Ask around, and what impresses Joe Paterno’s coaching colleagues the most isn’t that he’s been able to pile up 400 career wins but that he has been around long enough to have that opportunity.
“It’s just incredible that he’s had that loyalty, if you will, to be on one campus for I don’t know, 50 years,” Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said. “And he’s weathered the change in collegiate sports culture.”
Coaches around the country stand in awe of Paterno’s 400th win, particularly those who go against him each season. They can appreciate as well as anyone what he’s done in one of the nation’s most grinding conferences in a sport where coaches are hired and fired by the dozen.
Since Penn State joined the Big Ten in 1993, Paterno is 88-52 in conference games. He has 25 more wins than any other Big Ten coach and his career winning percentage of .629 in conference games exceeds that of any current Big Ten coach except for Tressel (possibly Bielema)
And Tressel, who has more wins than any other current Big Ten coach, is still 298 wins away from Paterno.
“He puts that record further out of reach for anyone to even think about,” Tressel said.
Paterno’s Big Ten colleagues admire him for reasons that go far beyond the final score.
“I grew up wanting to play in that program,” said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Back when I was in high school, they were the premier program in the east. “That’s no disrespect to Pitt,” Ferentz quickly added.
Ferentz played at Upper St. Clair High School in Pittsburgh (the same school that would later produce Penn State linebacking great Sean Lee). He wound up playing linebacker at Connecticut but his impressions of Paterno and his Nittany Lions never wavered.
“I was a long-time fan of the way they did things,” Ferentz said. “(Paterno’s) record amount of wins speaks for itself, but what I think is more impressive is how they’ve done things through the years. I’m going back again to the late 60s.“They have a tremendous program and to me Coach Paterno is not only an excellent football coach, which he’s proven, but I think he stands for all about what’s good in college football, college athletics.”
Before Paterno and the Nittany Lions came onto the scene, the Big Ten was essentially a two-team race — Michigan and Ohio State had combined to win at least a share of 25 of the previous 27 championships. Penn State’s arrival shook things up. The Nittany Lions went 12-0 to win the league in 1994, becoming the first of eight different teams to win a conference crown over the next eight years.
As the conference’s other 10 teams made various coaching changes, they knew what they were getting everytime they came into Beaver Stadium or hosted Penn State.“Anyone that gets a chance to lineup aginst him remembers those days and also in our particular case, being part of the Big Ten, we get to watch them all year long as we’re preparing for other teams,” Tressel said. “It’s just fun watching precision and consistency. It’s been a real boost, I think, for the Big Ten to have Penn State and Joe Paterno in it.”
Paterno’s younger colleagues — including Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald, who played against the Nittany Lions as a linebacker in the 1990s and has faced off against Paterno three times as a coach — admire what he has always tried to achieve off the field as much as anything he has done on it.
“Coach Paterno is college football and the class, the integrity, the success that they’ve had on the field is breathtaking,” Fitzgerald said. “But I think more impressive are the young men that he’s developed throughout the years while he’s been there at Penn State.
“We try to run a program that develops our young people to be the best they can be,” Fitzgerald added. “I don’t know if there’s a better mentor for any of us as coaches than Coach Paterno.”