Few names in college football radiate more respect and prestige than Joe Paterno’s. And soon, his name could be associated with an unprecedented level of victory.
If Penn State defeats Wisconsin on Saturday, Paterno will move into a tie with legendary Alabama head coach Bear Bryant as the all-time leader for coaching wins in NCAA Division 1 football. Whether Paterno wins or loses at Happy Valley this Saturday, he is almost certainly in a position to move past Bryant this season.
At age 74, Paterno has built one of the most impressive resumes of any person in the sporting world. He first stepped onto the Penn State sideline in 1949 and spent 16 years as an assistant before assuming the head coach’s role in 1965. In his five decades of coaching at Penn State he has led 20 teams to bowl victories, including the Rose, Cotton, Sugar, and Orange Bowls, a feat that no other coach has accomplished. Paterno has also led six undefeated teams, including two teams that won national championships, and he has coached 229 players that have gone on to sign NFL contracts. He was named National Coach of the Year on four separate occasions.
These accomplishments have not gone unnoticed by his colleagues. Coaches around the country view Paterno with great respect and know that he will always bring a well-prepared group of young men to play.
“Joe’s an icon in our profession,” Wisconsin head coach Barry Alvarez said. “He’s so unique in that he’s been [coaching] for so long. I don’t know how many guys are going to be able to do it as long as he has and keep up with the times as he has. He’s still very bright. He’s a guy that I know when we go to meetings, when I’m around him at different functions, you always try to sit back and listen to him because he really has a lot of wisdom. He’s a special guy, and I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to coach against him and be associated with him in a number of different coaching activities.”
Paterno’s on-field accolades speak volumes for the coach, but he takes great pride on running a program that also achieves academic excellence. He has coached 21 first-team Academic All-Americans, 14 Hall of Fame Scholar-Athletes and 17 NCAA postgraduate scholarship winners. Under Paterno Penn State has continually had high player graduation rates. Former players cite Joe’s primary concern with turning his players not only into good players but also into good citizens.
“He wanted you to be outstanding individuals in everything you did, not just as football players,” former first team All-American and current orthopedic surgeon Dr. Dave Joyner said.
Because of this dedication to academics, Joe and wife Sue Paterno are recognized as great proponents of learning and higher education. They have actively worked to improve the Penn State campus for all students; included in their work is a large donation of $3.5 million toward improvements of the campus library system. The donation is thought to be the largest ever made by a collegiate coach and his family to a university. This generosity is not unexpected, however, when one considers Paterno’s philosophy on coaching and teaching.
“The purpose of college football is to serve education, not the other way around,” Paterno said. “I hound my players to get involved. Ten years from now I want them to look back on college as a wonderful time of expanding themselves — not just four years of playing football.”
Former 1970’s era linemen Rob Rickenbach appreciates Paterno’s philosophy.
“He says football can only carry you so far, and he’s right,” Rickenbach said.
“There aren’t many schools, or coaches, that take that approach.”
Perhaps it is the balance in Paterno’s life that has allowed him to hold this outlook on the game and to achieve so much on the field. Paterno majored in English at Brown University and has continued to view himself first as an educator and then as a coach throughout his 52 years on the Nittany Lions’ sidelines. His five children — all graduates of Penn State — help him keep football in perspective and balance.
As for the record he chases and will soon catch, Joe Paterno would rather talk about anything else. When questioned about his 322 victories, he is just as likely to tell you about the 90 games he has lost, or he might tell you about Grambling’s Eddie Robinson, who had 405 wins at the Division I-AA. He might even mention Division III St. John’s University head coach John Gagliardi, who is still coaching and has 377 victories and counting.
Paterno has been dealing with the pressure of catching the record for two years now. After coaching a tremendous team in 1999 that produced the top two NFL draft choices, Paterno coached his 2000 squad to a 5-7 under the added pressure of chasing the milestone. This year’s team dropped the opener to a highly touted Miami team, and things aren’t getting much easier for the Nittany Lions. They face Wisconsin, Michigan, Northwestern and Ohio State in succession, a difficult schedule for any team in America. However, when Paterno finally wins his 324th game and moves into first place, it will be the crowning achievement of a tremendous coaching career.
Another coach who will soon pass Bryant is Bobby Bowden of Florida State, who trails Paterno by only seven games. Whoever eventually holds the record may be decided simply by which coach (both more than 70 years old) coaches the longest. One may think that, having accomplished so much at age 74, Paterno may hang up his coaching shoes shortly after the breaking the record. However, it appears that he has no real plans to do so as of yet.
“I thoroughly enjoy coaching,” Paterno said. “As long as I stay healthy and my enthusiasm for the game continues, I am probably going to coach. I am in no hurry to get out of it. I don’t want to stay around too long, but I still feel there are things left to accomplish. I don’t play golf, or fish, or have any other compelling hobbies. There’s nothing I enjoy more than football.”
With Joe Paterno at the helm of the Penn State program, they will likely continue producing winners on and, just as importantly for Paterno, off the field.