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Ex-coach sues Northwestern for $130M for wrongful termination in hazing scandal

Then-Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald stands on the sideline during a game against Michigan on Oct. 23, 2021, in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Carlos Osorio
Then-Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald stands on the sideline during a game against Michigan on Oct. 23, 2021, in Ann Arbor, Mich.

CHICAGO — Former Northwestern University football coach Pat Fitzgerald is suing the school for $130 million, saying his alma mater wrongfully fired him in the wake of a hazing and abuse scandal that has engulfed the athletic department.

The announcement by Chicago-based attorneys Dan K. Webb and Matthew R. Carter on Thursday comes nearly three months after Fitzgerald was suspended and then fired after 17 years.

Attorney Webb said that Fitzgerald would also be seeking additional money for "infliction of emotional distress," future lost income and punitive damages. The $130 million includes $68 million remaining in owed salary plus $62 million in future lost income, Webb added. The suit is being filed in Cook County Circuit Court against the university and its President Michael Schill, he said.

"If there was ever a coach at Northwestern University who should have not been terminated, it's Coach Fitzgerald," Webb said.

The 48-year-old Fitzgerald was suspended for two weeks on July 7 following an investigation by attorney Maggie Hickey of law firm ArentFox Schiff. That probe did not find "sufficient" evidence that the coaching staff knew about ongoing hazing, but concluded there were "significant opportunities" to find out about it.

Three days later, following the publication in the Daily Northwestern student newspaper of stories alleging both hazing and racism in the football program, the school changed its stance and fired Fitzgerald. President Schill said at the time the hazing was "widespread" and not a secret within the program.

"As head coach of the football program for 17 years, Patrick 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," said a statement from Northwestern University released Thursday.

Multiple current and former football student-athletes acknowledged that hazing took place in the football program during the six-month independent investigation into the issue, the university's statement said, adding that "Student-athletes across a range of years corroborated these findings, showing beyond question that hazing – which included nudity and sexualized acts – took place on Fitzgerald's watch."

"The safety of our students remains our highest priority, and we deeply regret that any student-athletes experienced hazing. We remain confident that the University acted appropriately in terminating Fitzgerald and we will vigorously defend our position in court," the statement said.

Northwestern is facing more than a dozen lawsuits across multiple sports with allegations including sexual abuse of players by teammates, as well as racist comments by coaches and race-based assaults. Baseball coach Jim Foster was fired July 13 amid allegations of a toxic culture that included bullying and abusive behavior.

Fitzgerald's dismissal capped a rapid fall from grace for someone who seemed entrenched at his alma mater. He was an All-American linebacker, a star on the 1995 team that won the Big Ten and reached the Rose Bowl after decades of losing at Northwestern.

Fitzgerald led the Wildcats to a 110-101 record and — by a wide margin — more wins than any other coach. Northwestern won Big Ten West championships in 2018 and 2020, plus five bowl games. But the team went 4-20 over his last two seasons.

Defensive coordinator David Braun was elevated to interim coach six months after joining Fitzgerald's staff.

Just over two months ago, Northwestern hired former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch to lead an investigation into the culture of its athletic department and its anti-hazing procedures. The university announced no timetable for the investigation but said the results will be made public, unlike those of the previous investigation.

In August, assistant football coaches and staff members wore black shirts with " Cats Against the World " and Fitzgerald's old number "51" in purple type at practice that athletic director Derrick Gragg said were "inappropriate, offensive and tone deaf." About a week later, approximately 1,000 former Northwestern athletes sent a letter condemning hazing while defending the school's culture, saying allegations of abuse within the football program and other men's and women's teams do not reflect their experiences.

The turmoil came as the school is trying to gain approval to build a new Ryan Field. The plans call for a state-of-the-art facility featuring a reduced seating capacity and greater emphasis on the fan experience.

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

The Associated Press
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