Joe Paterno: A Legend's Career

With the passing of Penn State's legendary head coach Joe Paterno, SB Nation looks back on the long and storied career of this extraordinary college football icon.

In all likelihood, the general perception of Joe Paterno’s football legacy will be defined by a single number – 409. As incredible an achievement as those three digits represent, they fall painfully short of defining what this Brooklyn transplant actually accomplished in 62 years coaching in State College, Pennsylvania.

The 409 represents the number of victories Paterno amassed as the head coach of the Penn State Nittany Lions. No coach in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I) has ever amassed more and only John Gagliardi's 484 wins at Division III Saint John's University exceeds it.

Sports Illustrated once said that the Nittany Lions coach looked "less like a football coach than a CPA for an olive oil firm." Maybe not that out of place but he certain cast an incongruous a figure on the sideline with his thick glasses, rolled-up pants, white socks and black shoes.

Yet it is impossible to imagine the sport without him. Paterno was Penn State’s head coach for 46 seasons, the longest tenure for any coach at a single school in college football history.

Under him, the Nittany Lions won three Big Ten titles and two National Championships. Five of his squads went undefeated. He led 37 teams to bowl games and won 24 of them, both records for any coach in the history of the game.

The results, he always contended, were secondary to the methods used to achieve them. Wins, although he collected them with regularity, were not the point. In Paterno’s vision it was possible to intertwine athletics and academics in the college environment and find ways to excel at both.

"Everyone assumes that if you have a great football team there have been sacrifices made in the area of standards," Paterno said in the early 1980s after his teams were recognized as a national power. "People tell me it can't be done without sacrificing standards; they tell me I’m daydreaming."

He wasn't dreaming. Paterno called his approach "The Grand Experiment" and always envisioned it as a way to influence the lives of his players in ways that extended far beyond the gridiron. Yet between the sidelines, Paterno’s brand of football was never anything less than hard hitting to the highest degree.

"We coach good, tough, aggressive football here," Paterno told an interviewer early in his career. "When you knock a guy down, you pick him up. There’s no meanness in the thing, see?"

The approach worked. Paterno's propensity for producing excellent defensive players and highly efficient offensive ones earned Penn State the moniker "Linebacker U" and a host of All-American's at the position were testament to its accuracy. All told, 68 players under Paterno were named first-team All-Americans. More than 350 would go on to careers in the NFL.

No less than seven players on his squads would garner the Maxwell Award for most outstanding college football player and one, running back John Cappalletti, claimed the Heisman Trophy in 1973.

Paterno’s willingness to take unexpected gambles on the field seemed out of place with his practical persona in terms of the game. In fact, it was part and parcel of his philosophy about how sports should be played. Perseverance was the hallmark of a champion and victory itself mattered less than the magnificence of the struggle.

"I’ve always preached to my boys that there’s one thing I want you to do and this is don’t ever be afraid to lose," Paterno once said. "If you’re afraid to lose, you don’t have a chance of winning."

Paterno was born in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, New York in 1926. Football was a part of his life from his boyhood and it left its mark on him early. He carried a scar on his lower lip his whole life after running face first into a tree during a pickup game in the streets.

His Italian family also imbued him a willingness for argumentation as well as the necessity of being able to back up what you claimed. Being stubborn on a point was less an unwillingness to abandon an idea than a reasoned conviction it was right.

"At the dinner table, we were allowed to argue about anything," Paterno once recalled. "And we did. You name it, we'd argue about it. Kids from the neighborhood would walk into our kitchen, unannounced, and sit in, just to listen."

After graduating from the Brooklyn Preparatory School, Paterno spent a year in the Army and afterward he then entered Brown University. Paterno played quarterback and corner for the Bears and his career record of 14 interceptions remains tied for most in the school’s record book. His coach, Charles "Rip" Engle, quickly recognized the younger man’s grasp of the game and his leadership ability.

Paterno and Engle in the 1950s.
Photo Penn State Sports Information

When Engle won the Penn State job in 1950, one caveat was that he was forced to retain the school's assistant coaching staff. Engle negotiated one exception, he would bring the recently-graduated Paterno with him to be quarterbacks coach. He needed the help, Engle argued, because he intended to change the Nittany Lions offense from the Single Wing to the Wing-T.

"I decided to go along just to broaden my experience before entering law school," Paterno later said of his decision to accompany Engle. "But I grew to love Penn State so much that after two or three years with Rip, I dreamed about nothing other than becoming head coach."

The decision proved fateful soon enough. He met his wife Sue in the school’s old library in 1959. She was a freshman majoring in English Literature, his own area of expertise as an undergraduate. They married in 1962 after her graduation.

