CHICAGO — Former Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald filed a wrongful termination lawsuit Thursday against the university and president Michael Schill, in which he is seeking in excess of $130 million for lost earnings as well as reputational and punitive damages.
Fitzgerald alleges Northwestern unlawfully fired him for cause July 10, three days after announcing a two-week suspension as part of corrective measures from a university-commissioned hazing investigation into the program. Northwestern’s investigation, led by attorney Maggie Hickey, found that while claims of hazing from a former player were largely corroborated, there was not sufficient evidence Fitzgerald and other coaches and staff had knowledge of the incidents.
Attorney Dan Webb, who filed the lawsuit, said Northwestern fired Fitzgerald based on “no new facts, no new developments whatsoever, zero.” Schill said July 8, hours after The Daily Northwestern reported details of the hazing allegations from the former player, that he “may have erred” with the initial discipline for Fitzgerald. Schill fired Fitzgerald two days later.
Webb said Fitzgerald and Northwestern reached an “oral agreement” before the two-week suspension was announced that the coach would face no further discipline from the university.
“The fact that he was terminated based on no rational reasons or facts whatsoever, the fact that they’ve gone out and destroyed his reputation as one of the best football coaches in America, based on no legitimate reason or evidence, is disgraceful,” said Webb, a former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois who now serves as co-executive chairman of the Winston & Strawn law firm. “It’s despicable conduct on behalf of Northwestern. My client and his family are entitled to their day in court for justice.”
After conducting interviews with dozens of former Northwestern players and coaches, Webb said he does not believe “any significant hazing occurred” within the program but noted that new evidence could emerge at trial. He has asked for but not received Hickey’s full investigative report; the university released an executive summary July 7 in announcing Fitzgerald’s suspension. The lawsuit states that Fitzgerald fully cooperated with the investigation and was never confronted with any evidence he knew about hazing within the program.
Since Webb is opposing Northwestern, he cannot talk to current players or coaches but expects to call them as witnesses at trial.
“They’re going to say they didn’t see any significant hazing other than horseplay … between young men in the locker room,” Webb said of those he has interviewed.
The lawsuit states that Fitzgerald met with Northwestern general counsel Stephanie Graham and athletic director Derrick Gragg on July 3. They presented him a plan where he would accept some punishment because of the findings in the investigation.
“Gragg also stated that Schill felt Fitzgerald needed to ‘take a hit’ for the findings summarized in the Hickey Report, even though the Hickey Report concluded that Fitzgerald and his staff did not know about any hazing activities within the Northwestern football program,” the lawsuit reads. “Gragg and Graham told Fitzgerald that if he agreed to this plan, wanted the two week suspension to coincide with Fitzgerald’s two-week vacation, so Fitzgerald could attend an important recruiting event on Northwestern’s behalf shortly after his suspension ended.”
Webb said the anonymous whistleblower who first came forward in November “had a grudge against … Coach Fitzgerald” and that the player’s plan to report false allegations of hazing was reported to Fitzgerald by a teammate during a leadership council meeting in November. A current player told ESPN in July that the whistleblower had informed him of a detailed plan with the sole objective to take down Fitzgerald. The current player relayed a conversation he said he had with the former player early this year to Northwestern trustees and other influential university figures.
In a response to Thursday’s lawsuit, Northwestern said “multiple current or former” players under Fitzgerald admitted to investigators hazing that “included nudity and sexualized acts” occurred. The university also referred to the lawsuits filed by more than a dozen former Northwestern football players against the university — many named Fitzgerald and Schill as defendants — alleging they experienced and/or witnessed hazing while in the program under Fitzgerald, who led Northwestern’s program from July 2006 until earlier this year.
A two-time national defensive player of the year at Northwestern, Fitzgerald was the winningest coach in team history, going 110-101.
“As head coach of the football program for 17 years, Patrick Fitzgerald was responsible for the conduct of the program,” Northwestern said in a statement. “He had the responsibility to know that hazing was occurring and to stop it. He failed to do so. … 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.”
Responding to the claim Fitzgerald should have known about what was happening, Webb said, “That’s a ridiculous allegation, not supported by any evidence whatsoever.”
Webb said the out-of-pocket damages he is seeking for Fitzgerald include $68 million that remained on his contract, which ran through 2030, as well as future earnings losses of approximately $62 million. The lawsuit also is claiming reputational damages, emotional distress and punitive damages. Webb intends to call an expert witness who will show that Fitzgerald will “not work again at the same level, ever again.”
The lawsuit also claims no Northwestern player, coach or staff member ever reported hazing allegations directly to Fitzgerald. According to the claim, an anonymous complaint was submitted to the athletic department in August 2022 of “serious misconduct and hazing,” which Northwestern and police investigated and determined was unfounded.
Webb noted Fitzgerald was proactive with anti-hazing training and told players, including freshmen and transfers, of a zero-tolerance policy within the program. Players also had several outlets to report hazing and mistreatment.
Since July, Northwestern has implemented new mandatory anti-hazing training for all its teams before each season and hired former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch to conduct a larger review of how allegations are reported in the program.
“Northwestern’s hired a former attorney general that’s going to come in and tell Northwestern where they somehow went wrong and could find a better program,” Webb said. “Well, they’re not going to find it. My expert’s going to explain to the jury that what Fitzgerald did was truly second to none in any coaching program in the United States.”
Webb said he talked with Northwestern about an out-of-court settlement but was “unsuccessful.”
“Settlement’s always an option, but I have no reason to say that’s going to happen,” Webb said.
A group of attorneys representing players who have filed lawsuits against Northwestern issued a statement in response to Fitzgerald’s lawsuit.
“The filing of the lawsuit by former coach Patrick Fitzgerald is clearly all about financial gain for him and is incredibly tone deaf in defending his actions. His complaint ironically details claims that he was deeply involved in each player’s life, mental health, academic career, athletic performance and potential after graduation … all of which actually supports what we’ve been saying all along, that given the head coach’s proximity he knew or should have known what was happening in his program. This is the legal standard: knew or should have known about the abuse, and we feel strongly that the civil lawsuits brought by his former players have merit. Together we represent numerous former players who have provided detailed allegations of abuse. We are united in our goal to get them the justice they deeply deserve,” read the statement from the attorneys from Levin & Perconti, Ben Crump Law, Romanucci & Blandin and Hart McLaughlin & Eldridge.
Attorney Margaret Battersby Black said she has seen evidence from more than 80 victims of the Northwestern hazing scandal (far more than the number of lawsuits filed so far).
“That [Fitzgerald] allows his lawyer to so callously call these former family members liars shows you everything that you need to know about the culture that he established at this school,” Battersby Black said. “And he’s trying to continue to suppress and victimize these young men by painting himself as the victim.”
Source : ESPN