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December 31, 2020

Pat Fitzgerald

Orlando, Florida, USA

Camping World Stadium

Northwestern Wildcats

Q. How are you feeling about your team with the Vrbo Citrus Bowl on deck?

PAT FITZGERALD: Well, first of all, I want to say thank you to everybody here at the Vrbo Citrus Bowl for an amazing couple days for our guys. They have had a blast. It's been a lot of fun. We got a great workday in yesterday. We finished up kind of what you would call your normal Thursday practice of game week. Then the guys had some fun over at Topgolf and have just been enjoying the sun and the pool and an opportunity to really do some things that we weren't able to do a whole lot, and that's just basically be in a bubble here together and just enjoy the weather and enjoy the good times.

This time of the year, as a coach, you think about a little bit in the past of what this team has meant. You obviously think a lot about the seniors and all that they have done, and you know, just such a special group and an amazing, amazing success that they have had. This senior class has been terrific.

And obviously Mike Hankwitz, wrapping up year 51. We usually do a senior kind of tunnel to walk those seniors off yesterday, but it was for Coach Hank. A lot of emotions and a lot of smiles and a lot of great memories.

Awesome opportunity tomorrow, huge challenge but I know our guys will be excited to compete.

Q. I was at the game when the purple went to Pasadena also came here. You started that game 25 years ago. There was a special culture about that group. The camaraderie of it all, it captured the attention of the nation -- I remember Musso being on the team and others. Talk about the guy that wears 51 now and what makes this group? How would you compare that group of 25 years ago and this generation of guys and how they have been able to put together a season like this?

PAT FITZGERALD: Well, we have come a long way in 25 years as a program. I mean, the architect of that was obviously Gary Barnett and his staff and then Coach Walker and the staff that I was able to be a part of. Wasn't a part of the 2000 championship team but that staff was able to get it done.

Now where we are at, 25 years later, the foundations that we started with back then are still the hallmarks of our program, the brotherhood, the chemistry, the playing for each other are still things that we talk about daily around here. The attitude that it takes to be a winner, the investment that it takes to be successful consistently and it's things that we value and that we stress.

As far as Blake compared to me, I would never -- I get asked that about a lot of linebackers I've had the privilege to be the coach for. I would never insult their athleticism comparing any athlete to me. To say that I was marginally a starter would be very accurate. I just had great D-Line front of me and I just got my name called after a couple tackles. Very thankful, though, to represent that group of men back 25 years ago. Not only as the head coach here but as their teammate.

And a lot of the things we have is reunions and things that we get to be a part of as a group a lot of times, because of the accolades, I get my name called. But it has nothing to do with me and had as all to do with that group.

Same this year, it has all to do as a team. We have won as a team in my time here. That's typically our success has been as a team. But man. We have got some really, really special individual players on this group, and just really thankful for them.

Q. You played great run defense all season and the Big Ten Championship Game didn't go the way you wanted. What do you think of Auburn's ability to run the ball with a back like Bigsby?

PAT FITZGERALD: Yeah, he's outstanding. They have had to shuffle a few O-linemen in and out there, but they haven't skipped a beat. Chad does a good job schematically, you know, motions, you know, different quarterback run aspects that keep you honest, and then their play-action pass game off of their base runs makes it really challenging across the board.

The Big Ten Championship Game we hope is an anomaly. We had some guys not execute fundamentals and technique the way that we believe in here defensively, which then created two gaps for our linebackers to have to fit into. And as someone that understands gap control defense like I do, you can't be successful with that as a kind of recipe.

So I'm not going to sugarcoat it. I was incredibly disappointed in our performance in the front seven against Ohio State. Some things we were able to correct and fix here getting ready for the game.

And then other things we have a lot of work this off-season. Like everybody, we didn't have a complete off-season. We have got a lot of work to do on our front seven moving forward and that will start in earnest when we get back going in January.

