Joe Paterno Wins His 400th Game as Penn State Football Coach
Joe Paterno won the 400th game of his incomparable career on Saturday, 35-21 over Northwestern. Yes, that is the story.
The Penn State legend got his 400th victory against a coach, Pat Fitzgerald, who was 10 years from being born when Paterno earned his first win. That was a 15-7 victory over Maryland, on Sept. 17, 1966.
Paterno was his typical unassuming self afterward. Standing on a platform near the south end zone of Beaver Stadium, Paterno seemed ill at ease as athletic director Tim Curley and school president Graham Spanier lavished effusive praise on him. When it was his turn to speak, Paterno began his short address to the 104,147 fans by saying, "I know you all want to get home."
That is the Paterno way.
Paterno's achievement, the latest milestone in a career that has accumulated a quarry of such, is beggared by sports comparisons. Forty-five seasons. Some 535 games and 1,050 lettermen. All at the same school, all with the same wife and all in just two homes (Joe and Sue Paterno upgraded to a ranch-style house in 1969).
You do not measure Paterno's 400th win against other sports achievements. You measure it against geology, events such as the formation of the Grand Canyon. His career, his story, is a tribute to consistency, integrity and longevity. In that respect Joe Paterno has less in common with Ted Williams, the last iconic sports figure to hit .400, than he does with the Mendenhall Glacier.
Last week Penn State won against Michigan to give the 83-year-old coach his 399th career win. After the game, offensive coordinator Jay Paterno, who is also the second of Paterno's five children, had a brief chat with his mother.
"Mom, is everyone coming next week?" Jay asked, referring to his siblings, their spouses and his parents' 17 grandchildren.
"No," she replied. "Why?"
"I hate to tell you this," Jay said, "but it's kind of a big deal."
As he shared that anecdote, Jay Paterno choked up with tears and buried his head. Which is not the Paterno way.
In fact, as Penn State, which had trailed 21-0 late in the second quarter, scored its fifth touchdown in five consecutive possessions to go up 35-21, his dad shoved both hands deep into the pockets of his khaki pants, which is where he kept them all game.
That is the Paterno way.
"To see all those people sticking around after the game, it was very moving," said Paterno. "But you know, we got three more games."
But Jay Paterno was right. It is kind of a big deal. After all, no other FBS coach has won as many games as his dad. In fact, the entire current roster of fellow Big Ten coaches has not won as many games combined as Paterno has. He has worked at Penn State for six decades (the first 16 years as an assistant coach), through 12 Presidents of the United States and somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,000 Division I-A or FBS coaches. Exactly 863 have come and gone since he became the head coach in '66.
That is only the beginning, though. Joe Paterno is inextricable from the last 4 1/2 decades of college football. Here are just some of the snapshots, some of the search terms, if you will:
Two national championships. Five unbeaten seasons. Something for Joey. A 31-game unbeaten streak. Greg Garrity's catch in the 1983 Sugar Bowl. Linebacker U. The 1986 Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year. Pete Giftopoulos' interception in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl. Paternoville.
And now, 400. Nor did it come easy. Late in the first half, Penn State trailed 21-0 to Northwestern. Only once in Paterno's previous 534 games at Penn State had the Nittany Lions trailed by that much and won (at Illinios, in 1994). And they had never overcome a deficit that great at home to win.
"When we were down 21-0, I didn't think we were out of it," Paterno said.
The Nittany Lions climbed back into the contest on the strength of a nine-play, 91-yard touchdown drive in the final minute of the first half. The key play was a 20-yard pass from Matt McGloin, a former walk-on quarterback, to a diving Joe Suhey.
"If Suhey doesn't make that catch," Jay Paterno said, "it's a whole different ballgame."
If that name, Suhey, sounds familiar to you, it should. Joe's father, Matt, as well as his uncles Paul and Larry, played for Paterno in the 1970s.
One of the beautiful things about Paterno is that while he belongs on the same dais as Rockne and Stagg and Bryant, he has never come across as unapproachable. He is larger-than-life, unless you happen to encounter him, in which case he is down to earth.
Back in the 1980s, Sports Illustrated was writing a story on Penn State football, a piece that needed to go to press before sunrise on a Monday morning. Late in the editing process, sometime after midnight on Sunday, an editor inquired as to what type of car Paterno drove. It was a picayune piece of information, but the editor insisted on including it.
A wretched reporter was charged with uncovering the information. To do so, that reporter dialed information in State College, Pa. Paterno's phone number was listed. At around 2 a.m., a very drowsy Joe Paterno answered the phone to hear a strange voice ask, "Coach Paterno, what type of car do you drive?"
"A Buick," Paterno replied.
That is the Paterno way.
After Penn State lost 33-13 to Illinois on homecoming weekend in early October, this 400-win milestone began to look like a 400-win millstone. Penn State was 3-3 and Paterno had 397 wins. One could peruse the schedule and, at that dark moment, conjure a second-half in which Penn State failed to win three more games -- in which case Paterno failed to record his 400th career victory before his 84th birthday, which comes in December.
Paterno had addressed such a possibility last August in Chicago during the Big Ten media days. "When I'm down and I'm looking up, they're going to put 399 on top of me or they're going to put 401," Paterno said. "Who the hell cares? I won't know."
Others did care.
"When we were down 21-0, and thinking about the Ohio State game (next week) ... " said Jay Paterno, his voice trailing off.
Less than one month after that Illini loss, however, Penn State has now won three straight games. Paterno has his 400th win.
"If I had a choice, it would've been easier," said Paterno.
No matter how it happened, it happened. And it was right. Right for Paterno to have such a moment in the town that he has called home since Harry S. Truman was president, since 1950.
"People ask why I've stayed here so long," Paterno told the crowd at Beaver Stadium as they chanted his name. "Look around. Look around!"
And then, because he is Joe Paterno, he returned to doing things the Paterno way.
"Now that the celebration is over," Paterno said, ignoring the fact that it was only beginning, "let's go beat Ohio State."