January 1, 2021
Orlando, Florida, USA
Camping World Stadium
Northwestern Wildcats 35, Auburn Tigers 19.
Q. Last time you were down here, you had to watch another quarterback named Peyton win the Citrus Bowl and this time you got to watch your own and see him take home an MVP. What was the game like for and you how are you feeling after that big win?
PAT FITZGERALD: Let me start with a few things here. I'm going to read them.
First and foremost, want to thank everybody at the Vrbo Citrus Bowl, Steve Hogan and Susan Fortini and their amazing staff. Our great hosts, Pat and Karen Connors, the unbelievable job by the Orlando Police Department, the police escort here is second to none at any Bowl game and we just appreciate Lieutenant and his great motorcade team that are just absolutely incredible. Everybody over at the Hyatt Regency; to the great bus drivers that got us he everywhere we needed to go while we were here. The guys had a blast at TopGolf and everybody at TopGolf, thank you so much.
Then for our seniors, undefeated in Bowl games, going 4-0 during their career. Most Bowl wins in a class in our program history. Two Big Ten West championships. And obviously undefeated against our rivals.
And then for Hank, think of about this. You want to talk about the GOAT? 580 games career games coached, most by any head coach or assistant coach in college football history. 400 career wins; 288 of those as a defensive coordinator; 11 conference championships, one National Championship, 24 ranked teams, played in 33 Bowl games, 39 winning seasons, 28 as a defensive coordinator. He's coached 15 First Team All-Americans, 70-plus NFL players and 50-plus all-conference players. Tied or broke a single season win record at five out of six schools as a DC. He coached in every New Year's Six bowl game.
There's a lot to be thankful for, our seniors, everybody here at the Vrbo Citrus Bowl and obviously Hank and our amazing staff. But especially to our players, it's been such a hard year, their sacrifice and dedication. I just walked by their parents and just thanked them.
Really proud of this group and Happy New Year to everybody, thanks. I'll answer any and all questions.
Q. You were emotional after the game, talking about Hank, seeing him celebrate with the players, and you knew this was coming but what did you say to him after the game if you needed to say much, but what it all means to you right now.
PAT FITZGERALD: Well, he's the GOAT, like the guys call him. He's the best. He's the best person. He's so humble. He's an amazing teacher. Even today, we are going and adjusting all the way till the last series. He's a coach's coach and I'm just so thankful that he and Cathy and Jake chose to come here to Northwestern. We are just so thankful for them and for Hank. He'll be my eldest; he'll have tickets wherever we play.
Q. Can you just talk about Hank when he took over the program in 2008, can you talk about the defense and how the mentality of the defense has changed over the years and how he created that mentality and brand of football in your program?
PAT FITZGERALD: Yeah I think it starts with his humility. Here is a guy who has all this success I just said and he'll never mention that. It's all about the players and all about the staff, in that order. He cares so much about each and every one of your young men. It pains him when it doesn't go great for a guy and he works so hard to teach defensive football to our staff and especially our younger staff, the time he spends with guest coaches and high school coaches, it's what coaching is all about, and I think he's raised the bar for anyone that's been around him to get to his level and that's being, you know, a great steward of the game, a great steward of life and the power of influence that you have as a coach to do everything that you can to make a positive impact in young people's lives and there's no one that's done that better than Mike Hankwitz.
Q. After the Big Ten Championship, you praised Peyton, his poise in the loss. What do you have to say about his performance and his poise and what has it been like to have a guy like Peyton in your program with his experience and his leadership?
PAT FITZGERALD: It's been everything, right. We stumbled in a couple games. But we wouldn't be where we are at today without Peyton Ramsey. Great leader. Great teammate. You can tell that he's from a coaching family and he's like having a coach out there on the field and he's really so unflappable. There were some things that went great and maybe some things that didn't go the way we wanted to today. He stayed poised, he was gritty and when he needed to make plays, even with his feet, he was decisive and that scramble touchdown there at the end was huge.
Q. Near the end of the first half when you guys were able to get those four stops in a row and force a field goal instead of Auburn scoring, how big of a moment was that in terms of just what was coming the rest of the game?
PAT FITZGERALD: I didn't catch the beginning but I think I got the gist.
We've been really lights-out all year in the red zone, and we were again here today. Again I think our guys have really, really high level of understanding of what we are trying to do down there; the execution of what we are doing schematically.
Again, I've said this all year. We took most of the Rece Davis stuff in jest, okay, but we've got really, really good football players. I mean, outstanding football players that are incredibly talented. They played a very high level down there and it will be a bar that's raised very high for the group that's coming back in 2021.
Q. In second and third quarters, you sort of let Auburn back into the game a little bit, obviously came within one, but the fourth quarter, starting with that big fourth down stop of Bo Nix, what changed?
