That's when it occurred to them: The hard, demanding taskmaster is human, after all.
``To see him get so emotional made the team emotional,'' linebacker Brandon Short said after the ninth-ranked Nittany Lions flicked aside overmatched Bowling Green, 48-3, to make Paterno the first Division I-A coach to win 300 games at the same university and the sixth college coach to reach the plateau.
``All week, he tried to downplay it. He told us not to listen to the hoopla, to focus on the game. So I didn't expect that from him after the game. But he is a human being.''
``He's allowed to be emotional,'' said LaVar Arrington, a promising sophomore linebacker whose 16-yard touchdown run with an interception made it 21-0 even though Penn State's offense had run only seven plays. ``He's allowed to enjoy 300. I didn't expect it, though.''
As the clock ran down on a game in which none of the obstacles Penn State (2-0) confronted were posed by poor Bowling Green (0-2), Paterno seemed to be the only person left who cared about what was happening on the field. His players figured it was time for the 71-year-old coach to let his hair down, so offensive guard Ryan Fagan and defensive end Brad Scioli hoisted a water cooler. Paterno caught sight of them out of the corner of his eye and made a slick open-field move. Left holding the cooler, Fagan got Paterno only on the back of his shirt.
``Scioli gave up and I kept chasing him, but he almost outran me,'' the 296-pound Fagan said. ``But I'm not the fastest guy in the world, either.''
But Paterno couldn't outrun Short, who soaked him good. ``I felt we didn't get him wet enough the first time,'' Short said. ``Those guys weren't aggressive enough.''
``I didn't think they'd do that,'' Paterno said. ``They came up to congratulate me and they had this fiendish look in their eyes and I figured uh-oh, I better take off. But they got me good the second time.''
Neither could Paterno escape the attention he had been trying to avoid since the hoopla for ``this thing,'' as he called it, began during the preseason. Afterward, a portrait of Paterno and his wife, Sue, done by a former Penn State player, Bill Rettig, was put on display in the media room.
``Thank you, Bill,'' Paterno said, looking at the portrait. ``I know you didn't have much to work with on the one side.''
And Graham Spanier, the university president, gave Paterno a cake with the number 300 on it. He even cut the first piece. Where else would that happen?
``I'm too moved right now,'' Paterno said before one of his three grandchildren, Matthew, landed on his lap. ``You know, it's amazing. You think you know yourself. I didn't realize I'd get that choked up.''
Paterno made it to 300 wins in 380 games, more quickly than the five other coaches who got there, and one reason is because he has always demanded that the game comes first.
So he made it a point to refresh everyone's memory that a game was played, such as it was, and the Nittany Lions played as if they were in a hurry to get the festivities started.
On Penn State's first offensive play, tailback Cordell Mitchell raced 77 yards for the first of his two TDs.
``Our wide receivers cut down their D-backs, and the field just opened up for me,'' said Mitchell, who finished with 104 yards on six carries. One minute, 23 seconds later, Bruce Branch, a redshirt freshman, eluded five tacklers before he practically screwed punter Andy Pollock into the ground with a hip fake for a 73-yard punt return that made it 14-0 with just 2:40 played.
When Arrington high-stepped into the end zone with the first of Penn State's two TDs scored by the defense - Joe Dawkins had the other with a 30-yard interception return in the third quarter - it was 21-0 and the student section in the stadium had yet to be filled.
At halftime, it was 34-3, leaving plenty of time for Paterno to prepare his postgame message to the adoring crowd, some waving posters that read, ``We Love You JoePa,'' some chanting his name. He seemed more inclined to give as many players on this young, enthusiastic team as much playing time as possible.
Asked if the game seemed like an afterthought, Paterno said: ``Not really. I can't let personal things interfere with them getting what they should get. This could be a very fine football team. They played a good game. The interceptions and the punt return were spectacular. It was great to get a lot of kids into the game.''
Last night, Paterno attended a party celebrating the 25th anniversary of the undefeated 1973 team that was led by John Cappelletti, Penn State's only Heisman Trophy winner. On this day, it was another occasion when Paterno, who has always insisted on looking forward, was forced to look back.
Notes. Aaron Harris, the junior running back from Downingtown High who suffered a season-ending knee injury last October, sat out again. ``Aaron wanted to go in, but I told him let's get some tough work in this week and hopefully get him in against Pitt'' next week, Paterno said. ``I don't want to take a chance with his career.''. . . The last time Penn State scored on its first play from scrimmage was in the 1995 Rose Bowl, on Ki-Jana Carter's 83-yard run against Oregon.