Girardi, Fitzgerald share common bond

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New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi (28) during

New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi (28) during batting practice prior to the game against the Boston Red Sox at Yankee Stadium. (June 6, 2011) Photo Credit: Christopher Pasatieri

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Erik Boland Newsday columnist Erik Boland

Boland has been at Newsday since 2002. Boland started at Newsday covering girls soccer, basketball and lacrosse, and

CHICAGO

Pat Fitzgerald dated the origin of his friendship with Joe Girardi to 2008.

"My wife and I were going to New York," the Northwestern football coach said in a phone interview this week. "I wanted to go and say hi to Joe, and that's how it started."

But it actually was well before that, albeit indirectly.

After the 1995 baseball season, Girardi, then with the Rockies, and his wife, Kim, both Northwestern graduates, headed to Italy -- "our first real vacation," he said -- on a tour.

At the time, much of the college football world, one Girardi closely follows, was captivated by the rags-to-riches resurgence taking place in Evanston, Ill., with Northwestern. The Wildcats were on their way to the first of their back-to-back Big Ten titles and first Rose Bowl berth since 1949.

"I would stay up really late to check the scores of Northwestern," Girardi said of the Italy trip. "And I was just always fond of the way he played the game."

That was Fitzgerald, a nails-tough middle linebacker who led one of the nation's top defenses. He became a two-time Bronko Nagurski and Chuck Bednarik Award winner and, in 2008, a College Football Hall of Fame inductee.

And when Fitzgerald, named Northwestern's head coach in 2006 after the sudden death of Randy Walker, contacted Girardi in 2008, the Yankees' manager was thrilled to take the call.

"I just have a lot of respect for what he does," Girardi said.

They have kept in continual contact since then. Girardi texts Fitzgerald often and makes trips, such as to the Outback Bowl against Auburn in January 2010, when the baseball schedule allows. Fitzgerald, 34-29 in five seasons, and his wife, Stacy, have made trips to spring training in Tampa the last two years.

Beyond the obvious bond the 36-year-old Fitzgerald and 46-year-old Girardi share -- "we're both Wildcats, it starts there," Fitzgerald said -- the two speak the common language of coaches.

"Everybody loves you when you're winning," laughed Fitzgerald, signed to an extension last month that takes him through the 2020 season. "It's good to have someone to count on when it's not going as well."

Noting Fitzgerald's endless enthusiasm, Girardi recalled Northwestern's 70-23 loss at Wisconsin last Nov. 27, when freshman kick returner Venric Mark took one back 94 yards for a touchdown for the Wildcats.

"They were getting beat pretty bad, a young kid ran a kickoff back, and when that kid came off the field, he picked him up," Girardi said, gesturing that Fitzgerald "picked up" Mark in the literal sense. "In a lot of situations, where you're getting beat by 40 points . . . there's not that much excitement, but he understood what it meant to the kid. I like to watch him because he keeps it in perspective and it's a great reminder to me."

Girardi, who has an industrial engineering degree from Northwestern, added: "When I watch him coach, it would be someone who I'd want my son [Dante] to play for because he has a ton of passion, he has a ton of energy, he's a huge encourager and education comes first."

The two don't see each other often, though they will Saturday. Fitzgerald and some of his staff will be pregame guests of Girardi at Wrigley Field.

Fitzgerald is from the Chicago area and described himself as a "card-carrying" White Sox fan, though "blood is thicker than water," so he's become a Yankees fan as well. This weekend against the Cubs won't present much conflict.

"He's been great to me," said Fitzgerald, who would like Girardi, baseball season permitting, to serve as an honorary captain before a Northwestern game. "I'm thankful to have been able to strike up a relationship with him . . . He's just an inspiration. To know the expectations, the microscope the manager of the Yankees is under, and to see how humble and gracious he is, is an incredible inspiration to me."

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