Wildcats coach eager to touch down on Irish soil at Aviva Stadium

Pat Fitzgerald’s Chicago team face Nebraska side in College Football Classic in August

Northwestern Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin in February to announce the Aer Lingus College Football Classic: ‘I’m a very proud American with deep Irish roots and heritage.’ Photograph: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Northwestern Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald is relishing the opportunity to play in Ireland as his team prepares to face Nebraska Cornhuskers in the Aer Lingus College Football Classic at the Aviva Stadium in August.

Fitzgerald is one of the highest-profile coaches in the American college football system and one of the longest-serving coaches in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), having managed the Wildcats since 2006.

“It’s a group that will be very excited to come over and get back to where we’ve been, competing for championships in the Big Ten,” Fitzgerald says. “We have a huge challenge against Nebraska – we did not play very well against them a year ago in Lincoln, they played very well against us, maybe their best game of the year. It should be a great game. It should be a very close game. If you look at the records over the years, it should be a lot of fun. We will be much improved.”

Fitzgerald's grandparents are from Ireland, his grandmother hailing from Nurney in Co Kildare, and that side of the family will be his guests at the game.

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"I'm a very proud American with deep Irish roots and heritage. Both my grandparents on the Fitzgerald side emigrated here to the United States. To learn that history was very emotional. I am honoured and excited to share the game with them."

All the sights

His team will arrive in Dublin on the Wednesday and will leave on Monday morning, hoping to take in all the sights of Dublin and beyond; the jovial Fitzgerald winks as he says there will be “the chance to enjoy after we win”.

He says he wants the Aviva to be as “wild and as raucous” as it has ever been to create a home atmosphere for the Wildcats.

"It's a great opportunity for our game to gain more exposure, not only Ireland but all of Europe, to get a sense of the college game.

“The pageantry and the electricity around the college game – cheerleaders, bands, tailgating . . . For example, there will be a pub crawl in Dublin. The more that we can be exposed to Europe, the more we will set root there.”

Pat Fitzgerald cheers on his team at Ryan Field in Evanston, Illinois in October 2019. Photograph: Getty Images

Fitzgerald says the opportunity is there for an Irish college football star, as the game gets better promoted, and they have recently had a prospective student athlete from Europe, while Australian punters are beginning to feature in the collegiate game.

"Having watched Ireland play Wales in the Six Nations and having watched Johnny [Sexton] hit those kicks from tough angles, yeah, there's no doubt there's an opportunity for it."

Bullish

As he heads to his 17th year in charge of the Wildcats, Fitzgerald is still motivated and bullish about the future.

“Every team is different, we have about 20 per cent turnover on my roster every year. The dynamic changes, the people change, the personalities.

“The opportunity to compete at the highest level, it really drives me. The ability and the power of influence to help young people to be prepared for life is something that is really special.”

The once-dubbed Emerald Isle Classic was the first NCAA-sanctioned American college football game to be played in Europe, played at Lansdowne Road in 1988. The most recent edition of the event saw Georgia Tech beat Boston College in 2016, where 40,562 attended. The 2020 and 2021 plans for a college football game were scuppered by the coronavirus pandemic.

Chicago's Northwestern Wildcats will take on the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the Aer Lingus College Football Classic at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday August 27th. General tickets go on sale this Friday, April 29th, on ticketmaster.ie/touchdowndublin