Engle succeeded in rejuvenating the Nittany Lions football program and when he stepped down in 1965 Paterno took over. At the time, the outspoken 39-year-old was just the 14th coach in the 80-year history of the program. Moves such as closing practices to the public irked many and criticism mounted when his first season didn’t exactly set the world on fire.

Penn State amassed a 5-5 record in 1966 and the next season didn’t seem to start any better. The Nittany Lions lost a 23-22 heartbreaker against Navy in the season opener and, two weeks later, were felled at home by UCLA 17-15.

It would be another 31 games before the Nittany Lions would lose again.

The doubters that may have remained among the Penn State faithful were converted five games into the streak when the Nittany Lions upset third-ranked NC State in Beaver Stadium 13-8. The game came down to a goal-line stand by the Penn State defense that succeeded in keeping the Wolfpack out of the end zone. It was a display of grit Paterno’s teams would become famous for.

The only blemish on the unbeaten run would be a 17-17 tie with Florida State in the 1966 Gator Bowl caused by Paterno’s decision to forgo a field goal and go for it on fourth and short. Paterno took responsibility for the decision but didn’t apologize. "I’d do it that way again," he said.

Penn State would be unbeaten and untied through both 1968 and 1969.

The Nittany Lions finished the 1968 season with a defeat of Kansas in the Orange Bowl (despite the Jayhawks having a dozen players on the field for several plays of the critical final drive). The polls put Penn State at No. 2.

The outcome of the 1969 season – college football’s centenary anniversary – also served to demonstrate the contrast between Paterno’s idealistic view of the game and the rest of the fast-growing sport. The Nittany Lions found themselves outside of the national championship debate partly due to the actions of a major broadcast network and the President of the United States.

Roone Arledge, the pioneering head of ABC, saw there was a ratings bonanza to be had if top-ranked Texas and Arkansas moved their game to the end of the season and convinced the schools to do so. The result was a titanic matchup between No. 1 and No. 2 that was attended by President Richard Nixon.

The problem was that Penn State remained undefeated and ranked No. 3 but bowl selections were made prior to the final game of the season. While the winner of the Southwest Conference matchup would be obligated to play in the Cotton Bowl, Penn State harbored concerns about bringing their integrated team to play an all-white team in a game that had a troubling history of racial issues. Penn State opted for the Orange Bowl instead.

The Arkansas vs. Texas game turned out to be as good as everyone expected. The Longhorns rallied from a two-touchdown deficit to defeat the Razorbacks 15-14. Following the game, on national television, Nixon presented the Texas team a plaque in the dressing room declaring them the No. 1 team in the country.

"Penn State of course felt that I was a little premature in suggesting this," Nixon admitted but promised to send the Nittany Lions a plaque crediting their unbeaten streak.

Paterno issued a public statement declining the offer. Privately he was a bit more explicit about his feelings. When the White House contacted him about traveling to Washington to receive the promised plaque he responded, "You tell the president to take that trophy and shove it."

Paterno addresses his team at halftime of the 1969 Orange Bowl.
Photo Penn State Sports Information

Both Texas and Penn State went on to win their bowl games and the AP voters went to cast their ballots for the final poll of the season that would select the national championship. With the president’s blessing and the inability for now No. 1 Texas to play now No. 2 Penn State, the Longhorns were chosen and the Penn State faithful seethed.

"Years later, at a Penn State commencement speech, Paterno famously quipped: "How could Nixon know so much about college football in 1969 and so little about Watergate in 1973?"

From that point on, Paterno became a staunch proponent for a playoff to determine college football’s national champion.

"I've never wanted anybody to vote me out of a national championship, and I've never wanted anybody to vote me in," he explained in 1986.

Any question of Paterno’s commitment to Penn State was also answered in 1969 when he spurned an opportunity to be the head coach at Michigan as well as turning down "a very attractive offer" to coach the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Wolverines tapped Bo Schembechler and the Steelers chose Chuck Noll.

Four years later the New England Patriots came calling and this time Paterno didn’t turn it down. But then he reconsidered and called the team back and told them he was going to stay in Happy Valley.

"I realized that I wouldn’t be happy just being a football coach in which winning and losing was everything," he said of the decision. "Some people may think I’m nuts for turning down such an offer but I think there is more to life than money."

In the 1970s, Penn State became a college football juggernaut, regularly rolling up double-digit-win seasons and finishing at the top of the polls. But forces continued to perversely conspire to keep Paterno’s teams from claiming the national championship.

