"Back then I really never paid attention to it as a young kid who wanted to play college football. Now I look back on it, and I've got to laugh. It's unbelievable the things that he's done."
For pure longevity combined with consistent success, unbelievable could be a mild way to put it.
The 83-year-old Paterno, in his 45th season at the helm of the Nittany Lions, will attempt to become only the third head coach in college football history to win 400 games when the Lions meet Northwestern at Beaver Stadium on Saturday.
Only St. John's (Minn.) coach John Gagliardi, still active at age 84 with 476 wins, and legendary Grambling coach Eddie Robinson (408) have reached the milestone. Paterno entered the season needing six wins to get there.
Paterno has been reluctant to get involved in all the hoopla of his run at 400, insisting the focus for his players and coaches must be the Wildcats.
"Hey, I've been around for enough wins," he said at his weekly teleconference. "I'm only concerned about these kids getting some wins while they are in college. They're only in college for four years. I've been here for four, plus a couple more."
While there is a special significance to No. 400 for all the players, it is especially true for those whose fathers played for Paterno a couple of hundred wins ago.
"He coached my dad [Steve] throughout his whole career," linebacker Nathan Stupar said. "To get his 400th win, that's awesome. He's a legend. There's no other word to describe it.
"My dad doesn't tell me stories about him, per se. He liked to tell the story about him standing at the bus and seeing guys who were late. He'll leave without you if you're not there. He'll be on the bus watching the people run down the steps trying to get to the bus on time. . . . Just stories like that."
Senior guard Stefen Wisniewski followed his father (Leo) and an uncle (Steve) who played for Paterno, the three having been in the generic blue and white uniforms for an even 100 victories. For the youngest, the thought of reaching 400 is mind-boggling.
"It's definitely way more wins than we can ever comprehend," Stefen Wisniewski said. "He's been winning games since 20 years before we were even born. That's absurd to think about for a 20-year-old. It's hard for us to grasp, but it's still something we have tremendous respect for."
Wide receiver Brett Brackett, a cocaptain, said he tried to put it all in perspective after last week's game against Michigan.
"We were looking at a game program in the locker room and saw that Michigan was close to 900 victories," Brackett said, referring to the 882 for the Wolverines. "We were over 800 . So you look at it, if we're just over 800 and he's going for 400, that's almost half. You pull back and look at it, it's pretty amazing.
"If it can happen on a team where I was the captain . . . it would be something great to be a part of."
As much as he does not want much light to shine on the achievement, Paterno nevertheless gave an expansive answer on it at his regular Tuesday media session, admitting he had thought "every once in a while" about having stayed for so long.
"My commitment to what I've done and with my life is to try to develop some things with some people," he said, "to give you an example as to how you can do some things and do them right and also have an impact on some other people. Football to me has been a vehicle by which I can have some impact on some people in a very impressionable part of their lives."
Paterno mentioned the influence of his father, Angelo, along with his coaches in high school and college.
"Every once in a while, you wonder whether somebody couldn't do a better job for the people that I'm responsible for," he said. "But I've not ever gotten to the point where I felt, 'Hey, I'm going to get out of this thing.' But it's going to come.
"I mean, that's why I don't get excited about 400 if it happens because, geez, you hang around long enough, all right? How many years have I been the head coach, 40? You know, you've got to win a couple of games in that time."
The numbers are difficult to grasp. Take the example of Michael Zordich and his dad.
Paterno has led the Lions to 211 wins since Zordich's father left the program in 1985. He won 217 games in his career before the younger Zordich was born, in October 1989.
"If you just looked at the age part of it, you'd say: 'Wow, there's no way a guy could do it,' " the elder Zordich said. "But then you look at Joe Paterno and see why he's still there.
"He's been a huge part of the university for so long and not just with football. There's the academics, the money he and [wife] Sue have donated. I'm sure there's a real comfort in it all for him."
As for Paterno, he'll keep insisting: "I really don't give it much thought. If I win 399 or 400, that won't make any difference."
His players - past and present - will beg to differ.
Who's starting? Paterno did not name a starting quarterback for Saturday's game on his radio show. "I'm going to play that by ear," he said Thursday. Matt McGloin started last week, but Rob Bolden has recovered from concussion-like symptoms.
Top 10 Winningest Coaches
Here are the top 10 winningest college football coaches from all divisions:
1. John Gagliardi
, Carroll/St. John's, 1949-present. . . 476
2. Eddie Robinson
, Grambling, 1941-1942, 1945-1997.. . . 408
Joe Paterno, Penn State, 1966-present . . . 399
4. Bobby Bowden
, Sanford/West Virginia/Florida State,
1959-1962, 1970-2009 . . . 377
5. Paul "Bear" Bryant
, Maryland/Kentucky/Texas A&M/
Alabama, 1945-1982 . . . 323
6. Glenn "Pop" Warner
Stanford/Temple, 1895-1938 . . . 319
7. Amos Alonzo Stagg
1892-1946. . . 314
8. Roy Kidd
, Eastern Kentucky, 1964-2002 . . . 314
Forest "Frosty" Westering, Parsons/Lea/Pacific Lutheran,
1962-63, 1966-2003. . . 305
10. Harold "Tubby" Raymond
, Delaware, 1966-present. . . 300
- Joe Juliano
Winningest Active Coaches
Here are the winningest active Division I-A coaches in college football. Their win total may include victories earlier in their careers as Division II or Division III coaches:
1. Joe Paterno Penn State 399
2. Frank Beamer Virginia Tech 234
3. Mack Brown Texas 218
4. Chris Ault Nevada 213
5. Steve Spurrier South Carolina 183
6. Dennis Erickson Arizona State 171
7. Mike Price Texas-El Paso 168
8. Larry Blakeney Troy 157
9. Howard Schnellenberger Florida Atlantic 155
10. Gary Pinkel Missouri 147
10. Bill Snyder Kansas State 147
- Joe Juliano
Contact staff writer Joe Juliano at 215-854-4494 or firstname.lastname@example.org.