SIU’s Hill dialed into Northwestern’s Fitzgerald’s path to success

Earlier this week, Southern Illinois head coach Nick Hill recalled a phone conversation that gave him confidence. (Photo by SIU Athletics)

By Dan Verdun

Nick Hill isn’t sure how the phone call came to be made. But the 37-year-old Southern Illinois head coach does know it played a factor in his being hired by his alma mater.

“Coach (Pat) Fitzgerald is someone that I look up to from afar,” Hill said during Monday’s weekly SIU media Zoom call. “I don’t know if he would even remember doing this, not with me being hired, but he randomly called me the night before I had my interview in late 2015.

“I don’t know if it was (former SIU) Coach (Jerry) Kill that had reached out to him, but I got a random call from Coach Fitzgerald.”

That call impacted Hill more than Fitzgerald will probably ever realize.

“It really gave me some confidence going into that interview process about how he (Fitzgerald) was 30 years old and was named interim head coach at his alma mater and became the head coach,” Hill said.

Pat Fitzgerald (NU photo)

Like Hill, Fitzgerald became the leader of the football program where he had starred just a few years earlier. Fitzgerald, a captain and linebacker on NU’s 1995 Rose Bowl team, became the Wildcats head coach after the unexpected death of Randy Walker in June 2006. Fitzgerald was 31 at the time.

Meanwhile Hill was named SIU head coach in Jan. 2016 after the Salukis fired Dale Lennon. Hill was just a few months short of his 31st birthday. 

“It’s (the phone call) always meant a lot to me and hopefully someday I can be the same type of resource to a coach like that,” Hill said.

The two will meet in person on the field Saturday when Northwestern (1-1) hosts SIU (0-2) at Ryan Field in Evanston.

This week’s opponent

Northwestern is coming off a 31-23 home loss to Duke. The Wildcats opened the year in Dublin, Ireland knocking off Nebraska 31-28 for a conference win.

(Kickoff: 11 a.m.; TV: Big Ten Network; Radio: Varsity Network App)

Key matchup to watch

SIU defense against NU running game:

“It starts with us stopping the run,” Hill said. “They do a great job of protecting him (NU quarterback Ryan Hilinkski). They’re one of the best teams at chipping defensive ends to where he’s got a clean pocket in front of him.”

What’s at stake?

SIU has not started a season 0-3 since 2001. That year the Salukis lost their first three games before defeating rival Illinois State on homecoming for their lone victory of that 1-10 season.

“We’ve got a lot of season left,” Hill said. “Great teams get better throughout the year. We just have to stay the course and go out there and play better football.”

Quick hits

Sophomore Izaiah Hartrup, SIU’s second-leading receiver a year ago, has yet to play this season. “At this point I’d say he’s still a couple weeks from being back,” Hill said, indicating Hartrup has a “pretty significant hamstring injury” . . . After being ranked as high as No. 8 in the early season national FCS polls, SIU has dropped out of the Top 25 . . . The last time SIU played a Big Ten opponent was 2015. The Salukis, then coached by Lennon, lost at Indiana 48-47 when they failed on a two-point conversion attempt in the final seconds.

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