The sheer exuberance Northwestern fans felt in Jacksonville rivaled that of a national-championship celebration, not a Gator Bowl victory. Hugs were shared and tears were shed. Those were defining moments for the program and its most loyal supporters.
Rewind some 27 hours before, a straight-faced Fitzgerald—unprovoked—offered his genuine fear for the postseason format which provided such a moment. A new four-team playoff system is set to start in 2014, bringing uncertainty to the bowl system's structure.
"I look at where we're going in college football now and I'm concerned," Fitzgerald said to the assembled media. "I'm concerned for the student-athletes' experience."
One doesn't need to explain the significance of bowl season to Fitzgerald. The former All-American linebacker was a key leader in Northwestern's first bowl berth in 46 years—an inspired run to the Rose Bowl. That Wildcat team will remember its experience forever.
"They were absolutely unbelievable experiences and times in my life that I will cherish with my teammates," he added, recalling his playing career.
Far too often, college coaches lose sight of what makes bowl season special. Instead, it provides a platform to earn a hefty bonus. Many coaches skip their team's bowl game completely as they jump ship to a new job.
For Fitzgerald and his Gator Bowl counterpart, Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen, it means much more.
Mullen expressed sincere gratitude toward the Gator Bowl's host city, as many of his Mississippi State players will visit the state of Florida for the very first time. For his senior class, which played in Jacksonville two years prior, a familiar destination wasn't to be taken for granted. Instead, it provided the platform for one final game and the chance for more memories.
"I'm a big proponent of the bowl system," Mullen said. "I think bowls are a fantastic reward. You've got to remember, the guys playing the game are student-athletes."
One can't deny the financial factor of each game. There's the base pay from each bowl, ticket revenue, merchandise sales, the influence of television, a profit for each host town, and that's just the start of it. Heck, before Fitzgerald and Mullen met the media, some guy from TaxSlayer.com stood at the podium, boring each reporter to tears.
However, it's no coincidence that the New Mexico Bowl—featuring a downtrodden Arizona team and mid-major Nevada—drew a better television audience than a college-basketball overtime thriller featuring the nation's top-ranked team. America loves its football.
The bowl system provides circumstances unique to all other sports. At the season's end, 35 teams and their fan bases can call themselves champions. Sure, the commemorative t-shirts and hats are a bit overpriced, but it's a worthy reward. Each bowl offers a memorable experience; whether it's for the game's participants for the fans. It would be a shame if that were lost.
"I think we need to have serious discussions as we move forward on how we're going to make sure the student-athlete experience stays intact," Fitzgerald said. "I sure hope when we're talking about playoff structures, that the young men don't lose a bowl experience; that we don't lose the bowl structure."
Try telling that Nevada team, gunning for a win in its coach's final game, that its season is over in November. Or cancel the travel plans of the thousands of Northern Illinois fans thrilled for a once-in-a-lifetime experience in Miami—a reward for a miraculous underdog.
Imagine if a historic victory for Northwestern—one worth the wait of 64 years—was not permitted; if the program's winningest-ever senior class missed the chance to rip a stuffed monkey to shreds; or a Pat Fitzgerald lost out on his defining moment as a head coach.
The bowl experience is a special reward, and college football simply wouldn't be the same without it.