In 1973, Penn State rolled to yet another undefeated record yet found itself on the outside looking in at the end of the season.

The Nittany Lions were denied any chance to play any of the nation’s top teams in a bowl and finished fifth in the final polls. Every team above Penn State in the final polls carried some sort of caveat; Oklahoma was on probation, Ohio State’s record was marred by a tie to arch-rival Michigan, Alabama won the UPI poll but lost to Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl and the Fighting Irish claimed the AP title.

On New Year’s night following the Nittany Lion’s 16-9 win over LSU in the Orange Bowl, Paterno made his feelings clear on his team’s claim to the national title.

"I had my own poll," he said. "The Paterno Poll. And the vote was unanimous. Penn State is No. 1. I took the vote a few minutes ago." He later had championship rings made and awarded them to his squad.

Bryant and Paterno prior to the 1979 Sugar Bowl.
Photo The Bryant Museum

In 1978, the stars seemed to finally align in Paterno’s favor. The Nittany Lions ran the table during the regular season and, instead of being left out of the national championship picture, found themselves invited to the Sugar Bowl to face the No. 2 team in the land, Paul "Bear" Bryant’s one-loss Alabama squad.

It wasn’t the playoff scenario Paterno had been arguing for but it was finally a fair shot at the title he had been asking for against a legendary coach he’d long since been hearing himself compared to. The result was heartbreak as the hard fought contest came down to a successful goal line stand by the Crimson Tide. Alabama won 14-7 and claimed the national championship.

Penn State fans were devastated. As was Paterno.

"It got to me," said Paterno of the loss in his autobiography. "It hammered at my ego. When I stood toe-to-toe with Bear Bryant, he outcoached me."

The setback served to redouble Paterno’s commitment to achieving the title. After a four-loss season the following year, Penn State was again back in dominating form earning a 20-4 record for 1980 and 1981. The next season seemed sure to be the year.

The Nittany Lions finished the 1982 season with 11-1 record, the only blemish being a 42-14 loss at the hands of Bear Bryant’s Alabama squad in Birmingham. Yet, the Crimson Tide had stumbled hard down the stretch, earning four losses in the regular season’s final six games. Penn State continued to win and, once again, the Nittany Lions headed to New Orleans for a winner-take-all showdown in New Orleans on New Year’s Day.

The 1983 Sugar Bowl pitted No. 2 Penn State against No. 1 Georgia. The Bulldogs had gone undefeated in the regular season behind a punishing rushing attack fueled by Heisman Trophy-winning running back Hershel Walker. Penn State’s defense remained an immovable force but, this season, the offense was fueled by Davy O’Brien-winning QB Todd Blackledge.

Penn State came out firing with Blackledge leading the Nittany Lions on an 80-yard drive to the end zone. That set the tone for the first half as Penn State raced to a 20-0 lead and seemed to have the contest under control. Georgia wasn’t going to let it be that easy.

The Bulldogs running game had only been enough to earn a field goal, so as time ticked down on the second quarter, Georgia took to the air. Quarterback John Lastinger hitting a trio of passes to move the Bulldogs down the field. A 10-yard reception by Herman Archie with five seconds left in the half put Georgia on the scoreboard. At intermission Penn State lead 20-10.

The Bulldogs picked up in the third quarter right where they left off in the second. Georgia took the ball 69 yards on the opening drive and, suddenly, Penn State’s commanding lead was slashed to just three points. The Georgia defense was unrelenting and sacked Blackledge five times over the course of the afternoon.

The momentum of the game turned back in Penn State’s favor early in the fourth quarter when Blackledge hit wide receiver Gregg Garrity for a 47-yard touchdown strike. Still, the Bulldogs did not intend to go quietly. Georgia managed a final TD late in the fourth quarter but failed on the two-point conversion. The final score was 27-23.

Paterno and his players celebrate the 1982 Sugar Bowl
victory over Georgia. Photo Associated Press

This year there was no debate. In the wake of the win, Penn State was named the No. 1 by the AP and UPI polls.

The Penn State coach parlayed his finest hour into a demand for Penn State trustees to raise entrance requirements and spend more money on the school’s library (eventually he and his wife would personally donate more than $4 million to expand the library).

By the mid-point of the decade, Paterno had Penn State competing at the highest levels of the sport. In 1985 the Nittany Lions once again went undefeated in the regular season and were ranked No. 1 and entered an anticipated Orange Bowl contest with No. 3 Oklahoma. A win over the powerful Sooner squad would guarantee Paterno’s second national championship.

