CORTLAND — It’s been more than five months on the job, but Curt Fitzpatrick has yet to run a practice.
The Fulton native was hired as the SUNY Cortland head football coach on Feb 13. The coronavirus pandemic forced the team to cancel the usual spring workouts, and before practices could begin this summer, the upcoming Empire 8 fall season was canceled.
Fitzpatrick knows he has to keep the Red Dragons’ program ready for the next season, whether that’s a possible shortened season in the spring or next fall.
“One thing I said to the team and our coaching staff was, ‘Whenever we get to play football again — and at some point we’re going to play a football game and have a season — I don’t want us to be unprepared because we dwelled on the negative for too long,’” Fitzpatrick said. “It is what it is, and we’re not the only team going through this. … Let’s just make the best of this, spin it forward and not let it affect us in the future.”
In the short term, Fitzpatrick is looking to get his team involved in athletic activities in the fall. If it can be done safely, he is hoping to get practice time in small groups.
If everything goes well, he hopes practices will continue to build and grow, but he knows everything can change very quickly.
“You have a plan, but you know that you still have to roll with the punches as you go,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s really a day by day thing and plans do change day by day.”
A 2000 graduate of G. Ray Bodley High School, Fitzpatrick was a junior on the Raiders’ team that went to the Section III championship game at the Carrier Dome in 1998. He went on to be a four-year letterman at quarterback at St. John Fisher College, earning all-conference honors and setting program records for touchdowns and yards during his senior season.
Fitzpatrick came back to Fulton to coach the quarterbacks in 2005, the year the Raiders won the OHSL Class A League championship. That taste of coaching under Mike Conners made him pursue coaching at the next level.
“That really got me hooked on coaching,” Fitzpatrick said. “Looking back on it, I wish I would’ve been an education major and gone that route. … That year at Fulton coaching, I had a very small role, but there was something about preparing and coaching kids and watching them get better, succeed, and helping them reach their goals that hooked me.”
Fitzpatrick returned to St. John Fisher and won two Empire 8 titles as the Cardinals’ quarterbacks coach before moving on to be the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Utica College from 2008-12.
Fitzpatrick took over as the head coach at SUNY Morrisville in 2013, and posted four winning seasons, one conference championship and three postseason ECAC bowl appearances over seven seasons.
On Feb. 13, Fitzpatrick was announced as the successor to SUNY Cortland head coach Dan MacNeill, who retired after 23 years at the helm for the Dragons.
For the first month, everything was going normally for Fitzpatrick.
“Everything was great. Obviously, it was a transition coming into a new program and getting to know the players, some of the coaches and the athletic department — just normal transition stuff,” Fitzpatrick said. “Then it was right about the middle of March. … We were preparing for spring practice to start once we got back from break, and right before spring break we learned that we weren’t going to be coming back because of the pandemic.”
The following months were a roller coaster, Fitzpatrick said. Some days there was optimism over the numbers in New York, but the next thinking was “How are we going to play football?”
Fitzpatrick had a bad feeling about the possibility of the season being canceled days before the announcement, which came July 15. The SUNY Athletic Conference followed by announcing the cancelation of its fall season last week.
“I just wanted to rip off the bandage, so-to-speak, and give them the hard news one time and then turn the page and go from there,” Fitzpatrick said of informing the players and staff. “At first, I was more disappointed and sad for our players, especially our seniors. I’m hopefully going to be coaching for 20 or 30 more years, but they only have one more year to play college football. … Some may be able to make it back, but some guys will graduate and never play football again for the rest of their lives. That happened in the blink of an eye. That was hard to deal with for some guys.”
Fitzpatrick is holding out hope for the possibility of a short spring season, but knows there are lots of hurdles left to clear before that can happen.
“That’s something that gets thrown around a lot. You see a lot of media reports about a spring season, but there’s a lot that would go into that. It’s not just as simple as scheduling it, showing up and playing,” Fitzpatrick said. “There’s more to it than that, but maybe that is our reality that we’ll have a shortened four- to five-game season in the springtime. That would be great. If not, then we’re going to prepare for next fall and roll from there.”
Despite being on the job for close to six months, Fitzpatrick is still waiting to step on the field at SUNY Cortland for his first practice. He’s still not sure when that time will come.
“I’ve been a college coach since 2006, and a college player for five years before that. This is the longest it’s been,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s tough. The nice thing is that with some of the technology that’s available now with Zoom and some of the other distance-learning technologies that our players use in the classroom, we’re able to use those with football too, so we’ve had some install meetings and done some film study with our players. … We’re trying to give them some sense of normalcy.”