For the most part we have been pretty solid all year but that's because we have executed. And if we don't execute tomorrow, we'll have a repeat performance, and that's not the plan.

Q. Peyton Ramsey, named after Peyton Manning, playing in a Bowl game where you faced Peyton Manning almost 25 years ago. Obviously comparing Peyton to Peyton is sort of a big comparison but in this big game, do you think he could have like a Peyton Manning-type performance?

PAT FITZGERALD: I hope so. Auburn's defense is really good. I think Coach Steele does a terrific job and they have great athletes and I really like what they do schematically and present a lot of issues at all three levels.

Yeah, I think Peyton has just been spectacular for us. I know he's excited to play. Really thankful that he came to be part of our program and the way that he worked relentlessly to build relationships with the guys and the way he has been all year has been terrific.

Q. Coach Hankwitz, his track record speaks for itself. How would you characterize him as a person?

PAT FITZGERALD: First of all, I would say this: He's the most humble man I've ever been around. With the success that he's had at every stop defensively; the impact he's had on young men every stop he's been at; the coaches that he's developed at every stop he's been at, you would never -- you'll never meet a more humble man than Mike Hankwitz. He's fiercely competitive. He loves the challenge each week of putting together a game plan, the nuances schematically.

But he is the doctor of fundamentals, and that's something that when we talked a number of years ago when we brought Mike here and Cathy and Jac; that we talked about wanting to be the most fundamentally sound defense and football team in the Big Ten, and if you do that, you put yourself in that kind of conversation in a country, that will lead to consistent success when it comes to on the football field.

Those are things that he stressed to me and we've kind of made the hallmark of our program. And so I think tomorrow will be pretty emotional for a lot of us, knowing it's his last game, but I'm just so thankful that he's touched my life. We would not be where we're at as a program, and I would not be where I'm at as a head coach without him and just really thankful.

As a man, there's nobody better.

Q. Obviously this season Brandon Joseph has been on a tear, first-team All-American, first-team Big Ten. What do you remember about his redshirt freshman year where he was working on the scout team? And also he obviously committed to Northwestern after committing from Texas Tech. Do you remember anything about the process, having to flip him from Lubbock to Evanston?

PAT FITZGERALD: Yeah, last year, we obviously had a little bit more depth at safety, and so he was really close to being in the mix as a true freshman. We played the redshirt game rule with him and got him in some games. He was really awesome in the kick game in some limited snaps at safety.

You know, probably where we noticed him the most, we got eight spring practices in and we were putting a new offense in with Jak, and a couple, I think it was maybe start of the second week and we are watching practice tape and Mike Bajakian and learning names and get to know everybody and he goes, "Man, that 16 is always at the ball that, young man is awesome. What's his name?"

I'm like, "It's Brandon Joseph, I think you're going to get to know him pretty well." At any rate, there's no surprise here for us.

And as far as Brandon's recruitment, I'd defer to Brandon. I think we built a great relationship with him. He made an initial decision and then reached back out to us and said that he was going to open up his recruiting and he became a Wildcat.

Q. You were just named the Dodd Trophy Coach of the Year. Can you talk about what that honor means to you to get that award this year and what's the season been like for you?

PAT FITZGERALD: It's humbling, and it's a program award. It starts with our players, the sacrifice, the dedication, the playing for each other and obviously their success on the field speaks for itself and I'm very honored and proud to be their coach. It's obviously a staff award. I've already talked about Hank. Can't speak about him enough. I think Jak's been a really calming force for our offense and again, we are only eight games into it, so we are just going to continue to get better on that side of the ball.

Obviously Matt MacPherson has done a great job with our secondary. Phenomenal, phenomenal season. Timmy McGarigle and Marty Long have done a great job with our linebackers and D-Line. I've been really impressed with the job Kurt Anderson has job with our O-Line since he's got here. And Bob Heffner and Dennis Springer have done a great job with our wide-outs teaching a new scheme and offense. And I just think Lou Ayeni a special, special coach and you see the job he's doing with our running backs.

