As we pay our respects to Joe Paterno we take this moment to look back on the storied football career of a man who loved, and perhaps needed, the game more than anything else in life.
10. It Begins With a Win
Joe Paterno officially started his head coaching career in 1966 when Penn State hosted Maryland on September 17. It was Paterno’s first game as a head coach, as well as his first win.
Fittingly enough, Paterno took the first step on his long walk to 409 career wins, with Penn State beating the Terps 15-7. Paterno’s first season on the sidelines was nothing to brag about though. The following week Penn State was ambushed in East Lansing by No. 1 Michigan State, 42-8, and the following week they were shutout by Army on the road, 11-0. Penn State was also roughed up by No. 4 UCLA (49-11) and No. 5 Georgia Tech (21-0). The Nittany Lions went 5-5 and scored 19.3 points per game. Surely this Paterno guy was not going to work out, right?
9. Joe Pa Finally Beats Alabama
Joe Paterno and Paul “Bear” Bryant are often thrown in the same conversation from time to time, and deservedly so. The two are true legendary iconic figures in the sport of college football. But despite having more career wins than Bryant, Paterno never defeated him and that stuck with him for his entire life. Paterno was 0-4 against Bryant from 1975 through 1982, including three neutral site games. Even when Penn State was on their way to their first national championship during the 1982 season (more on that later) the lone blemish on the schedule came against No. 4 Alabama, a 42-21 loss in Birmingham. It was Bryant’s final season as head coach.
The following season, fresh off a national championship, Paterno got the Alabama monkey off his back, upsetting third-ranked Alabama and new head coach Ray Perkins, 34-28. Paterno would go on to win three more games against Alabama in one of the more interesting inter-sectional rivalries in college football in the 1980’s, with the final win coming in 1990. Penn State lost both games in a home-and-home series between 2010 and 2011, Paterno’s final games against the Crimson Tide.
8. John Cappelletti’s Heisman Trophy Speech
It may not have technically happened on the field, but Joe Paterno’s only Heisman Trophy winner, John Cappelletti, delivered an acceptance speech that made Paterno proud. Cappelletti made the award about someone other than himself, his brother. It was very reminiscent of the way Paterno focused on the game itself. He never sought to make himself the center of attention and he always placed the emphasis on his players on the field.
Cappelletti rushed for 1,522 yards and 17 touchdowns in 1973, and he was also the Maxwell award and Walter Camp Player of the Year Award winner in addition to being named a consensus All-American. To date he remains one of the legends of Penn State football and the school’s only Heisman Trophy winner.
7. 2005 Toss Up: Ohio State or Orange Bowl?
Penn State was thought to be dead as a national college football power heading in to the 2005 season, but the Nittany Lions came within two seconds in Ann Arbor of making a solid case to play for the BCS Championship that same season. After two seasons without postseason play many had reasons to doubt Penn State would have any impact in the Big Ten that season, with a questionable dual-threat quarterback in Michael Robinson, finally getting a chance to be the team’s full-time quarterback and a trio of young, unproven wide receivers fresh out of high school in Derrick Williams, Jordan Norwood and Deon Butler. As it turned out, those four players turned out to be pretty good for Penn State, and they helped take the college football world by storm.
Oh, and the defense was not too shabby either, with Paul Posluszny ready to move to the NFL (an injury would put that idea on hold) and Tamba Hali emerging as a force on the defensive line. Dan Connor was also a force at linebacker alongside Posluszny for a defense that allowed an average of 17 points per game.
