The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Inside the college newspaper investigation that got a football coach fired

When student journalists at the Daily Northwestern saw that revered coach Pat Fitzgerald had been suspended, they suspected there was more to the story. They uncovered years of hazing allegations.

Pat Fitzgerald, then the head coach of the Northwestern football team, at a game against Rutgers in 2021. (Nam Y. Huh/AP)
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The news release about the football coach’s two-week suspension was short and matter-of-fact.

It acknowledged that an investigation found evidence to support a complaint about hazing within the football program but provided few details — except that university officials strongly disapproved and changes would be made. Released on a summer Friday, nearly two months ahead of the season, it drew minor media attention, and the story easily could have ended there.

But reporters for Northwestern’s student newspaper wasted no time digging into what they saw as holes in the administration’s announcement.

By Monday night, systemic hazing within the Northwestern football program was a national news story, the university had divulged shocking details from its investigation — and Pat Fitzgerald, a revered coach entering his 18th season at the helm of the team he once played for, had been fired outright.

“It seemed clear that there were things unsaid in the [university’s initial] statement,” Alyce Brown, a print managing editor of the Daily Northwestern, told The Washington Post on Tuesday.

“We saw the announcement the same as everybody else,” added Nicole Markus, the paper’s summer editor in chief. “And then, through that, we just started trying to do our own independent reporting.”

The result was a 1,600-word report published Saturday that filled in the gaps of the university’s announcement with specific new details about the hazing allegations. The students secured an interview with the anonymous former football player whose complaint to university officials had prompted the initial investigation. He revealed that the hazing allegations under investigation included coerced sexual acts forced on junior players by masked upperclassmen in a dark locker room. And a second unnamed player corroborated the whistleblower’s claim that Fitzgerald knew about and encouraged the hazing.

It’s the latest example of student journalists producing deep investigative reporting that makes a major impact on their campus communities. In 2015, the Duke Chronicle broke the news that Blue Devils basketball star Rasheed Sulaimon faced two sexual assault allegations before he was dismissed from the team and that high-ranking members of the basketball program knew about the allegations and did not report them, in violation of federal law. In 2019, a Massachusetts high-schooler uncovered that his school was using prison labor to reupholster auditorium seats. During the pandemic, student reporters played critical roles reporting on campus outbreaks, pushing for transparency from administrators and seeking answers about health protocols. And over the past year, Stanford’s student newspaper has published several stories related to allegations that the university’s president, Marc Tessier-Lavigne, a neuroscientist, falsified data in a research paper when he was a top executive at biotech company.

While Fitzgerald’s two-week suspension drew relatively little notice from other media, Brown said she and her fellow reporters were struck by some details of the university news release, which noted that a law firm probing the whistleblower’s claims found evidence to support them — even while officials insisted that there was not “sufficient” evidence that the coaching staff knew anything about the hazing.

It “signaled to us that there was most likely more information there,” she said.

Brown, Markus and managing editors Cole Reynolds and Divya Bhardwaj spent the rest of Friday reporting. A key breakthrough was connecting directly with the unnamed player who made the initial complaint.

“Our most important thing that day was corroborating what he was saying,” Markus said.

Hours after the story published Saturday, Northwestern University President Michael Schill sent an apologetic email to the campus community, saying he failed to fully consider the situation before handing down Fitzgerald’s initial punishment. And as the Fitzgerald story gained traction over the weekend and was picked up by national news organizations, the Daily Northwestern reporters continued to follow leads. On Monday, they published a story detailing what three former players described as a racist culture within the football program. They told the paper that members of the coaching staff, including Fitzgerald, made racist comments or racially coded remarks and had different standards for Black players, who were told to cut longer hairstyles to comply with what Fitzgerald called the “Wildcat Way.”

“It is really interesting to see just how many people have picked it up,” Markus said. “And I think that’s because of the players who have told their story. They’ve been brave about what they’re willing to share and open themselves up to a whole world of backlash.”

In his statement Monday evening announcing Fitzgerald’s firing, Schill acknowledged that new revelations in the media about the systemic nature of the hazing prompted him to reevaluate his original decision to simply suspend the coach.

“As much as Coach Fitzgerald has meant to our institution and our student-athletes,” he wrote, “we have an obligation — in fact a responsibility — to live by our values.”

In a statement released late Monday, Fitzgerald maintained that he had no knowledge of hazing in the program and said that he had hired a lawyer to “take the necessary steps to protect my rights in accordance with the law.”

The Daily Northwestern operates independently from the university. It is published by a nonprofit organization called the Students Publishing Company, which is overseen by a board of directors composed of alumni, faculty, staff and student volunteers.

“Our philosophy is the newsroom is independent, and the board is just there to support,” Chairman John Byrne, a lawyer and former editor in chief, told The Post in a phone call Tuesday.

The firewall between the university and the newspaper is doing its job; the student journalists told The Post that Northwestern did not try to interfere with their reporting on these stories. And they emphasized that the story about Northwestern’s football program is ongoing.

“The story doesn’t just go away just because Coach Fitzgerald has been fired,” Markus said. “There’s a lot more going on, and so we’re looking now to next steps.”