Having visited this city during the season, I have come to realize that at this time of year in Chicago, you can't get very far without seeing the familiar colors of the Chicago Bears everywhere you look. In a city that is dominated by its love for their pro team, more often than not, many of the local college football programs find themselves playing second fiddle, But this year, there has been plenty to celebrate in the Chicago area with coaches emerging from every division to establish themselves among the nation's best as they get it done every Saturday on the field, while contributing to their athletes' off-field success and making an impact in the community.
Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern University (FBS)
Coach Fitzgerald took over the Wildcats in 2006 under extremely difficult circumstances, after former head coach Randy Walker passed away unexpectedly. Fitzgerald was just 31 years old at the time, but stepped up to the challenge and embraced this tremendous responsibility. He's now the second-longest tenured coach in the Big Ten and has drastically improved the Wildcat program. This growth reached an exclamation point last season, when the Wildcats went 10-3, including a 34-20 win in the Gator Bowl, their first bowl game victory since the 1948 Rose Bowl.
Outside of football, Fitzgerald keeps his players focused in the classroom, as last fall 34 players made it to the Academic All-Big Ten Team. Fitzgerald and his family are also active in Evanston charity work, participating in NU's annual Dance Marathon to raise epilepsy awareness, as well as making weekly hospital and elementary school visits, and regularly volunteering with Special Olympics and other organizations.
This season the Wildcats began the season 4-0, while taking Ohio State to the brink in a primetime night game matchup. It was the first time that ESPN College Gameday visited Evanston in almost two decades. The Wildcats have slid since, but will still have big opportunities to prove themselves with matchups against Michigan State and Illinois to close out the year.
Dino Babers, Eastern Illinois University (FCS)
In his playing career at Hawaii, Babers started at three different positions for the Warriors while earning All-Western Athletic Conference Academic honors. As a senior, he served as the Warriors' special teams' captain and also led the team in rushing. This diverse experience and overall knowledge of the game has translated into coaching success, as Babers has appeared as a coach or coordinator in 12 different bowl games.
Like Fitzgerald, Babers also inherited a big challenge when he took over as head coach last year, as the Panthers had won a total of just four games in the previous two seasons. Babers immediately showed that he belonged, leading Eastern Illinois to a 7-5 record (6-1 within conference), as well as a trip to the FCS Playoffs.
This year, just four hours outside Chicago, Babers has his team hungry for much more, currently 10-1 (7-0 within conference) with the Panthers ranked No. 2 in the FCS Coaches' Poll. Babers continues to keep his team focused on the field, while still finding time to contribute the community that supports them and excel in the classroom.
Jim Catanzaro, Lake Forest College (D3)
In 2013, Jim Catanzaro and Lake Forest came out strong, opening the year with five straight victories. The Foresters are also making a habit of performing in the clutch, winning six of their contests by eight points or less. Heading into the regular season finale, the Foresters are sporting an 8-2 record.
Last season Catanzaro was named as a Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year finalist after a superb 2012 campaign. The Foresters claimed a share of the Midwest Conference Championship with an 8-1 record, including the longest single-season win streak in program history. In addition, Catanzaro was named MWC Coach of the Year. Off the field, Catanzaro has his team committed to a high level of academic achievement. In spring 2012, 11 Lake Forest players were named as Academic All-Midwest Conference honorees. Through his first three seasons as head coach, 31 players have been named to this list.
Help support Pat Fitzgerald, Dino Babers, Jim Catanzaro and other Chicago-area coaches for Liberty Mutual's Coach of the Year Award at CoachoftheYear.com, or submit your votes on Facebook at Facebook.com/LMCoachoftheYear.