Penn State started their season mildly with wins over South Florida, Cincinnati and Central Michigan. None of those wins opened anyone’s eyes, but there were some clear signs of improvement from Penn State, who had won just four games the year before. In the Big Ten opener at Northwestern the Nittany Lions needed a miracle play near the end to seize victory to set up a big game at home against No. 18 Minnesota (no seriously, this WAS a big game). Robinson set the tone with a signature run and Penn State manhandled Minnesota’s heavy running game to improve to 5-0. The win put Penn State back in the top 25 but few people took them seriously until the showdown with Ohio State on October 8. To this day it remains one of the top games in Beaver Stadium history. Not only was it a hotly contests game, with Penn State winning 17-10, but it is recognized as the game that put Penn State back on the map. Tamba Hali’s sack of Troy Smith forced a fumble late in the fourth quarter to secure the win for the Nittany Lions before a wet, and raucous Beaver Stadium. It was the loudest Beaver Stadium has ever been to this day by many accounts.
After the game Paterno was asked about what it felt like to be back in college football, and he replied “I don’t know that we ever left.”
Penn State dropped a game the following week at Michigan in a back-and-forth game that may have just run out of time for Penn State, but the Nittany Lions never lost again that season. A 35-14 victory against No. 14 Wisconsin all but locked up a spot in a BCS game for Penn State as long as they defeated Michigan State on the road (they did) and if USC or Texas had taken a hit along the way they would have gone to the Rose Bowl as Big Ten champions and for a shot at a BCS title. But this was before the addition of a separate BCS Championship Game and the Rose Bowl was the site of the title game that season. With Texas and USC set to meet in an epic championship game, Penn State took their game to the Orange Bowl, where they played a five-hour slug fest of a game against Bobby Bowden and Florida State. The clash of college football’s two all-time coaching wins leaders was not the prettiest of games, but in triple overtime Penn State’s Kevin Kelly knocked down a game-winning field goal after squandering two field goal attempts at the end of regulation and in overtime.
The win brought Paterno one win closer to Bowden, who had passed Paterno for all-time wins by that point in time, and gave Paterno his final win in a BCS caliber game.
Both the Orange Bowl and Ohio State were significant and memorable on their own merits. While the Ohio State victory may have been more noteworthy that season, it is hard to choose between it and a triple overtime BCS victory.
6. College Hall of Fame Induction
Joe Paterno was originally supposed to go in to the College Football Hall of Fame alongside Bobby Bowden, but he instead went in one year later due to being unable to travel to the induction ceremony in New York. Paterno had been injured after being run in to on the sideline in a game at Wisconsin. The College Football Hall of Fame made the decision to induct Paterno as part of the Class of 2007 instead so Paterno could be a part of the ceremony.
We’ll let Joe do the talking himself here, as he recalls some stories from his coaching career, including how he and Penn State made Doug Flutie a star…
5. Paterno Passes The Bear
The early part of the 21st century was anything but kind to Paterno. Comments about how the game had passed him by were becoming more and more frequent, and perhaps carried weight to the argument as wins were becoming tougher to pick up for Penn State. Penn State was entering what many called the dark ages of Penn State football, with once unthinkable losing seasons looking more predictable than ever before. But Paterno was committed to pursuing and doing things his way, whether it was the popular decision or not.
Paterno entered the 2001 season needing just two victories to pass Paul “Bear” Bryant for the record for most all-time coaching victories in FBS history, but nobody could have predicted that second victory would have to wait until late in October. Penn State opened the season at home by being overpowered by a Miami team that would go on to win the BCS championship that season on an emotional night when Adam Taliaferro led the team out of the tunnel. A week later Penn State’s road game at Virginia was postponed following the attacks of September 11. When Penn State did get back on the field they were handed three straight conference losses by Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan. Penn State’s wild 38-35 victory at No. 22 Northwestern tied Paterno with Bryant with 323 career wins.
A week later Penn State hosted Ohio State, coached by some FCS coach named Jim Tressel who had just taken over the program. The Buckeyes were not playing at the level they would in the coming years just yet, but they were seemingly taking care of business against a scrappy Penn State squad, led by quarterback Zack Mills. Ohio State held on to a small lead for most of the game until they started to pull away with a 27-9 lead following a 44-yard interception return for a touchdown by Derek Ross in the third quarter. Penn State would fight all the way back in the same frame with a 69-yard touchdown run by Mills and a 26-yard pass to Tony Johnson to cut the lead to 27-22, and they would take the lead early in the fourth quarter with a 13-yard touchdown pass to Eric McCoo. Penn State’s 29-27 win moved Paterno in to first place on the all-time coaching victories list with 324 wins. He would later slip behind Bobby Bowden at Florida State, but he would relinquish the top spot a few years later.
