At heart, he is a teacher. His lessons are about life, and if they weren’t viewed through the prism of football, it would be something else. He could have been a lawyer, perhaps. Or an English professor, trying to push classic works of literature past the iPods and into the minds of today’s undergraduates.
But Joe Paterno is a football coach. To many in his profession and to the millions of fans who follow him religiously, he is the football coach, the standard by which all others should be measured.
His career, one of the longest in any major sport, is drawing to a close. Paterno is technically coaching without a contract but has agreed in principle with Penn State athletic director Tim Curley and university president Graham Spanier that 2011 will be his final season on the sideline. There is also the possibility that this season, his 45th as a head coach and 61st in State College, could be his last. Paterno turns 84 in December, and though he has yet to give the slightest public hint that he is contemplating retirement, the last few seasons have taken a greater physical toll on his body.
Until he decides to hang it up, though, he will continue to deliver lessons to his players. And win games on Saturdays.
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Penn State’s 35-21 win over Northwestern on a brisk November evening was the 400th of Paterno’s career. The coach was carried to midfield by his players, then honored with a video tribute and a crystal football during a post-game ceremony, surrounded by his family and his team.
“I’d be dishonest if I told you that wasn’t a moving night for me,” Paterno said after the game. “It was.”
It was clear that the coach enjoyed reaching a milestone he had spent the previous week trying to downplay.
“How many years I been the head coach, 40?” he said last week. “You know, you’ve got to win a couple of games in that time.”
He has won more than a couple.
Paterno has likely achieved a record that will never be eclipsed by a Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A) coach. Only two other coaches in college football history have reached 400-win milestone. John Gagliardi, who is in his 58th season at Division III St. John’s (Minn.) and 62nd season overall, has won 476 games. The late Eddie Robinson won 408 games in 56 seasons at Division I-AA (FCS) Grambling State University.
Paterno has 164 more wins than the next closest active FBS coach, Frank Beamer of Virginia Tech. He was the fastest Division I-A coach to 300 wins, needing 380 games, nine fewer than his friend Bobby Bowden and 12 fewer than Alabama’s Paul “Bear” Bryant, who held the career wins record until Paterno passed him on Oct. 27, 2001.
Twenty-four of those wins have been in bowl games, making him the all-time postseason wins leader. One-hundred-fifty-three have come since Penn State joined the Big Ten Conference in 1993. Paterno has coached two national championship teams (1982 and 1986), five undefeated squads and three Big Ten champions. The Nittany Lions have won 11 games or more in 15 of Paterno’s 44 previous seasons, doing so at least three times in each of the last four decades.
The latest marker only serves, as did his 200th and 300th wins, as another reminder of the remarkable breadth of Paterno’s career.
“I haven’t been around long enough to even fathom that,” Penn State wide receiver Brett Brackett said.
There have been 862 coaching changes at Division I schools since Paterno succeeded longtime mentor Rip Engle in 1966. He seriously contemplated leaving Penn State only a few times, most notably in 1972, when he mulled an offer from the Boston Patriots of the NFL, then again after a tough loss to Bryant and Alabama in the 1979 Sugar Bowl.
After the Nittany Lions lost 16 of 23 games from 2003-04, a group of administrators visited Paterno at his home and discussed the possibility of his retirement. Paterno wasn’t yet ready, and led his Nittany Lions to a Big Ten championship the following season, then another three years later, in 2008.
Paterno was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2007. He used the occasion mostly to honor the coaches who helped mold him — Engle and former Penn State assistants Jim O’Hora, Dan Radakovich, J.T. White, Bob Phillips and others — as well as talk about the bonds between players and coaches that kept him coming back for season after season. That, and the chance to positively impact players young enough to be his grandchildren the same way those coaches impacted Paterno.
“My commitment to what I’ve done with my life is to try to develop some things with some people, to give you an example as to how you can do some things and do them right and also have an impact on some other people,” he said last week. “Football to me has been a vehicle by which I can have some impact on some people in a very impressionable part of their lives.”
Paterno has admitted on several occasions that he has let his assistant coaches do more of the coaching in recent years, but he is still a constant and formidable presence to his players.
“He’s so active,” Brackett said. “He’s always doing something. If there’s something else, I’d really like to know, because when I’m his age, if I can be half as active as he is, I’ll be happy.”
Penn State linebacker Nate Stupar, one of several players on the roster whose fathers played for Paterno, remembers attending a practice during a recruiting visit and seeing the coach, then in his late 70s, tearing into a veteran player.“It just reminded me how passionate he is and how energetic he is about practice,” Stupar said.
Paterno still saves some emotion for the officials, not to mention coaches and players, on game days. But he has admitted on more than one occasion that the games themselves are what still stirs his blood.
“You know, obviously there are some games that you’re out of it. You just, you lost control,” he said. “You lose control of it; whereas, you can have an impact on the outcome of it because the other guy is just a lot better than you are or you’ve made some mistakes getting your club ready. You know it right away, because none of us are perfect tacticians.
“But generally, the fun is just the competition. When you’re in a ballgame, you’ve got to make this play, you’ve got to do that, you’ve got to say the right thing to the kids, you’ve got to make them understand what they have got to do to win.
“I mean, it’s all — I don’t know what the word is, stimulating maybe is the best way to put it,” he said. “You know, during the week, you fret, you worry, you gripe. You go home, and you don't talk because you’re thinking a little bit. But when it comes game day, it’s fun.”
At the start and at the end of each of the last few seasons and at several points in between, Paterno has continually stressed that he doesn’t put a lot of thought into retirement. Last week, he relented just a bit.
“Every once in awhile, you wonder whether somebody couldn’t do a better job for the people that I’m responsible for,” he said. “But you know, I’ve not ever gotten to the point where I have felt, ‘Hey, I’m going to get out of this thing.’ But it’s going to come.”
When it does, it will come on the other side of 400 victories, a number that Paterno probably never thought about when he became a football coach and yet one, like so many others, that underscores the indeliable impact he has made on the game and the sport.
“He’s a legend,” Stupar said. “There’s no other word that can describe it.”