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Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald is fired following hazing investigation

Northwestern Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald was fired following an investigation into hazing allegations within the football program.
Carlos Osorio
/
AP
Northwestern Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald was fired following an investigation into hazing allegations within the football program.

Pat Fitzgerald has been relieved as head coach of the Northwestern University football team following an investigation into hazing allegations. Though the university said there was no "sufficient" evidence that coaches knew about the misconduct, its president said Fitzgerald "should have known."

University President Michael Schill initially issued Fitzgerald a two-week suspension without pay on Friday after reviewing the investigation's executive summary. "However," Schill said in a letter to the community on Saturday, "upon reflection, I believe I may have erred in weighing the appropriate sanction for Coach Fitzgerald."

Schill published another letter on Monday announcing that he decided to part ways with Fitzgerald after spending the weekend deep in thought and in discussions with university leaders, students, alumni and Fitzgerald himself.

While Schill was weighing his options, the university's student newspaper, The Daily Northwestern, published an article detailing a former player's experience with hazing within the program. A second player confirmed the details of the hazing incidents.

"The head coach is ultimately responsible for the culture of his team. The hazing we investigated was widespread and clearly not a secret within the program, providing Coach Fitzgerald with the opportunity to learn what was happening," Schill wrote. "Either way, the culture in Northwestern Football, while incredible in some ways, was broken in others."

Representatives for Fitzgerald did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but in a statement to ESPN, the coach said the university investigation "reaffirmed what I have always maintained — that I had no knowledge whatsoever of any form of hazing within the Northwestern Football Program."

Due to the confidentiality of the report, Schill said, it would not be made available to the public. However, the president did publish a summary of some of the findings. They conclude:

  • Eleven current or former players acknowledged that hazing has been taking place within the program.
  • The hazing included "forced participation, nudity and sexualized acts of a degrading nature" in violation of university policies.
  • No students are known to have suffered a physical injury as a result of the hazing
  • Some players found the hazing to be harmful with long-term consequences, while others felt the rituals were in jest.
  • Hazing practices were well-known within the program, but there's no credible evidence that Fitzgerald was aware of them.
  • The university is also implementing a slew of changes in the wake of the hazing report. The football team will no longer hold practices at "Camp Kenosha" in Wisconsin, where some of the hazing incidents may have started; the university is creating an online space for student athletes to anonymously report incidents; mandatory anti-hazing training for all coaches, staff and athletes; and the football locker room will be monitored by someone who doesn't report to the coaching staff.

    According to the investigation summary, the university received an anonymous email from a former student complaining about hazing within the football program at the end of November 2022. Northwestern immediately brought in Maggie Hickey, an internal investigator with the law firm ArentFox Schiff and a former Illinois inspector general, to look into the allegations.

    Hickey's team interviewed more than 50 people with ties to the football program, and sifted through "hundreds of thousands of emails" and player survey data as far back as 2014, the summary says. The investigation didn't uncover any evidence of misconduct tied to specific players or coaching staff. But it did reveal that most players were either participants in the hazing practices or aware of them.

    And though there wasn't enough evidence to suggest the coaches knew hazing was taking place, the investigation summary says there were "significant opportunities" to discover and report the misconduct.

    Fitzgerald, 48, is a former Wildcat player, Sports Illustrated-Defensive Player of the year and College Football Hall of Famer from the mid-90s. He was hired by Northwestern in 2001 as a secondary defensive coach and recruiting coordinator. And in July 2006, then assistant coach Fitzgerald was named head coach after his predecessor, Randy Walker, died on June 29, 2006.

    In his 17 years as head of Wildcat football, Fitzgerald brought the team to 10 bowl games with five victories and was named the 2018 Big Ten Coach of the Year. And according to ESPN, Fitzgerald is the most winningest coach in the university's history.

    Northwestern has yet to name Fitzgerald's replacement, but Schill said in his letter Monday that a new head coach would be named in the coming days. ESPN is reporting that defensive coordinator David Braun is expected to be made acting coach.

    Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Corrected: July 11, 2023 at 12:00 AM EDT
    An earlier version of this story mistakenly said Pat Fitzgerald became head coach in 2004. In fact, he became head coach in 2006.
    Dustin Jones is a reporter for NPR's digital news desk. He mainly covers breaking news, but enjoys working on long-form narrative pieces.