Northwestern begins its 2023 football season Sept. 3 at Rutgers.
Whether Pat Fitzgerald will be on the sidelines for the Wildcats’ opener was the subject of intense speculation Saturday after spilling new details about the murky incidents that led to an outside investigation and a two-week suspension without pay for the veteran coach.
The explosive report in the student newspaper, The Daily Northwestern, detailed a former player’s account of the incidents.
The former player described a practice called “running,” in which primarily first-year players were punished for mistakes on the field by being restrained in a dark locker room by eight to 10 upperclassmen wearing masks who would “hump dry” the younger player. Another player confirmed these details to the paper.
Northwestern announced Fitzgerald’s suspension Friday while releasing a summary of external investigator Maggie Hickey’s findings. The summary did not detail the hazing, but said Hickey found evidence to corroborate an anonymous whistleblower’s report of the incidents.
In an email response to a Tribune inquiry about Saturday’s Daily Northwestern report, university spokesman Jon Yates said: “Our first priority is to support and protect our students, including the young man who brought these matters to our attention, and all student-athletes who had the courage to come forward in this independent investigation.
“That is why the university immediately began this investigation when we learned of the allegations and why we took decisive action once we established the facts. Out of respect for the privacy of our student-athletes, we will not comment on the findings above what we said in the release and summary of the study.”
While the summary said there was “insufficient evidence to believe the coaching staff knew about the ongoing hazing behavior,” Hickey’s investigation determined “there had been significant opportunities to detect and report the hazing behavior.”
Fitzgerald said in a statement Friday that he was “very disappointed” to learn of the blurb and that the university holds its student-athletes “to the highest standards.”
Although Fitzgerald was unaware of the incidents, his reputation has taken a significant hit. As a board member of the Positive Coaching Alliance, Fitzgerald once made a video where he said his program had a “zero tolerance” policy regarding hazing.
“There’s no need to ever have it,” he said in the video. “I know there are many initiations and traditions and things like that. And we had that back here, frankly, when I was a player in some different ways.
“But society has evolved, and since we’ve really thought deeply about how we want to welcome our new family members into our programs and into our organizations, obscurity shouldn’t have anything to do with it.”
But apparently the players in his program didn’t heed that message. The former player told The Daily Northwestern that he witnessed “absolutely egregious and disgusting and inhumane behavior” by fellow players.
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The newspaper also obtained images from whiteboards that, according to the former player, listed the names of players to be “run”. The former player said the ritual was performed during training camp and around Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays under the guise of “team bonding.”
Other actions the former player described to the paper included rookies being forced to strip naked and do bear crawls or “sling themselves across the floor with exercise bands.” He also described the “car wash,” in which players twirled around naked at the shower entrance and other players were forced to rub up against them, as well as an act in which a freshman center and freshman quarterback were forced to get into position and perform a snap naked.
In addition to Fitzgerald’s suspension, Northwestern announced Friday what it called “significant actions to prevent hazing within its football program,” including permanently closing training camps in Kenosha and implementing several anti-hazing measures.
Investigators interviewed more than 50 people and reviewed hundreds of thousands of emails to determine the whistleblower’s allegations “were largely supported by the evidence,” according to the summary.
Fitzgerald, a former star linebacker at Northwestern from 1993-96, became head coach in 2006 at age 31, replacing Randy Walker, who died of a heart attack. Fitzgerald received a 10-year contract extension in 2021 after taking his team to the Big Ten championship for the second time in three years.
He is the winningest football coach in NU history with a career record of 110-101 in 17 seasons. While the Wildcats suffered through 11 straight losses in 2022 after winning their opener against Nebraska in Ireland, Fitzgerald’s job was never rumored to be in jeopardy.
But after Saturday’s Daily Northwestern report, calls for Fitzgerald’s ouster have begun.