Joe Paterno was named head coach of Penn State in 1966, and his first game was a 15-7 victory over Maryland. Last Saturday, Paterno beat Northwestern 35-21 for his 400th career win. It’s a remarkable achievement. The only other college football coaches with that many wins are John Gagliardi, at St. John’s in Minnesota on the Division III level, and Eddie Robinson, at Grambling on the Division I-AA level.
The man doesn’t look much different than he did 44 years ago.
In pictures, the broad glasses he wears now could pass for the ones he wore back then. The hair, parted on the left side, while possessing its share of gray now, is mostly the same style. The clothes haven’t altered much.
Meanwhile, everything around the man has changed.
The Civil Rights Act had only passed two years earlier, and now a black man is our president. The wars fought then were in the jungles of Southeast Asia and against the threat of the Iron Curtain, while today they are in the Middle East and against the threat of terrorism. The Beatles were at their apex, releasing Revolver, while Lady Gaga was unfathomable.
Amid change, he’s been a constant presence.
Joe Paterno was named head coach of Penn State in 1966, and his first game was a 15-7 victory over Maryland.
Last Saturday, Paterno beat Northwestern 35-21 for his 400th career win. It’s a remarkable achievement. The only other college football coaches with that many wins are John Gagliardi, at St. John’s in Minnesota on the Division III level, and Eddie Robinson, at Grambling on the Division I-AA level.
Bobby Bowden, who retired/was forced out at Florida State at the end of last season, sits in second place with 377 wins. Perhaps the most legendary coach of them all, Bear Bryant, the beast who dominated first at Texas A&M and then Alabama, left coaching after the 1983 season with 323 victories, which stood as the Division I-A record until surpassed by Paterno and Bowden.
“I was there for the first one,” said Boston College coach Frank Spaziani, who played at Penn State from 1965-68. “I was playing in the first one. Good for him. My reaction was that I want to see him get 500.”
Though Paterno has been the head coach at Penn State for 44 years and won so many games, every season wasn’t a great one, and just a handful of years ago there was the sense that Paterno needed to go, that the game had passed him by.
After his Nittany Lions went 10-3 in 1999, the team fell apart for the better part of the next five years with four losing seasons including a 3-9 mark in 2003. But Paterno adjusted, hiring new coordinators and allowing them to install more modern systems, including the spread offense.
It’s a testament to who he is as a man that he understood the game around him was changing, and he needed to adapt.
It’s something not all coaches can do, particularly ones who have won national championships with a particular style, gone undefeated by playing the game a certain way, and sent legions of young men on to the NFL with his philosophy - all of which Paterno has done.
His teams responded, winning 11 games three of the past five years and never winning fewer than nine.
He even did something new this season, starting a true freshman at quarterback for the first time. It meant some growing pains, and the true freshman - Rob Bolden - has since been supplanted by walk-on Matt McGloin, but Penn State beat Michigan 31-21 three weeks ago in a game that required a late surge by the Wolverines to become close, and beat Minnesota two weeks ago before the win over Northwestern to move to 6-3 on the season.
“I would be dishonest if I told you it wasn’t a moving night for me,” Paterno said after the 400th victory. “And it was.”
On Wednesday, during his weekly press conference, Paterno typically turned a question about milestones into an answer about the team.
“I’m trying to get to 401, for crying out loud,” he said. “We’ve got a job to do. We’re not there yet. We’re getting to be where we’re a pretty good football team. Pretty good. We have a long ways to go before we can go around thinking we’re better than pretty good.”
Paterno is now 83 years old. He won’t coach forever, and for years there’s been wonder whether he’d stick around another three or four seasons. It’s ammunition opposing coaches can use against Penn State when recruiting, saying that by the time a kid still in high school is a junior or senior in college that Paterno might not be there to coach anymore.
There’s no question it’s held the Nittany Lions back to a slight degree, the inability to put together a recruiting class that matches the ones annually compiled by schools like Florida, USC and Ohio State, which beat out Paterno and Penn State three years ago for quarterback Terrelle Pryor, who grew up in Pennsylvania.
But Penn State has had solid recruiting classes in recent years even as Paterno’s age has hit 80 and beyond. According to Rivals.com, Penn State’s 2010 recruiting class was ranked 12th in the nation. In 2009, Penn State’s recruiting class was ranked 24th, and the year before a small class of 14 was ranked 43rd.
And who knows how attractive Penn State might be without Paterno. While it’s possible the team would continue to attract top talent, it’s also possible that Paterno is the draw for a school that plays in the middle of nowhere in a cold-weather climate.
Sometimes - think Colorado under Bill McCartney - the coach is the attraction and the team falls apart even when supposedly big-name replacements are found.
“(Paterno) is an unusual person,” said Spaziani. “He’s extremely intelligent, besides being a good teacher. You read about his stuff and you understand his background as far as education goes and you understand that you take a bright guy that can teach, you have the recipe for a good coach.”
It was just another win on Saturday, one more added to many that have come before. But this one had special meaning.
This one was a testament to man who has bridged generations.
What We Learned
There were two potential lessons to take from TCU’s 47-7 beatdown of Utah in Salt Lake City on Saturday.
The first holds that the Horned Frogs are a great team, and a worthy selection to play for the national championship should either Auburn or Oregon - the only two remaining undefeated teams from the six major conferences - falter. They went on the road and whipped the No. 5 team in the BCS Standings. Not only that, but they’ve now held opponents to 10 points or less in six straight games.
