By Teddy Greenstein, Chicago Tribune reporter
4:55 PM EDT, August 25, 2013
Pat Fitzgerald makes his rounds at 5 p.m. on Thursdays.
"He'll say, 'The office is closed in five minutes. Get out of here,'" linebackers coach Randy Bates said. "And then he'll swing by a second time to make sure."
Thursday is date night for Northwestern coaches, staff members and even the graduate assistants who aren't married.
"He wants you to go home and see your family," Bates said. "That's not the case everywhere in college football. We appreciate that."
It's one of the many reasons Fitzgerald hasn't had to look for a new assistant since after the 2010 season, when receivers coach Kevin Johns left for a promotion and higher salary at Indiana.
All nine NU assistant coaches have been with Fitzgerald since 2011. That might seem shrug-worthy, but Minnesota is the nation's only other FBS school that has kept its staff intact.
And both coordinators, quarterbacking guru Mick McCall and defensive architect Mike Hankwitz, have been with Fitzgerald since 2008.
"I am very thankful for that," the head coach said.
Among the benefits to staff retention, Bates said, is: "We all know each other, our strengths and weaknesses. If one guy is grumpy, we don't take it personally. We yell at each other (in meetings) and get after it and then we all leave on the same page."
Which coach is the grumpiest?
"I would probably be up there," Bates replied.
BTN analyst Gerry DiNardo said having the same assistants afford the players "a comfort zone. Coaches tend to use the same scheme, so you're giving every player an opportunity to learn in their four years."
The former head coach at Vanderbilt, LSU and Indiana added: "If coaches are happy, they stay. If they have opportunities, they look at them."
Hankwitz, who has worked at eight BCS programs, has nested in Evanston. Assistant head coach Jerry Brown, who mentors the defensive backs, played for Northwestern from 1969-71 and joined Gary Barnett's staff in 1993.
After NU's Gator Bowl victory made Fitzgerald the winningest coach in program history, with 50, he pointed to Brown, saying: "He got win No. 119 today."
The assistants noticed that.
Receivers coach Dennis Springer said that Fitzgerald's priorities are clear: "He tells us that nothing is more important than your faith and your family. The program comes third."
Before Fitzgerald rebuffed Michigan's overture after the 2010 season and signed a 10-year contract extension, he insisted that Northwestern beef up its salary pool for assistants.
"It was an easy buy-in on my part," NU athletic director Jim Phillips said. "We see a direct correlation between our success and retention of the staff."
Wisconsin has managed to make three straight Rose Bowls despite a revolving door among assistants. Two left after the 2009 season. Three after 2010, and six more the following year.
That turnover was among the reasons head coach Bret Bielema bolted for Arkansas. He reportedly secured a $3 million pool for assistant coaches at Arkansas, about $1 million more than he had at his disposal in Madison.
Fitzgerald praised NU's administration for producing "competitive salaries," and Phillips said the university has gotten "creative" with bonuses and supplemental income to combat the high cost of living on the North Shore.
Many of the coaches live on the border of Evanston and Skokie – "Skevanston," they like to call it.
"One thing I learned a long time ago," said Bates, an ace recruiter and 32-year coaching vet, "is that the grass isn't always greener. A few more dollars doesn't necessarily make you happier. Our head coach lets me be my personality. That's fairly unique."
Said Fitzgerald: "We've brought in guys who share the vision for the program. Their families really enjoy and embrace living here. The schools are second to none. The communities are amazing. And we're in Chicago's backyard."
Every summer Springer and his wife, Nicole, have daughters Sophia and Sydney compose a wish list of activities.
The result was an overnight stay in a downtown Chicago hotel, plus visits to the Lincoln Park Zoo, Field Museum and a dance recital at Columbia College.
So in addition to working for a head coach he praises as "very direct and to the point, so you know where you stand," Springer can keep his loved ones happy.
"Evanston and Chicago have so much to offer," he said.
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