Two coaches, 48 years difference Penn State vs. Northwestern
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Post-Gazette, Associated Press
Age game: The old vs. the young Saturday at Penn State
On Dec. 2, 1974, Penn State coach Joe Paterno was four days removed from a 31-10 victory against Pitt at Three Rivers Stadium. Penn State was 9-2 and Paterno, 19 days shy of his 48th birthday, was getting his team prepared to play in the Cotton Bowl against Baylor.
On the same day, halfway across the country in Illinois, Pat Fitzgerald was born. On Saturday, Paterno, the oldest coach in Division I-A, and Fitzgerald, the youngest, will go against one another when Northwestern visits Penn State.
The NCAA does not keep statistics on such things, but the age disparity (48) between Fitzgerald, 31, and Paterno, 79, could be the most in a Division I-A game.
How long is 48 years? To put it in perspective, go back 48 years the other way, from Paterno's birth date in 1926, to the year 1878. That's nine years before Penn State fielded its first football team. Billy the Kid was alive and well. And Thomas Edison was perfecting something called the telephone.
It's also the same year American poet Carl Sandburg was born, which is only important from this symmetrical standpoint: Fitzgerald graduated from Carl Sandburg High School in Orland Park, Ill.
At Carl Sandburg High, Fitzgerald might have come across this inspirational quote from the school's namesake: "Nothing happens unless first a dream."
Fitzgerald is realizing his dream of becoming a head football coach in the wake of the most tragic of circumstances. Fitzgerald was named Northwestern's coach in July after the sudden death of Randy Walker, who succumbed apparently to a heart attack.
Fitzgerald had been picked by Walker as his successor, but that wasn't supposed to happen until 2012, at which time Walker's contract was set to run out.
Fitzgerald's first season has been a baptism by fire. He is learning quickly that being a head coach has many responsibilities.
"Ron Vanderlinden, my position coach when I was at Northwestern, used to say all the time that sleep was overrated," Fitzgerald said this week. "He's preaching to the choir now. There's no doubt about that.
"You're never fully prepared for everything that comes across your desk as a head coach until you go through it. I heard that every year I was an assistant coach: 'You won't quite get it until you sit in my chair.' I'm getting it more and more each day."
When Fitzgerald was named head coach, he called many coaches across the country and sought advice. Paterno was one he contacted.
"I listened to coach Paterno when we visited on the phone over the summer," Fitzgerald said. "He said you have to listen to your assistants. A humble guy who has open ears can make good decisions."Gregory Shamus, Getty Images
Joe Paterno -- "Pat [Fitzgerald] is going to be fine. He was a heck of a football player. He's a smart guy. He's got a wonderful personality. I think Northwestern football is in great hands."
Click photo for larger image.
Saturday: Northwestern at Penn State, 3:30 p.m.
Dateline: Dec. 2, 1974
Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald is born.
Joe Paterno, 47, is in his eighth season as head coach at Penn State. He has a career record of 84-15-1.
Four days earlier, Penn State defeated Pitt, 31-10, in the first Pitt-Penn State match at Three Rivers Stadium. The Nittany Lions would finish the season 10-2 and ranked No. 7 in the Associated Press and UPI polls after a 41-20 win against Baylor Jan. 1, 1975, in the Cotton Bowl.
The captains of the team were Jack Baiorunos and Jim Bradley.
One day earlier, the Steelers lost to the visiting Houston Oilers, 13-10. The team, in the midst of a quarterback controversy among Terry Bradshaw, Joe Gilliam and Terry Hanratty, would go on to win Super Bowl IX.
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Fitzgerald's first season has been up and down. The Wildcats won an emotional opener at Miami University, the alma mater of Walker, but have lost two of the past three, including one against Division I-AA New Hampshire.
Paterno can relate. He lost three of his first five games in his first season in 1966, including a 42-8 defeat at No. 1 Michigan State.
"I can't remember a lot about it except that we struggled," Paterno said. "I was 5-5 my first year. We didn't play really well, but we got licked by some pretty good football teams. I remember Duffy Daugherty, who was coaching Michigan State at the time, had a great football team with Bubba Smith and those guys. I remember walking off the field in Lansing and he said to me, 'Hang in there, Joe. You'll be fine. I had troubles my first year.'
"Pat is going to be fine. He was a heck of a football player. He's a smart guy. He's got a wonderful personality. I think Northwestern football is in great hands."
Fitzgerald is only 10 years removed from his playing career. He was a linebacker at Northwestern, an All-American and a two-time Big Ten defensive player of the year. When he was a freshman, Northwestern did not win a Big Ten game. By the end of his career, he had won two conference titles and played in the Rose Bowl.
That type of resume, along with his youth, gives him instant credibility in the locker room.
"The age thing is a big deal because he can relate to us," said Brad Phillips, a Northwestern defensive back who graduated from Franklin Regional High School in June. "He can communicate with everyone on the team. I think coach Fitzgerald is doing a great job. He's young and enthusiastic. He brings what we call here at Northwestern "juice" to the practice field every day."
Fitzgerald has received advice from many coaches over the past few months. The most important thing he has learned, he said, is not to change.
"I tried to reach out to as many coaches as I could," Fitzgerald said. "The biggest piece of advice that every coach gave me whether they took over at 31, 41, or 51 was just to be genuine to who you are. If you're genuine to who you are as a person, you'll be genuine as a coach and your players will follow your lead. If you try and act and be something you're not, your players will see right through it. You have to be genuine and be your own person. At the end of the day that should be good enough."
Jeff Roberson, Associated Press
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, center, celebrates as Corey Wootton (99) intercepts a pass intended for Eastern Michigan's Eric Deslauriers Sept. 16 in Evanston, Ill.
First Published September 28, 2006 12:00 am