By Bill Bradley, contributing editor
Pat Fitzgerald has made his mark as Northwestern University's football coach.* Entering his ninth season, he has led *the Wildcats to five bowl games and 55-46 record.
Already a member of the College Football Hall of Fame for his efforts as a player at Northwestern, Fitzgerald is helping football outside of the college game. He has been one of the original backers of USA Football's Heads Up Football program.
Fitzgerald took a few minutes after practice on Wednesday to talk with NFL Evolution about what drew him to executive director Scott Hallenbeck's vision five years ago, his work with the program and how he has encouraged the Big Ten Conference to play a significant role with USA Football.
How did you first become aware of USA Football's efforts to create the Heads Up Football program?
I was at the American Football Coaches Association convention (in 2012) and I heard Scott Hallenbeck talk and visit about the initiatives that USA Football was embarking on to make the game safer and healthier for youth. Being a father and having little boys that planned to play football, I was really excited to hear about the initiative.
Why did you get involved in Heads Up Football, and why is the cause so important to you?
I truly believe in the education of the game of football. I believe that's at the heart of what it's about. We've all got a shared commitment. The game has given us all so many opportunities, and I think USA Football is establishing important standards for a safer game, and it starts with educating the coaches.
Was there a particular coach in your youth that made the game enjoyable?
I had a bunch, I really did. I'd be short-changing them if I just named one. I was that day-dreamer kid that started playing football in the second grade and I did so I would pay more attention in school. These days, it starts as a parent of two youth football players. I'm a dad first. It's just vitally important to me when it got to the point that my boys were playing. When I looked at their youth football leagues -- we started with the one in our area that had its coaches USA Football certified -- it gave me a great peace of mind to know that our young men were going to learn the game the right way and they were going to learn safety. For a couple of years now, it's been a great experience for them to learn amazing life lessons: how to work with teammates; how to get to know other kids. They've really grown leaps and bounds because they've had the opportunity to play football.
Your Big Ten Conference was one of the first major college conferences to adopt Heads Up Football. How did you help in making that happen?
We did across the board. We brought in USA Football in to visit the Big Ten head coaches, commissioner Jim Delany and the administration. After the (USA Football) presentation was complete, we took a vote as a group of coaches and there was unanimous commitment to support the USA Football initiatives and we're honored to be part of it.
You and other coaches in the Big Ten also taped the first series of videos for USA Football. How have those videos had an impact?
I think it goes back to education of coaches and, most importantly, the education of the parents and helping them understand we're building a healthier, safer game. This is a time that USA Football has really established important standards with medical experts to make the game safe, to educate the coaches and the parents, to show how fundamentals should be done. This helps kids enjoy the game and also play in a safe manner. It's more than just tackling. It's a better way to teach the game. It's more than about football. It's about playing safe athletics as a youth and something I really believe in.
How do you spread the word about Heads Up Football through the Northwestern program?
I had the great privilege to talk about the program to the Chicago youth football leagues here in the winter. First I thanked the coaching bodies for what they do for Chicagoland's youth. But it helps just being in my role and supporting those coaches, encouraging them to come by, giving them teaching tapes on how to teach the game safer. I believe that's how we're going to spread that word from a grassroots standpoint.
Your sons play football in a Heads Up Football-affiliated league. What do you watch as a parent from a safety standpoint when you attend their practices and games?
It starts with the coaches coaching the kids up. That's a saying we use a lot in our program, "Coach them up, and don't tear them down." Let's show them what needs to be done from a technical standpoint. I watch the protocol from which the (youth) coaches go about that and their teaching progression. Then, ... I'm watching when there's opportunities to make contact. I'm also a parent of three boys that play soccer. They make a lot more contact in the soccer games. From a football standpoint, at least they have pads when they're making contact because they're a bunch of little bumble bees when they play soccer. Again, it's not only about football, but it's about making youth sports safer and more fun.
How long do you think it will take for Heads Up techniques to bubble up to the college level?
If you just do the math, it's coming and it's on its way. A lot of those (Heads Up Football) techniques are very similar to what we teach on a daily basis. It's good to have a common language and trying to use the art of video to teach kids. That's because when they see it, they can really work hard at trying emulate that muscle memory in the buzzwords and they keywords you give them. It's not just tackling, it's across the board about how you teach the game and how educate your kids. I think it's definitely working its way to college and you're seeing kids playing the game in a different way than when I was playing. That is what's exciting about football: We're in the most fan-crazy sport in the world ... but at the same time I see the game evolving. That's a lot of fun.