Could top jobs tempt NU's Fitzgerald?

If Texas and USC jobs open, don't be surprised if Wildcats coach gets a call

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald on Saturday's romp over Syracuse.

Hang around Northwestern alums and football fans, and invariably the conversation turns to this question: Would Pat Fitzgerald ever leave?

Is there a job that Fitzgerald would consider taking? And how long would it take for him to remove "Go, Cats!" from his vernacular?

Well, consider this a dark lining to an otherwise spectacular Saturday. On a day in which Northwestern throttled Syracuse to rise to 16th in the USA Today coaches poll and 17th in the Associated Press poll, two of the nation's glitziest teams got thumped.

Texas got obliterated 40-21 by BYU, out-rushed 550 yards to 132. Neither is a typo, nor is this: Mack Brown is 23-17 since 2010. (And on Sunday Brown announced that Greg Robinson would replace Manny Diaz as defensive coordinator.)

And USC lost 10-7 to Washington State, with the Trojans passing for 54 yards. The home fans serenaded Lane Kiffin with "Fire Kiffin!" chants, to which the Trojans coach replied: "I think I heard those before the game started, so I'm used to it."

Why should those results matter to NU fans? Because only Texas and USC make sense as potential landing spots for Fitzgerald. That's my theory, and an associate of Fitzgerald's agreed when we spoke over the summer.

Texas is Texas. It has the most resources and sits in the nation's most fertile recruiting ground. NU's roster is stocked with nine players from Texas, including running backs Venric Mark and Treyvon Green.

As for USC, athletic director Pat Haden is said to be a huge fan of Fitzgerald's, and the two have spoken at college football functions. Fitzgerald would be a perfect contrast to the loathed, arrogant Kiffin. And like Northwestern, USC is a private school. So Fitzgerald's accomplishments at Northwestern take on extra luster.

Texas and USC also make sense because no one can imagine Fitzgerald trying to game-plan against Northwestern on a regular basis. That was likely one of the reasons Fitzgerald rebuffed Michigan after the 2010 season.

The Wolverines were prepared to go as high as $3.5 million to hire him, but NU's top brass of President Morton Schapiro and athletic director Jim Phillips worked quickly to retain him, signing him to a new 10-year contract through 2020.

They increased the salary pool of Fitzgerald's assistants sufficiently enough that all nine NU assistant coaches have been with Fitzgerald since 2011. Only one other FBS school, Minnesota, has had that kind of retention.

They boosted Fitzgerald's salary to more than $2.2 million in the 2011 calendar year, according to USA Today, an increase of nearly $1 million from 2010.

And, most importantly, Schapiro and Phillips assured Fitzgerald that the university would build a world-class lakefront facility that will become the program's new Sunday-Friday home.

The realistic hope is that the $220 million building will open in 2016, but Fitzgerald has brought his team to Lakeside Field the last two weeks to practice.

"Pretty spectacular," Fitzgerald said last week of the setting along Lake Michigan. "You can see why it will be a game-changer for us in recruiting. And day to day, it will give the guys an opportunity to walk out of (practice), shower and change and be back in their dorms or apartments in a minute or two."

Gary Barnett once said Fitzgerald would leave Northwestern only if the school failed to upgrade NU's facilities or allowed assistant coaches to flee.

Check. Check.

And given that Fitzgerald truly believes Northwestern can compete for Big Ten titles — and thus college football's ultimate prize — it's hard to envision what would make him consider leaving.

OK, there is that thing that rules the world.

Texas pays Mack Brown in excess of $5 million a year. An extension signed in 2012 reportedly calls for a salary of $6.1 million in 2020, the final year of his deal. That's some serious cattle.

Last fall I asked Fitzgerald's father, Pat Sr., if he believes his son is an NU lifer.

"I believe so, if they treat him right," Fitzgerald said. "Could they possibly lose him? Oh, yeah. He's his own man."

tgreenstein@tribune.com

Twitter @TeddyGreenstein

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