PAT FITZGERALD: Well, the guys just talked about finishing as champions. I gave the huddle to Jesse there, you guys all know that cover us. Our guys just went and emptied the tank. I think they did it for our seniors. They did it for each other and they did it for Hank. I'm just so proud of them. It's unbelievable. I'm so proud of this group. It's been a hard year for everybody in our country. We at times feel very spoiled as college football players and coaches for sure, I feel spoiled, and I think our guys went and emptied the tank and I would be remiss without thanking Dr. Jeff Mjaanes and Kevin Kikugawa, the entire medical team and everybody at Northwestern Medicine and everybody at campus for all their amazing support; and our guys and their families for making great choices, just absolutely spectacular. Just so thankful for them.
Q. How much was this group galvanized by winning for Hank, so to speak, and how did this team come to be a Mike Hankwitz defense more so than others?
PAT FITZGERALD: Here is the bottom line. You look at multiple All-Americans, you look at guys that are going to get drafted. We have got great players. We have outstanding, incredibly talented football players and they buy into what we are doing defensively. They play for each other. They tackle well. Outside of one communication error today it would have been almost a flawless game by them.
What I love most about that group and it was two younger players that responded when we came over and we talked on the sideline, and I think that's just a hallmark of Hank's defense. He's not emotional. He just stays calm and anyone that's covered us, well, Fitz, I think we had a gap there. He's got that voice and he's just really unflappable and I think that permeates through the defense where they don't get too high and too low.
I think we are really physical and it showed up today. We played a really physical brand of football and frankly that's Big Ten football. We got asked a lot of questions this week about their speed and respectfully so, yeah, they are a fast team, but we are fast, too. I thought our guys came down here to play physical, Big Ten football, and I think we put our brand of football on display for the entire country and made a pretty strong statement against a team that was ranked in the Top-10 earlier in the year.
Q. You've talked all year about putting together a complete game. To finish out the season, what do you think overall of complementary football especially on both sides of the ball, what did you see there?
PAT FITZGERALD: I would agree. I think we played probably as complete of a game as we have all year. We were pretty much turnover-free. A couple penalties that were tough. But you know, that's going to happen in bowl games. I thought the crew was awesome from the ACC but I thought we played a pretty darned complete game. I think we were really good. Fourth down we were really good early and then the huge fourth down stop. You could just feel the air of Auburn's balloon go out and momentum completely come on our sideline. Our guys quite frankly said 'we're going to dominate the line of scrimmage' and that's what they did.
Q. What do you think it was that sparked the running game going late in the game?
PAT FITZGERALD: I think we wore them down. It was hot, man. I don't know how nice the TV was to me, but man, I was sweating my rear end off, so you know the guys were out there. It was hot and I thought our guys handled it well. We didn't have anybody cramp. The way that Peter Ritz, our great nutritionist, and our medical team got our guys prepared for today.
But the credit goes to our players. We got down -- that's why I wanted to get down here early. I thought being here for our Thursday practice was going to be really important for our guys to have the mindset of what the weather would be like. We haven't seen a day this warm since maybe on the road at Stanford two years ago, and I thought the guys handled it incredibly well.
Q. You mentioned the idea of raising the bar and making a statement. What do you want people to think about when they think about Northwestern Football now compared to several years ago?
PAT FITZGERALD: Champions. We are Big Ten West Champs. We are Vrbo Citrus Bowl champions. We are knocking on the door to where we want to get this program to consistently be winning Big Ten Championships and to be in the Big Ten Championship game now two-out-of-three years, I think speaks about where we are at. Again, the credit goes to our players, especially the seniors and our great staff. But this thing is rolling, and you know, there's so much interest recruiting-wise, it's unbelievable.
So I couldn't be more excited. I know our staff is fired up. We are going to take a week and exhale. It's been a grind; and be husbands and fathers and just recharge and then when we get back in January, we'll get going on finishing up who we add, the pieces of the puzzle personnel-wise and get rolling with winter workouts and spring ball.
Q. Obviously 24 years since your last-ever college football game in the Citrus Bowl in '97. Any catharsis today, winning that game finally?
PAT FITZGERALD: Well, I'll tell you this. We played a ridiculous team in that Tennessee team and Auburn is incredibly talented. That group is full of four- and five-star players and are incredibly well-coached. They are going through a little bit right now.
To lead our guys to four straight bowl championships is something that I'm incredibly proud of, especially when -- Dave Eanet said it to me this morning, "Hey, Coach, congratulations on making it to your tenth Bowl game." I remember just how hard the heavy lifting was to get to one and then get our first Bowl win and now to get to four straight, the credit all goes to our players and our staff and I am so incredibly proud of them and so thankful for them.
Thanks a lot, everybody. Greatly appreciate it. Have a wonderful, wonderful new year and we'll see you in spring ball. Thanks a lot. Go 'Cats. Happy New Year.
FastScripts Transcript by ASAP Sports