It wasn’t to be. The Barry Switzers of the world proved to be too much for Penn State as Oklahoma won the New Year’s Day contest 25-10 and claimed the crown.

Paterno’s Penn State squad didn’t falter the following season – the centenary anniversary of football in Happy Valley. They again rolled to an undefeated regular record and found themselves once again ranked No. 2 and heading into a bowl game against the nation’s top-ranked team for a head-to-head battle for the championship. This year the bowl was the Fiesta and the opponent was Miami.

The throwback sensibility of Paterno and Penn State stood in dramatic contrast to the brash persona of Jimmy Johnson’s Hurricanes. The Miami players embraced their outlaw reputation with boasting comments and combat fatigues. Penn State focused on redemption after coming up short the year before.

The high-octane Hurricane offense fueled by Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, Vinnie Testaverde, and a host of NFL-caliber receivers was completely stymied by the Nittany Lions defense. Testaverde would throw a total of five interceptions that afternoon and his offense was turned away on their own end of the field no less than five times.

Penn State permitted a single touchdown on the afternoon – a one-yard run by Melvin Bratton in the second quarter. A 74-yard Nittany Lion drive had left the score tied at 7-7 going into the intermission and neither team were able to put points on the board in the third stanza.

The stalemate was broken when Miami kicker Mark Seelig booted a 38-yarder in the final quarter. Penn State running back D.J. Dozier responded with a six-yard TD run the next possession to give Nittany Lions the lead for good. Penn State won 14-10.

Asked on the sideline after the game if Penn State was the No. 1 team, Paterno responded: "I certainly think so."

While Penn State enjoyed several successful seasons in the wake of the 1986 championship, it wouldn’t be until 1994 the Nittany Lions were again in the title hunt. After decades as an independent, Penn State joined the Big Ten in 1993 and finished third in the conference its first season.

As the 1994 season began, Penn State asserted its dominance by winning and climbing up the polls. By mid-October the Nittany Lions were ranked No. 1 but then stumbled in a game against lightly considered Indiana. Two Hoosier touchdowns in the game's waning minutes cut Penn State’s victory to just four points and the poll voters responded by returning Nebraska to the top spot (despite the Cornhuskers own near-miss with a woeful Wyoming squad earlier in the season).

Penn State would go on to win its first Big Ten conference crown and best Oregon 39-20 in the Nittany Lions' first visit to the Rose Bowl in 72 years. It wasn’t enough to overtake Nebraska in the final polls and, for the third time, Paterno had led his team to an undefeated record and been denied the title.

Over the next decade, Penn State would continue to succeed and Paterno slowly neared the record of 324 wins held by Bear Bryant. After a four-loss start to the 2001 season Paterno pulled even with his former coaching foe with a win against Northwestern. The next weekend Penn State squared off against Ohio State and with a 27-9 deficit in the second half, the Bear’s record seemed secure another week.

Penn State’s quarterback Zack Mills shook off an interception and, on the next drive, scored on a 69-yard run. Later in the third quarter he connected with receiver Tony Johnson to tighten the score even further. The Nittany Lions took the lead with a Mills completion to Eric McCoo 13 seconds into the fourth quarter. The game came down to an Ohio State field-goal attempt with three minutes left. Penn State’s Jimmy Kennedy blocked it and Paterno finally overtook the Bear.

The victory came in a period Penn State devotees came to know as "The Dark Years" when losing records were far more common than winning ones. Questions of Paterno’s suitability to lead the team due to his advancing age were incessant and the hope of a return to gridiron glory seemed remote.

But the old master had one last trick up his sleeve. Starting the season unranked and lightly regarded, Penn State quietly began dominating its opposition. Each Saturday, the Nittany Lions went out and simply outplayed their opponents. By mid October, Penn State had climbed to No. 10 in the rankings but were felled on the final play of the game against Michigan.

Despite the setback, Paterno’s charges went back to their winning ways and dominated the rest of the slate. The result was a Big Ten co-championship, a No. 3 ranking in the USA Today Coaches Poll and an invitation to play Bobby Bowden’s Florida State squad in the Fiesta Bowl.

It turned into a titanic struggle of evenly-matched squads. Penn State pulled out the win 26-23 in the second overtime and Paterno pulled within five games of Bowden’s all-time win total (which he would surpass after Bowen’s retirement in 2010).

On Oct. 29, 2011, Penn State beat Illinois 10-7 in Beaver Stadium in front of 97,828 fans in Beaver Stadium. It was Paterno's 409th win, pushing him ahead of Grambling's Eddie Robinson for most career victories among FBS/Division I coaches. It would be his last game as head coach of the Nittany Lions.

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