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NU’s Pat Fitzgerald, 37, part of the new old guard in Big Ten

The crumbling legacy Joe Paterno has been leadership lessfor Northwestern’s PFitzgerald. | Nam Y. Huh~AP

The crumbling legacy of Joe Paterno has been a leadership lesson for Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald. | Nam Y. Huh~AP

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Don’t look for another coach to last as long as Joe Paterno, who was in charge for 46 years at Penn State, anytime soon, if ever. The Big Ten’s current 12 coaches have logged a combined 40 years in the league.

Coach School Seasons

Kirk Ferentz Iowa 13

Bret Bielema Wisconsin 6

Pat Fitzgerald Northwestern 6

Mark Dantonio Michigan St. 5

Bo Pelini Nebraska 4

Danny Hope Purdue 3

Brady Hoke Michigan 1

Jerry Kill Minnesota 1

Kevin Wilson Indiana 1

Tim Beckman Illinois 0

Urban Meyer Ohio State 0

Bill O’Brien Penn State 0 

Updated: August 29, 2012 12:27PM

When Pat Fitzgerald became Northwestern’s football coach at 31 after Randy Walker died too young, he made headlines.

It might be more boggling, though, to think that Fitzgerald, now 37, is tied for second in seniority with Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema among Big Ten coaches.

‘‘It’s humbling. I still wish I wasn’t here,’’ Fitzgerald said Friday at Big Ten media day when asked about being a senior senator. ‘‘Walk should be here — I shouldn’t be here. I should be coaching linebackers, yelling at [David] Nwaubuisi. But that’s not the deal. I’m honored to be here. It’s a privilege.’’

No question Fitzgerald has a dream job. But signs of the precarious nature of being a college head coach are everywhere.

Even the legacy of Joe Paterno, the model for success achieved the right way, is now shrouded by the worst scandal in the history of college sports.  With Paterno gone, Kirk Ferentz, who’s entering his 14th season at Iowa, Fitzgerald and Bielema are the veterans. Six Big Ten coaches have a combined three seasons of experience in the league.

For Fitzgerald, who enjoyed being mentored by Paterno, the Penn State legend’s fall from grace remains difficult to process.

‘‘I don’t know if I’ve had a chance to wrap my arms around it,’’ Fitzgerald said.  ‘‘I kind of felt the same way when Coach [Walker] passed. It just seemed like, ‘Wow!’ That’s just life, I guess.

‘‘Coach [Paterno] was incredibly generous to me professionally, and I’m thankful for that. He didn’t need to do that, and I’ll always be appreciative of that. But in the last nine months, a lot of information has come out to be disappointed in the leadership of that university.

‘‘Obviously, statements have been made by the NCAA and the Big Ten. It’s hopefully going to help the victims, which is where the focus needs to be.’’

Even before there was so much scrutiny of Paterno’s apparent fatal flaw — the inability to see evil and deal with it — Fitzgerald was constantly asking himself how he would react to the many situations a coach might confront.

‘‘I do that every day, with everything I see or read or hear,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s an opportunity to learn and grow as a leader. Obviously, this was a multi-layered failure in leadership [at Penn State].  My mom ran a day-care center out of our home when I was a kid. That’s where I first learned about what innocence is. [Children] don’t have a clue. It’s a terrible tragedy. As with the tragedy in Colorado, you hope our society can get better from it.’’

Like most football coaches, what Fitzgerald would rather do is concentrate on the game he loves. The trouble is, even that can be bedeviling.

A big priority this year is improving a defense that was 10th in the Big Ten in points allowed and run defense and 12th in pass defense.

That’s not what you’d expect from a team coached by Fitzgerald, who was a tough and accomplished middle linebacker in his not-so-long-ago playing days. Mix in his South Side Irish roots, and it’s even more curious.

‘‘I don’t question our toughness,’’ he said. “I question our execution.’’

Toward that end, he is stressing communication along with the usual nuts and bolts.

‘‘I think it does really bother him that the defense hasn’t been up to his standards,’’ quarterback Kain Colter said. ‘‘Watching him at practice, I sometimes think he wishes he could get in there and put the pads on one more time.’’

On the other hand, the Wildcats have tended to have a productive offense during Fitzgerald’s tenure. That has helped them go to bowl games the last four seasons. Fitzgerald, who’s 40-36, hasn’t had a losing season since 2006, his first year on the job.

Not bad for a coach who was thrown into the fire at 31.

‘‘It is kind of weird because he’s not far removed from us, as far as his playing days,’’ Kolter said. ‘‘But Fitz is a former player who played at a high level. He knows exactly how it is to be a player in the Big Ten. That’s one advantage he has.  And the way he carries himself every day, the standards he lives by, it’s not surprising to me to see him as an example of a great coach in this league.’’

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