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University High School basketball coach Bob Fitzgerald talks to Kurtis Ellis after the Pioneers lost to Breese Central in the 2012 Class 2A state championship game at Peoria. Fitzgerald has been selected for a Fulbright Distinguished Award for Teaching and is stepping down as coach.

NORMAL — University High School social studies teacher and head basketball coach Bob Fitzgerald has been selected for a Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching grant that will take him to England in 2017, prompting him to step down from his coaching duties.

He will be succeeded by assistant coach Andrew McDowell who, like Fitzgerald, is a U High graduate and played under former Pioneers coach Cal Hubbard.

Fitzgerald will be in London from January to July 2017 as one of about 45 U.S. citizens to travel abroad through the Fulbright Distinguished Award program. Grant recipients are chosen on the basis of academic and professional achievement, as well as demonstrated leadership potential.

The 41-year-old Fitzgerald called the Fulbright award “an incredible, extensive personal and professional development opportunity.”

“The opportunity to grow as a teacher and work with the people at the University College of London, which is likely where I’ll be, and to work with the history teachers in London and British secondary schools on their curriculum, it’s just something that I can’t pass up,” he said.

A 1992 U High grad, Fitzgerald earned his doctorate in 2013 and has been head coach at U High for nine seasons. His 165-90 record includes a 23-5 mark this past season. The Pioneers won their fourth Corn Belt Conference championship under Fitzgerald with a 14-0 record.

His 2012 team placed second in the Class 2A State Tournament.

McDowell, a business teacher at U High, has been on Fitzgerald's staff for three years after going 50-40 in three seasons as head coach at Lexington.

“This wouldn’t have even been something I would have considered if I didn’t think the program was going to be in good hands going forward,” Fitzgerald said. “I have absolute confidence in Andrew and everybody else on our staff that they’re going to continue to do great things.”

McDowell, 29, said he is “humbled and honored” to take over at his alma mater.

“As a player you’re definitely not thinking about (being the head coach),” said McDowell, a 2005 U High graduate. “But when you get out you just love the program and you show up and you want to be around it. I feel very fortunate to have this opportunity.”

Fitzgerald sees his move as a potential opportunity for his family, which includes his wife, Teresa, and their children — freshman Patrick, sixth-grader Delaney and first-grader Devin. He said his family may join him in England, though nothing has been decided.

Fitzgerald moved frequently as a child. His father, Mike, was an officer in the U.S. Army.

“I had an opportunity to live in different places in the world,” Fitzgerald said. “To maybe be able to provide my kids a little bit of that opportunity and get some world experience, that’s important to me. I’m excited for them also.

“They're excited for me and excited for the opportunity. My family, my coaching staff and the lab schools have just been incredibly supportive of me.”

The difficult part will be leaving a veteran coaching staff that plans to stay intact under McDowell.

“I’m going to miss getting together with the coaches, figuring out game plans,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m going to miss watching kids have to overcome obstacles, achieve in the face of adversity.

“But, as I’ve learned in all my years of teaching, especially at U High, there’s more to life than basketball. This place has made me so much more than a teacher and a coach.”

U High athletic director Wendy Smith said it is difficult to put in words “the doors that this could open for him (Fitzgerald) personally and professionally.”

“It’s just an unbelievable opportunity,” she said. “When things like this come around, you have to take it.”

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Sports Editor

Sports editor for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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