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Conversation with SUNY Cortland head football coach Curt Fitzpatrick

Editors Note: Congratulations to the Cortland Dragons on winning the NCAA Division III Championship in December and Congratulations also to Coach Curt Fitzpatrick, head football coach on being named AFCA Division III National Coach of the Year.

Curt Fitzpatrick, SUNY Cortland

Finger Lakes Times reporter Mike Hibbard, a former sports writer at the Times, conducted an email interview with SUNY Cortland head football coach Curt Fitzpatrick. The Red Dragons won the NCAA Division III championship in December with a thrilling 38-37 victory over defending champ North Central College (Ill.) in the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl in Virginia. Fitzpatrick was named national Division III Coach of the Year a short time later.

Here is what Curt had to say, re-published here with permission from the Finger Lakes Times:

MH: Where did you grow up, and where did you play football in high school and college?

CF: I grew up in Fulton, about 30 minutes north of Syracuse in Oswego County. I played quarterback at G. Ray Bodley High School in Fulton (two-year varsity starter) and went on to play in college at St. John Fisher, where I concluded my career as a senior captain/quarterback on the first Fisher team to win the Empire 8 championship and NCAA tournament appearance in school history.

MH: What has been your progression through the coaching ranks?

CF: After graduating from college in December 2004, I got into coaching after spending 2005 working at a bank (I was a business major and thought that was the route I wanted to take). I went back to St. John Fisher as an entry-level coach in 2006 and 2007 — quarterbacks coach. In 2008, I was hired by the new head coach at Utica College, Blaise Faggiano, to be the offensive coordinator. After five years as the OC at Utica I was hired as the head coach at SUNY Morrisville in the summer of 2013. After seven great seasons at Morrisville, I got the opportunity to become the next head coach at SUNY Cortland in February 2020.

MH: How has Cortland football evolved during your time?

CF: I am very grateful to be at a program with the long and successful football history and tradition at Cortland State. I have been here for four years, but only three seasons on the field because my first year at Cortland was canceled due to the covid pandemic.

I am fortunate to have taken over a program with a very strong foundation of talent and accountable players. In the past four years I believe my staff and I have been able to develop depth in our roster that enabled us to make a deep playoff run this past season, playing a 15-game season.

MH: You had some close calls in the early rounds of the Division III playoffs before catching fire, so to speak. How were you able to parlay that into a championship?

CF: We were banged up with injuries following our Cortaca Jug victory (over archrival Ithaca College), so we relied on some young players in the first few rounds of the NCAA playoffs. While we had some close calls in the first two rounds, I believe those games built a strong belief and resiliency in our team.

As we got deeper into the tournament we got healthier, which allowed us to get back to our full strength and potential. However, now we were battle-tested and developed the mental toughness it took to go on the road and knock of Alma, Randolph-Macon, and defending champ North Central to capture our first-ever national championship.

Our team had a strong belief in one another and our program. If you believe it, you can achieve it.

MH: The D3 title game was an interesting one, with only 10 combined points in the first half before 65 in the second half. How do you explain that?

CF: While the first half was low scoring, I think both offenses did have some success moving the ball but just couldn’t convert in the red zone. Both defenses played well in the red zone in the first half. I know for us, we made some adjustments at the half that allowed us to punch the ball into the end zone when we got the chance.

There was so much offensive talent on the field for both teams, it was inevitable that some big plays were going to be made. Also, it was the national title game and you could sense the urgency of both offenses — especially both quarterbacks — during the second half. It made for a really exciting and memorable second half.

MH: By most accounts, Cortland was a prohibitive underdog to defending champ North Central going into the title game. What was the mindset of you and your team going in?

CF: By that game our team was locked in on staying in the moment and playing the game play by play. We knew North Central was a really good team, but we knew we were good too.

You don’t win big games by “wanting to win.” Everyone wants to win. We had to focus on executing and playing to our standard. Play our best play, then move onto the next one. If we were going to win, it was going to happen because we were focused on one moment in time, then move onto the next moment. Eventually the game ends, but you can’t worry about the score or outcome during the game — you just have to play to your potential.

MH: Can you describe the elation of the dramatic win, including Cortland stopping a 2-point conversation attempt that would have given North Central the lead late in the game?

CF: It is honestly hard to describe. For me personally, stopping the 2-point conversion was obviously huge, but it was not the end of the game. We had to recover the onside kick attempt and then get a first down in order for us to take a knee and run out the clock. We practiced our “hands team” (for onside kicks) multiple times per week the entire season, but we hadn’t had to do it in an actual game yet, so that was really nerve-racking. I am proud of our guys for executing in that moment.

When the game ended I just kind of blacked out. I know I let out a loud roar, because I saw it on the ESPN copy of the game — it was just surreal. This is what we all work so hard for, but for my entire career a national championship has been the dream — but was it really attainable? It is crazy that we were able to achieve it. It still hasn’t quite sunken in yet, even though it’s two months later. I am a very proud coach.

MH: Your starting right tackle is Cody Aikey, a Canandaigua Academy grad. What has Cody meant to you and your team?

CF: Cody is a huge part of our team. He took over as our starting right tackle midway through his freshman season and has been an all-conference performer for us ever since. He was named an AP first-team All-American this season and — in my opinion — that honor is very well deserved.

Cody is a great young man, very polite and fun to be around. He is a very low-maintenance player — just shows up everyday and competes at a high level. He holds himself to a high standard on the field, and because of that he sets an example for the rest of his teammates on both offense and defense.

MH: Another “local connection” of sorts to our readership area is your starting quarterback, Zac Boyes, whose father is longtime Buffalo State coach and South Seneca graduate Jerry Boyes. What can you say about Zac and Jerry?

CF: Zac is a terrific quarterback and the unquestioned leader of our team. I wouldn’t trade him for any other QB in the country.

Obviously, Zac being the son of a great coach makes my job much easier. I had so much respect for Jerry when I had to compete against him and his Buff State teams over the years. Now I really appreciate the chats that Jerry and I have after games; he sees the game differently now as a dad and not as a coach. I think he is really enjoying his time watching his son play at such a high level.

MH: What is the future of SUNY Cortland football, and is another championship a possibility? Do you hope to be coaching there for years to come?

CF: I believe the future of SUNY Cortland football is very bright. We are recruiting at a high level and have a lot of great people (players and coaches) in our program. In our program we talk about being input-focused, not output-focused, so it’s hard to say if another championship season is possible, but our goal is to be the best we can be.

I have faith that if we’re the best we can be that we’ll be one of the best teams in the country — and if we are then we’ll have a shot. Cortland is a special place, and I think Cortland athletics is one of the best D3 athletic departments in the country. Athletics are very important at Cortland and therefore it’s a great place to coach. I love it here.

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