Penn State’s Joe Paterno is already three decades beyond being age-eligible for AARP membership. The university’s head football coach not only can claim seniority in his profession, he’s about to reach an Everest peak with more wins than any other major-college coach in history.
His next coaching victory, which could come Saturday against Illinois, will be his 409th . That would give him one more than the record he currently shares with the late Eddie Robinson, who rang up 408 career wins at Grambling State in Grambling, La.
Altogether Paterno has coached for 62 years at Penn State, first as an assistant to Rip Engle, and for the last 46 years as the head man. That tenure at the helm makes him the longest continuously serving coach at the same Division I school, a mark previously held by Amos Alonzo Stagg, who spent 44 years at the University of Chicago.
During six decades on the Penn State sideline, Paterno has coached in more than half of all the game’s in the school’s long football history, which began in 1887.
Consider this: When Paterno arrived in University Park, Pa., fresh out of college in 1950, Harry Truman was president and Winston Churchill was still Britain’s prime minister. The Korean conflict was raging.
On the gridiron, things were far different than they are today. Army was second-ranked and Princeton No. 6. Penn State was an independent, decades away from joining the Big Ten Conference. H-shaped goalposts were made of wood, and players had single-bar face masks, if any at all.
Despite all that Paterno has done plying his trade in Pennsylvania’s “Happy Valley,” it wasn’t long ago that even the faithful began to think the Brooklyn native may have stayed too long at the dance. Yes, he had led the Nittany Lions to five undefeated seasons, two national championships (in 1982 and 1986), and more bowl wins than any coach in history (35) – this while making generous financial gifts to the university. But the “Grand Experiment” – Paterno’s vision for successfully marrying winning football with academic integrity – appeared to be faltering.
During a five year stretch, from 2000 to 2004, Penn State won just 26 games and finished a mortifying ninth in the Big Ten in ’03 and ’04. With “it’s-time-to-go-Joe” sentiment growing, Paterno said that if he didn’t get things turned around in 2005 he would step down. The result? The team went 11-1 and wound up tied with Ohio State for the conference title. The Nittany Lions repeated the feat in 2008.
This year Penn State is 7-1, with its lone loss coming in Week 2 to currently second-ranked Alabama. Last Saturday, it knocked off Northwestern, prompting Pat Fitzgerald, the Wildcats coach, to say, “There is a reason why Coach Paterno is tied with Eddie Robinson; he is the best ever.”
For Penn State to climb higher and for Paterno to surpass Robinson, it must beat an Illinois squad that started with five straight wins before hitting the skids the last two weeks. The game will be played in Penn State’s 106,000-seat Beaver Stadium at 3:30 ET, with what is expected to be a supercharged crowd eager to see history made.
One of the key factors in Paterno’s success is his no frills, old-school approach, which is visibly evident in the simple blue-and-white uniforms, which are as iconic as the coach with his trademark eyeglasses. The uniforms have probably undergone fewer style changes than any in college football, the addition of a Nike swoosh practically the only compromise to tradition.
Part of what makes Paterno so beloved is his genuine love of the game and its role as an educational vehicle. He seems oblivious to the public adulation. In articulating his philosophy, he once said, “The will to win is important, but the will to prepare is vital.”
While overseeing a practice in the preseason, a wide receiver crashed into Paterno. The injuries he sustained have forced him to coach much of this season from the press box, a place he occupied for some games in 2006 and 2008 as well after other on-field injuries.
Paterno no longer takes to the road to recruit and he acknowledges that he increasingly delegates to his staff. And therein, perhaps, lies a key to the school’s continuing football success.
Paterno has managed to assemble a very capable and loyal team of assistants, two of whom have been with the program for more than 30 years. The average tenure of his 10 assistants, including his son, Jay, the quarterbacks coach, is nearly 18 years, which surely gives Penn State one of the most stable, long-serving staffs in the country.