Penn State

Penn State Football: 400th Win for Coach Joe Paterno Makes for A Special Night

Probably the most impressive thing about last night's 35-21 win against a feisty Northwestern football team was not the game itself, but the fact that the crowd at Beaver Stadium didn't leave. 

It's not that the game wasn't exciting - more on that later.  But at Beaver Stadium, there is a routine that is consistent at the end of a game no matter what the score. 

My husband Terry refers to this routine as the 3rd quarter crowd, the 8 minute crowd, and the 5 minute crowd.  These are the people who exit the game before its end, often to our genuine amazement even when the game is too close to call. 

There are practical reasons for this exit, mostly related to the difficulty in getting out of parking lots for those who have a long ride home.  If it's a blow-out and an assured win or loss, sometimes it's the desire to get an early start on a post-game tailgate and a celebratory or consolatory drink.

But last night, other than an early exit by some at half-time when the score was Northwestern 21, Penn State 7, nobody left. 

That's right, nobody left.  Even when Penn State miraculously had captured the lead by the end of the 3rd quarter, and was up by two touchdowns with 11:38 left in the 4th quarter.

The House that Joe Built was still full at the end of the game when the Penn State players, in a dominating second half performance, beat Northwestern 35-21. 

And so when the celebration finally began, and the chants of Joe-Pa-Ter-No came roaring from the student section and were echoed throughout, we were all there to enjoy a special moment celebrating the legacy that Joe Paterno has built at Penn State.

Penn State has been lucky - really lucky - to have such an outstanding college football coach who has stood for much more than winning football games. 

And so last night the crowd stayed to witness a very moving video of Joe Paterno's life and work in State College and at Penn State, to receive a crystal football commemorating his 400th win, and to thank him for all he has done to make Penn State great.  Not just for football, but for Penn State.

In so many ways, Joe Paterno has helped to put Penn State University on the map, in the national consciousness, as an educational institution.  He is one of the reasons, although certainly not the only reason, that Penn State is this nation's most popular university, receiving more applications for admission than any other university in this country.

Joe Paterno, in a short moving speech, acknowledged this crowd who stayed until the end (yes, he noticed too!), his family, the players and coaches who brought him this win, and the many other players who brought him wins in the past.  And then he turned his focus on next week and said we have a football game to win against Ohio State.

Typical of Joe Paterno, he turned the focus away from himself and onto all the people who helped him along the way.  And he said "Lookaround…"and expressed his love for all of us as the reason he has stayed so long.  Sound like a politician? 

Joe Paterno, first and foremost, knows how to work a crowd.  He's better than a politician, and holds an appeal for all ages.  And that hasn't changed with age.  In fact, he's better than ever.  It's what we love about him, and why we all stayed to hear what he had to say! 

Above all, Coach Paterno perceives himself as an educator of young men.  And that role was ever-present in the song chosen for last night's video ("Father and Friend" by Alain Clark) and in last night's post-game comments after the win. 

For Joe, it wasn't so much the satisfaction of 400 wins, but the satisfaction of knowing that this particular team finally figured out how to turn it around in a tough game to earn a come from behind win. 

That's also what we like about Joe Paterno:  his focus.  Since there are still three games to be played, Joe turned the focus almost immediately back to next week:  winning on the road against Ohio State.

Some would say Joe is humble. I wouldn't say that.  Joe knows how good he is.

But Joe also knows better than most that his success would not have been possible without willing participation of the young men he has coached and the assistant coaches who take care of so many details each and every season. 

Last night's game was a case in point.  In the 23 years that I have been following Penn State, I have been fortunate to witness three incredible turnaround games:  the 1992 Fiesta Bowl win against Tennessee, the 1994 game at Illinois, the only other time when we overcame a 21 point deficit, and last night's game at Beaver Stadium against Northwestern.

It has been incredibly rare for a team to come back from such a deficit, and this was the biggest deficit that Joe Paterno had ever faced in 45 years of games at Beaver stadium. 

Think of this:  it was 21-0 in favor of Northwestern with 50 seconds left in the first half.  And yet the offense didn't give up and made some big plays to complete a 9-play, 91-yard drive in 47 seconds. 

With that incredible drive, it was a two-touchdown deficit.  Most importantly it was a momentum changer that could affect the outcome of the game as the teams went into half-time to make adjustments.  Especially since Penn State had won the toss and deferred to the second half.  So the Lions would have possession at the beginning of the third quarter and the chance to drive down the field for another score. 

Which is exactly what happened in a 14 play, 84 yard drive that took nearly 6 minutes off the clock.  All of a sudden, that 21-point deficit was reduced to 7 points. 

It was an incredibly effective third quarter for Penn State.  The defense stepped up and stopped Northwestern consistently, forcing three and outs on each of the Wildcats' possessions and ensuring excellent field position for the Lions.  The offense scored two more touchdowns.  By the end of the third quarter, Penn State was winning 28-21, a 4 touchdown swing in less than 15 minutes of regulation play!

And so what fun we had in the stands watching all of that and thinking that it was perfect for Joe Paterno to have his 400th win this way.

As an aside, even God seemed to be smiling on Beaver Stadium.  A rainbow appeared in the Northeast corner of the stadium just as the game started, and a strange weather day that combined sun with periods of rain and even a few seconds of sleet turned dry as the evening progressed.

The scoring was over with 11:38 left in the fourth quarter.  The rest of the game was ball control offense and good defense.  Penn State was classy enough not to try to score another touchdown when that was possible.  Northwestern was classy enough to accept running down the clock when they knew it was over when they turned it over on downs with 1:33 left in the game.

This young Penn State team really stepped up.  They learned how to win a tough one.   Perhaps it was Joe's 400th win that motivated them to an extraordinary win.  Perhaps it was for themselves, as they are now bowl-eligible with a 6-3 record.  Perhaps Joe's prediction at the beginning of the season is about to become true:  that this team will be very good.

 My only response, to the entire team's effort, is "well done."

At the end of the game Larry Neff, who has sat in front of us for 32 years at Beaver Stadium, turned to us and said, "We won't know what we will miss until he's gone." 

That statement said it all to me.  We really won't know what we will miss. 

Penn State has had it so good for 45 years.  To quote Penn State's radio broadcaster Steve Jones, "You'll never see this again:  One man, One school, 400 wins."

And while we all know that sooner or later all good things must come to an end, Joe's tenure at Penn State has been a good thing that lasted longer than any of us ever expected.

My plan is to cherish everything about Joe Paterno's final games here at Penn State, for as long as they last. 

We should savor every moment while we still can.