Fitzgerald wins vs. Wisconsin W33-31 Nov. 21, 2009

Fitz’s Playbook: A SESP Education

By Anne Stein

Just days after the Northwestern Wildcats celebrated their 2018 Holiday Bowl victory, head football coach Pat Fitzgerald has four hours of meetings scheduled with the defensive coaching staff in a single day. Back at his desk in the Walter Athletics Center, he resumes his usual pace, devoting each minute of the day to advancing Northwestern football.

A two-time All-American linebacker with the ’Cats in the mid-1990s, Fitzgerald played a key role in that era’s dramatic turnaround of Northwestern’s football program. Back then, the student-athlete who went by “Fitz” was likened to Chicago Bears great Dick Butkus—but with a style “more brainy than barbarian,” as Sports Illustrated observed. Two decades later, Coach Fitz is known as a gifted motivator who stresses education—and whose players have made nine bowl appearances in 13 years.

What may be news to many fans is that the School of Education and Social Policy is where Fitzgerald (BS97) laid the foundation for his future, studying how people and organizations develop and thrive.

With small classes fostering a team mentality and family atmosphere, along with a transdisciplinary curriculum emphasizing leadership, SESP is particularly appealing to student-athletes who, in the Fitz mold, want to guide others and inspire change on and off the field. Eleven of the football team’s 21 SESP students earned Academic All–Big Ten honors last fall; overall, the football program earned a record and Big Ten–best 60 honors. “A SESP education is perfect for those who want to be CEOs, lead organizations, or run companies, because it emphasizes the human aspect,” Fitzgerald says. “It offered me the best way to prepare for my current role. My job is about inspiring people—and that’s what leadership is all about.”

As an undergraduate, Fitzgerald studied learning and organizational change (then called organizational studies), the SESP concentration that centers on people and their roles in families, teams, nonprofits, corporations, and other organizations.

“My classes focused on how to build genuine relationships, work with others, and find common ground when you don’t agree,” Fitzgerald says. “They also stressed what is particularly relevant in football: how to create a culture, a vision, and a set of values that everyone stands for and lives up to.”

Since becoming head coach, Fitzgerald has helped build and grow Chicago’s Big Ten team in part by giving players a voice and letting them elect a 12-member leadership council. He meets weekly with the council to discuss everything from locker-room issues to uniforms for the next game.

“That core group gets a lot of trust,” says director of player development Jacob Schmidt (BS11, MSHE14), who has worked for and with Fitzgerald for 12 years, first as a player and now as a staff member. “Their job is to be the connection between players and coaches. They have a ton of ownership, and it’s paid off.”

Preparing student-athletes for life after football is no less important to Coach Fitz than inspiring them to excel on the field. SESP sophomore Jeremy Larkin knows this from experience: after receiving a diagnosis of cervical stenosis, he was forced to retire from the game in 2018. Heeding Fitzgerald’s advice, he stayed with his football family as a mentor on staff.

Jeremy Larkin (center)

“I’m focusing on leadership and teamwork skills that you learn at SESP as well as those shown by Coach Fitz,” Larkin says. “He helped me throughout the process. It was a true testament to what he says during recruiting: you’re important as a person, not just as a football player.”

That’s also why Northwestern football runs an individual mentoring program, which pairs every sophomore on the team with a former player. The two stay together for at least three years, but in many cases the relationships are much longer. Now in its 11th year, the program includes 25 players and nearly 100 football alumni. “It’s a way for our alums to truly have an impact,” says Schmidt, who participated in the program as a player, stays in touch with mentor Marc Hujik, and now runs the program.

SESP is a unique school, but “I’d call it the School of Education and Leadership Development,” Fitzgerald says, flashing a smile. “Who doesn’t want to develop as a leader?”

Understanding People Makes Anything Possible - Just Ask A Couple Of 'Cats

D’Wayne Bates (BS98) was one of several former athletes among the record turnout of SESP alumni at the school’s Reunion Weekend luncheon last fall. A former wide receiver with the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings, Bates earned a graduate degree after retiring from football and is passionate about lifelong learning and working with youth. Since 2015 he has been assistant principal for athletics at Glenbard East High School in Lombard, Illinois. “I’m always telling the kids, ‘There’s victory in loss. Go back and study what went wrong,’” Bates says. “Twenty years after learning it at Northwestern, I still utilize that in life.”

Also attending the lunch was Gerald Conoway (BS99), a teammate of Pat Fitzgerald during the Wildcats’ 1995 Rose and 1996 Citrus Bowl seasons. Conoway was drawn to psychology and teaching and majored in human development and psychological services, the SESP concentration that explores how people are influenced by family, group, and organizational dynamics.

That knowledge translated to the football field and later to the workforce, says Conoway, who landed a position in labor relations at General Motors immediately after graduation. Now he is a GM human resources manager, dealing with benefits, hiring, firing, and other issues for some 4,300 employees.

“SESP emphasizes building relationships, understanding people from different walks of life, learning to talk with them, and getting your point across,” Conoway says. “You learn flexible ways of thinking and you work in groups, which teaches you how to collaborate.”

SESP sophomore Jonathan Sun spent most of the luncheon in conversation with Bates and Conoway. That night he wrote three takeaways in his journal: Trust the process. Working in education makes other things possible. And his favorite: don’t regret your past—it has created the person you are today.

To join other SESP alumni and students at the 2019 Reunion Weekend luncheon, contact Shelena Johnson at