"I'd be lying to tell you I'm not a college football fan before a coach," said Fitzgerald. "Just to have the privilege to share time with Coach…those are special memories I'll live with for my entire career and life. It's pretty special to say the least."
For Fitzgerald, now in his sixth year as a head coach, Paterno is somebody he looks up to in the coaching profession.
"He's very gracious, very giving, and I think everyone sees him as a role model in college football," Fitzgerald said.
However, both coaches can boast parallel claims for their respective programs. Northwestern and Penn State are two programs which have never faced major NCAA violations, and each school consistently ranks top-ten in graduation rates.
Fitzgerald and Paterno each have many similarities in backgrounds. Paterno has coached at Penn State for 62 years, while Fitzgerald has been at Northwestern for 11 years, and has a contract which runs for 10 more years. Both have been inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame—Paterno as a coach; Fitzgerald as a player.
Last season, Fitzgerald was named a finalist for the Joseph V. Paterno Coach of the Year Award, which is designed to honor the spirit of Coach Paterno.
Given his admiration for Paterno, becoming a finalist for the Paterno Award was meaningful.
"He embodies all that's good in college football," Fitzgerald said of Paterno. "His leadership, his player development, the success they've had in the classroom producing great men. His success on the field is unmatched and unparalleled. He's just a tremendous role model for all of us as coaches."
Fitzgerald has faced Paterno's Nittany Lions seven times—four games as a player and three as a coach. In 2010, Paterno earned his 400th career win as Penn State overcame a 21-point deficit to beat Northwestern. After the game, Fitzgerald met with Paterno at midfield to share another moment.
"The thing that you can set your watch on with Coach is that he's just consistent," Fitzgerald said. "The consistent success, the consistent development, it's unmatched and unparalleled."
The Wildcats meet with Penn State again on Saturday night, and Paterno has a chance to earn another milestone. With a win over Northwestern, Paterno ties Eddie Robinson for second place on the career victories list with a win.
Regardless of the outcome, Fitzgerald is looking forward to meeting with the Hall of Fame coach once again.
"He's a great person and someone who has been very gracious to me," he said of Paterno. "It's an honor to share the gridiron with him and hopefully we'll show up and play our best game and give them a game."