Legendary coach’s comparison to Fitz

Matt Forman

Since Joe Paterno took over as head coach at Penn State, there have been 838 Division-I coaching changes, and nine different presidents have taken the oath of office.

Paterno has coached the Nittany Lions for 44 years and been on the staff for 60 years. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald has been alive for 34.

But Paterno’s legend isn’t restricted to his longevity. And it’s not limited to his appearance – the thick glasses, the rolled up khaki pants, the black shoes and the peppered-gray hair. He’s been good, too. Really good. “Fitz is a great coach,” NU offensive coordinator Mick McCall said. “Now (compared to Paterno), and (Fitzgerald) would say this, too: We’re not even speaking in the same breath.”

That’s probably because Paterno’s accomplishments could be stated for several minutes, and even then some would have to be left out. The 82-year-old ball coach has the most Division-I wins ever (390). He has been to more bowl games (35) and won more of them (23) than any other coach, and led his team to more undefeated seasons (five) than any other. He has two national championship rings and three Big Ten titles. Paterno has coached 29 teams that finished in the top-10.

By comparison, in four seasons under Fitzgerald, NU has compiled a 24-21 overall record and made one bowl game.

In today’s college football landscape, it’s hard to imagine a coach staying at a school for so long, let alone being so successful. But Paterno did it. And Wildcats fans want Fitzgerald to do the same.

“(Staying at NU for 44 seasons) would be really cool,” Fitzgerald said. “But the media, the expectations, the 24-hour news cycle, the expectations on the kids, it’s hard. … It’s an anomaly.”

So considering the discrepancy in age and success, why have people started to compare Fitzgerald to a young Paterno? NU defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz doesn’t have an answer.

“Coach Paterno is college football,” he said. “But I don’t ever think that we’d say that we’re going to compare Fitz to Coach Paterno. That wouldn’t even be close to being fair.”

Penn State senior linebacker Sean Lee sees Paterno in practice every day and said he models his game after Fitzgerald, circa 1995. And Lee thinks the comparisons are valid. “Absolutely, he has the personality to stick around for a while,” Lee said at Big Ten Media Day in July. “He’s going to do great. It’s only a matter of time before Pat Fitzgerald will be known as a great coach like Joe Paterno, one of the best in the country.”

Even though Paterno is 48 years older than Fitzgerald, Lee said the similarities in personality are most evident in practice. His fondest memories of Paterno are from practices at summer training camp.

“Just him screaming in that high, squeaky voice of his, where he’s yelling at some lineman, slapping him in the face mask, bumping chests with them, and they of course back down,” Lee said. “To see his passion, it’s pretty crazy.”

That’s the same energy Fitzgerald brings to every practice, constantly stopping drills to show players the fundamentals and technique to use on every play.

But Fitzgerald’s ties to Penn State don’t begin and end with Paterno comparisons. Penn State linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden was NU’s defensive coordinator from 1992-96, aiding in the Cats’ defensive turnaround and Fitzgerald’s development.

When Fitzgerald was named head coach at NU, he tried to get Vanderlinden to join his staff, Paterno said. The ol’ ball coach was able to keep Vanderlinden to help build the tradition of “Linebacker U” in Happy Valley. Paterno thought Fitzgerald was young for the position at the time, but Vanderlinden assured him Fitzgerald would do a good job.

“Ron said he was a good coach, so that was all I needed to hear,” Paterno said. “Pat has done a heck of a job. His team plays the way he did. They play smart. They hustle on every play. They play tough.”

Paterno has had almost as much of an impact on the field as he has off it. He has donated millions of dollars to Penn State and has been at the forefront of trying to implement a playoff system in college football. Fitzgerald said he strives to follow in Paterno’s footsteps in doing things the right way.

If it were up to Paterno, that wouldn’t necessarily be the case.

“I did it my way and he should do it his way,” Paterno said. “I’m not going to go around preaching you’ve got to do it my way. It would be presumptuous for me to say Pat Fitzgerald should be like me.”

As arguably the greatest college football coach of all time, there are few people who wouldn’t want to be in Paterno’s position. But Paterno said there’s one thing holding Fitzgerald back.

“He’s Irish and I’m Italian,” Paterno said. “So we can’t be that similar.”

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