They rank first in the nation in total defense and scoring defense, and the offense is similarly prolific, ranking eighth with 41.4 points per game.
There is no question that TCU is a very good football team. But the lesson isn’t that the Horned Frogs deserve to play for the national title if one or both of the teams ranked above them falter.
The true lesson is that it remains impossible to get a real read on teams like TCU, Utah and Boise State.
The Horned Frogs looked virtually unbeatable on Saturday. But that assumes Utah is actually a good team. In truth, however, who exactly did TCU do it against - who exactly is Utah?
The Horned Frogs did against a team that was undefeated, and by virtue of avoiding losses got moved up in the rankings. But the Utes never proved themselves by beating anyone particularly good. Their best win came in overtime - at home - against Pitt, which is a decent 5-3. All they showed through their other seven wins was that they weren’t worse than Air Force and Wyoming and New Mexico.
They didn’t actually show that they were better than LSU or Alabama or Wisconsin, all of which they outranked.
It comes down to who, exactly, has TCU done it against every week?
The Horned Frogs’ two signature wins are against Oregon State and Utah, and the Beavers just lost to a five-loss UCLA team.
Should Oregon lose a game at some point, it already has wins over Stanford and USC. Should Auburn lose a game at some point it already has wins over LSU and Arkansas. LSU, meanwhile, though it lost to Auburn, beat Alabama and Florida. Stanford, while it lost to Oregon, beat Arizona and USC.
Wisconsin - just another example - has wins over Ohio State and Iowa, though it lost to one-loss Michigan State.
TCU may be brilliant. But TCU also may merely be a lot better than a lot of the lousy teams that the majority of its schedule. It’s impossible to tell, impossible to compare the Horned Frogs to teams that have to play tough opposition on a near-weekly basis, including others that have proven themselves to be among the nation’s best.
The true lesson of TCU’s victory on Saturday is that we still must try and judge the Horned Frogs - as well as Boise State - based on what we think they might do against other top teams rather than what they have done against other top teams.
Game of the Week
These weeks happen.
You look at the calendar and see that it’s mid-November. You anticipate that there will be games played across the country that have an impact on both conference races and the national championship.
Instead, there are games that might have been, but truly it’s one dud after another. Virginia Tech at North Carolina could have been huge, but the Tar Heels’ season was undone by scandal. Oklahoma State at Texas could have been for the Big 12 South, but the Longhorns are having their worst season in more than a decade.
Clemson at Florida State? The perennial disappointment versus the not-quite-there yet.
So the biggest game becomes one of curiosity, watching a team in the midst of scandal.
The firestorm around Auburn quarterback Cam Newton is blowing up moment by moment. At the time of this writing, it’s known that Mississippi State reported to the SEC that Newton’s camp sought money for him to come to Starkville. It’s alleged that Newton told someone he committed to Auburn because the money was too much to turn down. It’s alleged that Newton was on the verge of being kicked out of Florida - where he enrolled before heading to junior college and then Auburn - for academic cheating.
By the time games are played tomorrow, the situation may be static or more may have been revealed and alleged.
The Tigers host Georgia tomorrow. The Bulldogs, though just 5-4, have won four of their last five, and the one loss was in overtime to Florida. Not only does Auburn have to deal with an improving Georgia team, but a rival. The Auburn campus is on the eastern edge of Alabama along the state’s border with Georgia, and the Tigers and Bulldogs have a rivalry - not the primary rivalry for either school, but a secondary one.
Strange things, of course, happen in rivalry games, and who knows what role a major distraction might play?
“Because this is pure garbage, I’m going to move on and I’m going to talk about Georgia,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik said as part of a lengthy opening statement to his weekly press conference on Tuesday. “I’m not taking one question about Cameron Newton, unless it has to do with the Georgia game. ... (Allegations against Newton) deserves zero of my time, and I’ve already wasted about four minutes talking about it.”
Newton also took questions on Tuesday.
“There are a lot of speculations, rumors going around now, and I’m not going to be up here to entertain it,” he said.
All things being normal, the Tigers, who average more than 42 points per game and have the fourth-best rushing offense in the country - led by Newton’s 114.6 yards per game - should cruise against the Bulldogs. But Georgia is a talented and improving team, who just might finally put together its best game against a distracted bunch at the end of a week that has been spectacularly abnormal.
If I Had A Ballot ...
1. Oregon (9-0): The final three games - at Cal, home for Arizona and at archrival Oregon State - will all test the Ducks.
2. Auburn (10-0): Will Newton’s saga be the Tigers’ unraveling, or perhaps render their season moot if some of the allegations prove true?
3. TCU (10-0): With just San Diego State and New Mexico left, 12-0 is a certainty.
4. LSU (8-1): Just a few weeks ago, after nearly losing to Tennessee, it seemed impossible that this team would still be here.
5. Stanford (8-1): The lone loss is at Oregon.
6. Boise State (8-0): It’s time for the best one-loss teams to start passing the Broncos.
7. Wisconsin (8-1): It took a little while, but the Badgers eventually got rolling against Purdue.
8. Ohio State (8-1): The Buckeyes have taken care of business since their loss to Wisconsin.
9. Nebraska (8-1): The Huskers host former quarterback Turner Gill and Kansas on Saturday.
10. Michigan State (9-1): After a bye, Purdue shouldn’t pose a problem next week.
Contact Eric Avidon at 508-626-3809 or firstname.lastname@example.org.