It's a program award and it's an honor and it's humbling for me to represent the program. And the Dodd Trophy from a scholarship standpoint, the character, the integrity, it's truly an honor to join that club. Because it's not just about wins and losses; it's about the way you develop men and we as a program take pride in being the best player development program in the country and best player development program staff in the country, so it's a great honor.

Q. Kevin Steele was just on and he mentioned that he thinks that you're for sure a future Hall of Famer. What's it like going against an opponent that has that much respect for you and does that change your mindset approaching this game?

PAT FITZGERALD: Well, I appreciate Coach Steele's kind words. He's going to get in the Hall of Fame before I am, there's no doubt about that; the defenses that he's coached, and he's done a terrific job.

But it's not about me. I've been doing this a long time. It's about our players and our staff. Appreciative of the kind words, but like anything, positive or negative words, right. You know, sugar or hate, it doesn't matter when that ball goes up in the air. It's about blocking and tackling, throwing and catching and playing the game plan the right way and playing -- doing the things that winners do.

You saw last night, you saw it yesterday afternoon, you start putting really good teams matched up against each other, the turnover ratio becomes such a huge impact in the game and it's going to be important we take care of the ball and find a way to take it away from them tomorrow.

Q. You talked about player development. If I look at your two-deep, if I were to ask for a couple of names, who has come the farthest this year?

PAT FITZGERALD: I'm a big line of scrimmage guy and I just love the way that Nik Urban and Gunnar Vogel have really taken leadership roles with our offensive line. It's been great to watch both those guys in their careers as they have matured, as they have gotten stronger, as they have gotten more and more reps. It's been so much fun to watch them.

I would say the same thing on the other side of the ball. Jake Saunders has been a guy that's played so hard for us throughout his entire career, and you don't maybe necessarily hear those three names a lot.

You look at guys like that that they don't play the game because of people buying their jersey outside of their family, right. They play the game because of the love the game, and those are the type of things that get me excited. Spivak has got a social media show and he thinks he's cool, and he Earnest Brown is a ridiculous personality and amazing dancer and a lot of fun. I mean, there's a lot of personality on our D-Line. But it's kind of those guys that are behind the scenes that just show up with a hard hat and a lunch pail, those are the guys that I just truly love. Not that I love anybody less, but I love being around those kind of guys. Somebody who has their named called a lot, doesn't make any difference. It's the guys always up appropriate and just proud of those guys, to name a couple.

Q. A lot of talk in the last couple weeks and throughout the entire year, being grateful for a season being back and being able to play. Has that attitude permeated through the team the last few days in Orlando and grateful for this opportunity on sort of a different level than it usually is?

PAT FITZGERALD: No question. I think that everybody is so thankful for the opportunity to play. You know, I've said it every press conference, because I mean it. You know, the healthcare providers that have surrounded us that, have protected us, Jeff Mjaanes, Kevin Kikugawa, both their staffs, everybody at Northwestern medicine and Northwestern health have been unbelievable. We're really thankful for all their support; the group that's been with us, testing us every day. You know, it's just been tough. We're thankful.

We also understand we're in a rare position kind of in the country playing college football and being a part of that as a coach; that you feel pretty darned safe because of the choices that your guys make and the sacrifice and dedication to go the whole year during the Big Ten play without any positives, just speaks -- we're very fortunate that we were able to do that, but also the choices and decisions that our guys made.

So yeah, we are absolutely thankful and we are really thankful for all those that are providing the point of care and not only for us but across the country.

Q. There was a report that there was a positive test in the program. Is that true?

PAT FITZGERALD: I don't talk about medical things, buddy, but I appreciate the question.

Want to thank everybody here at the Vrbo Citrus Bowl for an amazing couple days.

FastScripts Transcript by ASAP Sports

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