UNIVERSITY PARK — The man who made history had been carried off the field by his team, feted in a postgame ceremony by the school’s athletic director and university president, and given a crystal football.
Surrounded by his wife, his children, grandchildren and before many of the 104,127 who stuck around, Joe Paterno took the microphone to try to acknowledge the accolades for winning game No. 400 in his 45-year career at Penn State.
After thanking his family, university and players, Paterno made it short, sweet, to the point and made sure the focus was much on the future as the past.
“People asked me why I stayed here so long and you know what, look around,” Paterno said to the cheering masses after the Nittany Lions stormed back from a 21-point deficit to whip Northwestern 35-21 at Beaver Stadium. “The celebration is over. Let’s go beat Ohio State.”
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It was vintage Paterno — acknowledge this week’s win, but focus trying to get the next one.
But to those who sat in the stands, roamed the sidelines and battled on the gridiron, Saturday was a special day, one that will be remembered for a long time in Nittany Lion lore.
So students painted their chests with the number 400, including interesting ones like the square root of 160,000 and a formula that only Will Hunting could solve that we assume the answer was 400.
The fans sat pained as Northwestern raced to a 21-0 lead with less than a minute left in the first half, then screamed their heads off as backup Matt McGloin led five consecutive touchdown drives and the defense blanked the Wildcats over the final 30 minutes.
They chanted Joe-Pa-Ter-No as the clock wound down.
“I had chills standing on the sideline just thinking about that last second when it clicked off the clock — what that was going to mean, that moment winning 400 football games,” said Penn State assistant coach Larry Johnson Sr.
Joe’s beloved wife, Sue, joined the throng on the sidelines in the final minutes, taking pictures. It was an emotional afternoon for a family that Jay Paterno, the coach’s son and team’s quarterbacks coach, had to impress upon his mother following last week’s 41-31 win over Michigan that move Joe to No. 399.
“I said, ‘Is everyone coming in next week?’ She goes, ‘No, why?’ I said, ‘Well, mom I hate to tell you this, but it’s kind of a big deal,’” said Jay.
Penn State treated it like a big deal, too. With a stage rolled into the South End Zone, athletic director Tim Curley and university president Graham Spanier honored Paterno. Players received white hats embossed with “400, The Paterno Way.”
Players and fans enjoyed a video tribute that featured some family home movies and highlights of Paterno’s long career on and off the field.
“It was cool,” said co-captain Brett Brackett. “I kind of looked around and I could see the guys and thought everyone really appreciated the moment. It’s something that’s never been done before and coach is definitely a guy that deserves all the accolades he’s gotten tonight.
The ceremony was amazing and really appreciated and felt for coach, who has done so much in our lives.”
Those players, among them No. 75 Eric Shrive, gave Paterno a ride to midfield on their shoulders after the game, no small feat for the 83-year-old, who still loved it.
“Carrying me off the field, we all have a little bit of ham in us,” Paterno said. “I felt pretty good about it.”
Afterward, Paterno was as humble as ever about the milestone.
“What can you say? I've been very, very fortunate,” he said. “I've had some great kids. When I say great kids, I mean not only my own and my grandkids, but the guys that have played here have just been great. And to see those fans and all of them to stick around like that after was a very nice moment for me. I'd be dishonest if I told you that wasn’t a moving night for me. It was.”
It was moving for many of those who are the closest to Paterno.
Jay Paterno had tears in his eyes on the field and got choked up and glassy-eyed for a few seconds during interviews after the game.
“Four hundred wins really hasn’t been done at this level,” Jay said. “It’s only been done by two other guys (Eddie Robinson, John Gagliardi). I’m a student of the game and I love the history of the game.”
Paterno’s other assistant coaches, including some who have Division I coaching experience, said reaching the No. 400 milestone is remarkable.
“It’s unbelievable first of all that someone stayed here this long,” said assistant Galen Hall, a former head coach at Florida who also played for Paterno. “But to get 400 wins at one school that will never be broken. It’s just a tremendous feeling that I worked for the guy that got to 400 victories and hopefully we can go on from here.”
Johnson has been here for 15 seasons and been around for several milestones.
“I was here for the 300th and the 400th,” the defensive line coach said. “One thing as a coaching staff, you know you’re getting old, too. This was special and the tribute at the end of tonight was really special, too. You can sense what he’s done and not just for football. I think that’s pretty amazing.”
Linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden, a head coach at Maryland and former assistant at Northwestern, said Paterno is one of a kind.
“I think the remarkable thing that only in a town like State College, where the guy doesn’t read the papers, follow the Internet or even have a cell phone, and he’s always had the highest ideals,” Vanderlinden said. “I think it’s so overlooked the fact that he’s had the degree of success he’s had without compromising his values. He has players that go to class and he’ll pass on everybody’s All-American if he’s not a good student. I think what Joe’s been able to do here is truly remarkable. I don’t know if it will ever happen again.”
Vanderlinden knows how tough it is. He was let go despite improving Maryland, which was 15-29 in his tenure.
“So often now, if you’re not sexy after awhile they get tired of you,” he said. “It happens in political life. Sometimes, everybody just decided a change is needed. To win 400 games, that will never happen again. It’s just too hard.”
Aside from their headware, Paterno’s players also felt special, a feeling they know that will grow to appreciate more.
“As right now, it hasn’t really sunk in,” said McGloin, who threw for 225 yards and four touchdowns Saturday. “Over the next couple of months and even the next couple of years, you’re going to look back and say, ‘Wow, I was in that game and I’ll be remembered for that.’”
“I think we’re trying to appreciate it as much as we can, but I really think it’s one of those things that won’t hit you until 15 years down the road — that this was one of the biggest moments of your life,” said Brackett, who snared a seven-yard scoring pass. “It was amazing to be part of.”
“I watch the 300th win on TV all of the time,” defensive tackle and co-captain Ollie Ogbu said. “It’s always on the Big Ten Network, just to watch those guys and see how it felt, you always want to be a part of something like that. I always had a bad taste in my mouth because I was never part of something like that. Years from now, we can relate to how those guys were. We have such a sense of pride that we’ve got him something that he’s always wanted. It’s just a great feeling.”
It’s a feeling that Paterno won’t allow his players or himself to dwell on. After all, there’s Ohio State, Indiana and Michigan State left on the schedule.
“For the next two hours people will be at the house congratulating him and slapping him on the back,” Jay Paterno said. “But before he goes to bed, he’ll be thinking about Ohio State and how we go out there and try and when that game and keep this thing going.”
And maybe there lies the secret to the man’s success.
Walt Moody is sports editor of the Centre Daily Times. He can be reached at 231-4630 or firstname.lastname@example.org