Penn State's comeback an uplifting experience for Paterno, Mr. 400

Joe Paterno gets a little carried away after his 400th career win.
Joe Paterno gets a little carried away after his 400th career win.
Posted: November 08, 2010

STATE COLLEGE - As twilight fell upon Beaver Stadium here late Saturday afternoon, the Joe Paterno Family Reunion/Victory Lap almost never got off the ground.

But with the celebration already planned and 100,000 or so invited guests prepared to pay tribute to the guest of honor, the would-be party poopers from Northwestern were finally dispatched. Moments after Penn State's come-from-behind, 35-21 victory had become the latest page in JoePa's thick tome of momentous achievements, offensive lineman Eric Shrive and graduate assistant coach Gus Felder grabbed the 83-year-old coaching legend and hoisted him on their shoulders in the traditional manner befitting conquering heroes.

It was the sort of ride Paterno has taken to mark previous milestones, if not always willingly, and he claimed he didn't want to take this one, either. His stance has always been that it is Penn State's players who win all those football games, not him. But the smile on his face betrayed a certain satisfaction.

Four-hundred victories is really kind of special, even to a man who tends to downplay his own remarkable contributions to the game of college football.

"They had me up there before I knew it," Paterno said of Shrive and Felder raising him aloft. "I was hoping they wouldn't."

Still, Paterno allowed, "We all have a little bit of ham in us. I felt pretty good about it."

Paterno also felt pretty good about the crystal football presented to him by Penn State president Graham Spanier and athletic director Tim Curley - the two men who tried to persuade him to resign following a 4-7 season in 2004 - and a video celebration of his career that was raucously cheered by the vast majority of the 104,147 spectators who hung around long after the final snap.

"People ask me why I stayed so long here," Paterno told the crowd that was in no hurry to disperse. "And you know what? Look around. I stayed here because I love you all."

But Paterno isn't one to linger on the satisfaction of any particular moment, even one as unique as this.

"Now that the celebration is over," he announced, "let's go beat Ohio State."

Paterno's record stands at 400-132-3, a mark that has taken 45 years to compile, but the Nittany Lions - 6-3 overall and 3-2 in the Big Ten Conference after winning three straight - have three games remaining and, to Paterno's way of thinking, the most important thing is always the contest ahead, not the one just played. Eighth-ranked Ohio State, which had a bye, is 8-1 and 4-1, a powerhouse capable of deflating at least some of that good feeling when Penn State comes calling on Saturday.

As a coach's wife of 48 years, Sue Paterno is well aware of her husband's priorities, which perhaps explains why she took no particular note of Penn State's 41-31 victory over Michigan the previous week that nudged Joe to the brink of history. Only two other coaches - Joe Gagliardi, of Division III Saint John's in Collegeville, Minn., and Eddie Robinson, of Grambling (La.) State - won 400 games in their careers, but no one had done it at the Football Bowl Subdivision, or Division I-A, level.

"I asked my mom after we beat Michigan, 'Is everyone coming in next week?' " said Jay Paterno, one of Joe and Sue's five children and the Penn State quarterbacks coach. "She said, 'No, why?' I said, 'Mom, I hate to tell you, but it's kind of a big deal. Four-hundred wins really hasn't been done at this level.' "

So there they were, a couple dozen assembled members of the Paterno brood, including all 17 of their grandchildren, not to mention a host of JoePa's former players who helped make his journey so enjoyable. They are Paterno's kids, too, even those with graying hair and grandchildren of their own.

"He casts a big shadow," Jack Ham, the former Penn State and Steelers linebacker who now serves as the radio analyst for Penn State games, told a Pittsburgh columnist before the game. "His whole thing when I played here [in the late 1960s] was about putting Penn State on the map. People thought we were the University of Pennsylvania. They thought we were in Philadelphia. Now they know better."

Two national championships (1982 and '86), five undefeated teams (1968, '69, '73, '86, '94), 94 All-America selections and 36 NFL first-round draft choices can raise the visibility of a program higher than any shoulder ride can, and those numbers are as much a part of the Paterno legacy as his 400 wins.

It would have been a shame if such a mobilization of Paterno well-wishers had been forced to wait another week or longer to party down, but Northwestern jumped out to a 21-0 lead behind the strong play of perhaps revenge-minded quarterback Dan Persa, a Bethlehem native who hadn't been recruited by Penn State, the school he dreamed of playing for as a child.

The game took a dramatic turn late in the second quarter as the Nits, behind backup (for now) quarterback Matt McGloin, drove 91 yards in nine plays, incredibly bleeding just 47 seconds off the clock, to score on a 7-yard reception by Brett Brackett 3 seconds before intermission. It was the 2-minute offense executed to perfection in less than half the time.

"It was a big boost," McGloin, who was 18-for-29 for 225 yards and a career-high four touchdowns in relief of starter Rob Bolden, said of the beat-the-clock drive that will forever be associated with Paterno's 400th triumph. "We went in feeling like we were winning that football game. We were all jacked up. Then we came out for the second half and went right down the field to score. From that point on, there was no stopping us."

Penn State scored touchdowns on its first four possessions after halftime, which, coupled with that bit of late first-half magic, meant the Nits covered a whopping 358 yards on those five drives alone.

So now it's on to Ohio State and whatever lies on the other side of 400.

"I told him, 'Let's go for 500,' " defensive coordinator Tom Bradley said of the brief conversation he had with Paterno after the Wildcats had been declawed. "He didn't rule it out."

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