His voice was hoarse and tears fell from his eyes. Pat Fitzgerald understood the moment’s significance as he hoisted the Gator Bowl trophy.
He looked down from the podium on EverBank Field, seeing Northwestern’s winningest-ever senior class. He spotted former Wildcat teammate Sam Valensizi crying tears of joy. He watched as generations of fans rejoiced the triumph.
In the back of his mind, Northwestern’s new all-time leader in wins envisioned a bright future for his alma mater. On the forefront of his focus was a program-defining victory.
“This one goes to all the Wildcats that have been here before us,” an emotional Fitzgerald said after the 34-20 victory over Mississippi State.
With his team gathered around for a photograph to commemorate the victory, Fitzgerald provided some perspective.
“You’ll remember this in 50 years,” he told the team before the cameras flashed, capturing a team that will be forever remembered in Northwestern lure. It’s the team that made history, and provided a catalyst for future success.
The celebration started with one minute and four seconds remaining on the clock—when Quentin Williams secured the victory with a sack—and continued on long after the game’s final whistle.
“Coach Fitz had to yell at us to get into the locker room,” said senior linebacker David Nwabuisi. “I wanted to be on the field forever with those guys. I love my teammates. It was just a great feeling.”
The sentiment was felt by the Wildcats. They embraced each other in celebration, but had those that came before them in mind.
Being a part of the locker room in years past was really, really tough,” senior guard Brian Mulroe said. “This one’s for all the guys that have played in the last 63 years.”
Inside the locker room, Fitzgerald had a surprise in store. It was the stuffed monkey, which served as a symbol for Northwestern’s bowl futility. Fitzgerald snuck it into the team’s equipment bag, with the hopes his team could destroy it in a postgame celebration. All that remained of the toy was the head, which was presented at the press-conference podium.
It was Northwestern’s fifth-consecutive bowl berth—another high-water mark for the program—but that was irrelevant. In order for NU to take a step forward, with the hopes of becoming a championship team, it had to erase its infamous past.
“I’m just ecstatic for our young men, especially our seniors,” Fitzgerald said. “I'm ecstatic for everyone that's ever supported Northwestern football, and those that have been here before. It's been a long road to get the win.”
Hanging inside the Northwestern team-meeting room is a large placard which lists the program’s hierarchy of goals. The Wildcats, after falling short nine times prior, achieved their ultimate goal. One era ended and new one began.
“It's great to be a champion, and I'm very thankful for our young men,” Fitzgerald said. “Very thankful for our staff, and incredibly thankful for our fans, all of those that have stuck with us throughout the years. Chicago's Big Ten team is going to come back as Chicago's Big Ten champions.”