For DeLane Fitzgerald, life has always been about football. When he turned seven, his father signed him up to play for the Amherst, Virginia Wolverines youth football team.
“I figured out pretty quickly I wasn’t going to the NFL,” said Fitzgerald. This realization led him to a fundamental question: What was he going to do to keep football in his life?
When he hit the tenth grade, Fitzgerald had a typing teacher that gave his class the assignment to write anything they wanted as long as it was under 100 words. The 15-year-old DeLane decided to write his own obituary:
“I was a high school coach in the state of North Carolina for 20 years. I won six conference titles and two state titles. I won ‘X’ amount of games. I produced ‘X’ many college players,” Fitzgerald remembered writing. The exercise helped him solidify what he already knew deep down — he was destined to be coach Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald went on to play fullback for James Madison University. His coach always told him that if he wanted to see time on the playing field, he needed to be the toughest guy on the field. The advice helped Fitzgerald establish the mindset of what it takes to be a winner, and it showed him the importance of good leadership.
After graduating from JMU, Fitzgerald spent the next several years at various coaching jobs.
“I crammed everything I owned into my nasty, little, green Ford Aspire with dents on all sides,” he said. “When the next coaching opportunity came along, that Ford made sure I was going to get there.”
At each stop, Fitzgerald learned something new, including what he would or wouldn’t do as a head coach one day. Over years of improvement, he crafted his perfect style of coaching, which focuses on servant leadership.
“I try to be a servant leader,” Fitzgerald explained. “All I want to do is teach these young men how to be good football players and great humans.”
Fitzgerald’s unique style of football requires toughness on the field and absolute adherence to a strict set of team rules off the field. While this approach may not win him friends early on, it sets a high standard of excellence in all aspects of the student athlete experience.
He has served as the head football coach at three different institutions: Southern Virginia, Frostburg State, and SUU. At each stop, he has inherited a team that finished last in its respective conference and was one of the worst teams in the nation.
“It’s never easy, but in order to win in situations like that, you have to do all of the un-sexy things really well,” Fitzgerald said. “All of the things that people don’t want to do, you have to excel at them.”
These “un-sexy things” include showing up on time and showing up prepared. It’s about putting in the extra reps and tucking shirts in. It’s about everybody looking the same out there on the field. Most importantly, Fitzgerald says, it’s about being a team over everything else.
According to him, the best part of football is helping young men develop into successful adults.
“When I see the lightbulb come on for these young men, when they realize, ‘Oh, this is what it takes to be successful in football,’ that is the best part,” Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald may love being a coach, but the most important role that he plays is that of father. During his career, he married his wife, Kim, and together, they have three beautiful daughters.
“The best part of my day is waking up with them, helping them get ready for school and then taking them to school,” Fitzgerald said.
Fortunately for the communities he has called home, the level of attention and compassion he displays as a father also extends beyond the walls of his home. Community service work has always been a large part of what Fitzgerald believes in. He encourages his team and family to be a part of clean-up projects, moving jobs and service opportunities.
“I need to do better. We all need to do better,” said Fitzgerald of community service work. “But I will never, my family will never, turn down a community service opportunity.”
Fitzgerald has already turned around two football programs at Southern Virginia and Frostburg State, and he plans to do the same for SUU.
However, he warns that success isn’t just measured in conference championships or 10-win seasons — success includes caring about his players, his coaching staff, his community and his family. For Fitzgerald, success is more about seeing his team improve in football and in life, every single day.
“I have woken up every single day of my life and acted like I was down seven points,” said Fitgerald. “But the first few months I was here at SUU, I woke up every morning and acted like I was down 14.”
With his love of the game, passion and practical experience, Fitzgerald and SUU will be back to winning championships sooner rather than later.
Southern Utah football will play their last conference game on November 19. Fitzgerald encourages everyone at SUU to support the team through the end of the season.
Article by: Parker Haynie
Photos by: SUU Athletics
This article was originally published in the October 2022 issue of the University Journal. Pick up a free copy at any of the stands on SUU campus