State.’”
As for Saturday’s game, Hamdorf will be traveling and unable to watch it.
“Kinnick is a great place to play,” he said. “It’s so much fun to go there.
“Our guys will be able to play in a big football game on Saturday, and hopefully, come out with a (win). But either way, hopefully, we leave it all out on the field.”
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football