The other cleat has dropped.
Former Northwestern University head football coach Pat Fitzgerald is suing the school that fired him earlier this summer, demanding at least $130 million in damages.
“My client’s career was decimated based on no evidence,” said Fitzgerald’s lawyer Dan Webb, in announcing the lawsuit on Thursday.
Fitzgerald, a star linebacker at NU and head coach for 17 years, was let go by university President Michael Schill in July, just three days after the coach and school had agreed to only a two-week suspension in connection with hazing claims from a former player.
Webb said Schill inexplicably went back on that agreement following an article in the student newspaper, The Daily Northwestern, where the former player outlined alleged hazing specifics.
“It appears that Schill didn’t like the heat” after reading the article, and changed his mind, breaking a promise to Fitzgerald about only getting a two-week suspension, Webb said.
That promise, Webb said, was an oral agreement, and breaking it amounts to breach of contract.
Webb said the original whistleblower was the same person who made an anonymous complaint to the university last fall, which led to an outside investigation and the two-week suspension.
That outside investigator, Webb noted, did not find any direct evidence that Fitzgerald was aware of hazing, nor, Webb said, was there any new evidence in the Daily Northwestern article.
The lawsuit, filed in Cook County Circuit Court, says, “If Fitzgerald had ever learned of any hazing in the Northwestern football program he would have stopped it immediately and taken remedial action. However, at no time during his coaching career at Northwestern did he ever learn of any hazing within the football program.”
The attorney said that the whistleblower in question had a grudge against Northwestern and Coach Fitzgerald, engaged in “bizarre behavior” during the 2022 season, and had told other members of the team that he would “make false allegations of hazing against NU and Fitzgerald.”
Webb said that other than normal locker room horseplay, there was “not much” of anything which could remotely be called hazing in NU football.
But after the original whistleblower allegations, more than a dozen lawsuits were filed by former players claiming there was indeed hazing, sometimes involving sexual harassment or with racial overtones.
Without commenting on the specifics of those former player lawsuits, Webb said in some instances, complaints are filed in search of “a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.”
In a statement from the University regarding the lawsuit, NU said that “as head coach of the football program for 17 years … Fitzgerald was responsible for the conduct of the program. he had the responsibility to know that hazing was occurring and to stop it. He failed to do so.”
The statement said that the original independent investigation corroborated that hazing “took place on Fitzgerald’s watch,” and states that NU remains confident “that the University acted appropriately in terminating Fitzgerald and we will vigorously defend our position in court.”
The statement said that the outside investigation found that “multiple current or former student athletes acknowledged that hazing took place ….”
That’s a direct contradiction to Webb’s conclusion that “the investigation did not uncover evidence pointing to any hazing by players or coaches.”
Webb said he has approached Northwestern about a possible out of court settlement, but NU said no.
The $130 million demand in damages covers $68 million for what would have been Fitzgerald’s contract through 2031, and $62 million for lost future income.
The total, Webb said, could go beyond that if the jury agrees to punitive damages to punish NU, as well as for inflicting emotional distress and defamation of Fitzgerald’s character.
“I know how to get a big verdict of defamation,” Webb said.
Attorneys representing the 13 former Northwestern football players who sued the university issued a statement Thursday afternoon saying, in part, that “The filing of the lawsuit by former coach Patrick Fitzgerald is clearly all about financial gain and is incredibly tone deaf in defending his actions.”
The statement says “given the head coach’s proximity he knew or should have known what was happening in his program. This is the legal standard.”
The former players’ lawyers also say Fitzgerald’s lawsuit “re-traumatizes our clients and is utterly insensitive to the experience of a survivor of sexual assault and hazing.”
Attorneys issuing the statement are from the firms of Levin & Perconti, Ben Crump Law, Romanucci & Blandin, and Hart McLaughhlin & Eldridge.
Those attorneys also disputed a comment from Fitzgerald lawyer Dan Webb that “no significant hazing occurred at Northwestern under Fitzgerald’s watch and what happened was merely ‘horseplay.’”