It remains not only one of the most historic wins in Penn State’s, and Paterno’s, history, but also one of the most thrilling wins for the program.
4. 1994 Season
In Penn State’s second season in the Big Ten Joe Paterno’s team ambushed the conference from start to finish in one of the most dominant seasons in Penn State history. With an offense fueled by three top ten NFL Draft picks (No. 1 Ki-Jana Carter, No. 5 Kerry Collins and No. 9 Kyle Brady), Penn State was difficult for opposing teams to keep up with.
Penn State’s opened the season with a 56-3 win at Minnesota and silenced No. 14 USC in Beaver Stadium 38-14. Iowa gave up 35 first quarter points the following week and Rutgers and Temple never stood a chance. A key win in Ann Arbor against No. 5 Michigan vaulted Penn State to No.1 in the country but even a 63-14 thrashing of Ohio State the following week was not enough to overcome what Nebraska had done to Colorado that same weekend. Penn State fell to No. 2 in the polls and that is where they remained in the pre-BCS era that prohibited No. 2 and unbeaten Penn State from squaring off with unbeaten and top-ranked Nebraska.
Nebraska was crowned as the national champion that season, giving Paterno his fourth undefeated team to not be named national champion. To this day some feel this may have been Paterno’s best team, certainly in terms of offense.
3. 1983 Sugar Bowl
Penn State had been here before, playing for the national championship but the search for the elusive national championship victory was finally within reach for Paterno and the Nittany Lions. In the 1979 Sugar Bowl No. 1 Penn State lost to No. 2 Alabama when the Nittany Lions failed to punch in a football from the goal line, still regarded as one of the top moments in Alabama’s football history. It took Penn State a few years to make a return trip but it was worth the wait. This time they would play the underdog role against Georgia and Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker (you may have heard of him).
Todd Blackledge’s 47-yard touchdown pass to Greg Garrity gave Penn State a 27-17 lead in the fourth quarter, and Penn State’s defense had to hang on for a victory after Georgia’s John Lastinger completed a nine-yard touchdown pass to Clarence Kay late in the quarter cut the lead to 27-23. Penn State’s Curt Warner rushed for two touchdowns in the game, out-performing his Heisman counterpart.
The win cemented Penn State as a national power in college football and was the first national championship by a northern team since Notre Dame and Pittsburgh went back-to-back in 1976-77. With a national title trophy now in the trophy case Penn State was recognized as a force in college football instead of an also-ran. The success was short-lived though as Penn State struggled the following season but the groundwork was paved for a run for a second national title in the not-so-distant future.
2. Win No. 409
As fate would have it, Paterno’s final game as head coach was also his last significant milestone victory. At home, against Illinois, Penn State was struggling to get anything going on offense in the cold. Nothing Penn State did seemed to work as the Nittany Lions were shutout by Ron Zook’s Fighting Illini, looking to break a two-game losing streak in Big Ten Leaders Division play. Penn State was shutout through three quarters but the defense kept the game within reach, trailing just 7-0 heading in to the fourth quarter.
Penn State’s Anthony Fera kicked a 30-yard field goal to finally get the Nittany Lions on the scoreboard midway through the fourth quarter, and Derek Moye being a victim of pass interference set up a Silas Redd touchdown run from three yards to give Penn State a lead with just over one minute to play. Illinois moved in to position for a last-second field goal and an attempt to force overtime, but the rambunctious student section condensed behind the goal post in an effort to distract Derek Dimke, who clanked a 30-yard attempt off the right side of the goal post, securing victory for Penn State.
The win broke a tie between Joe Paterno and Grambling’s Eddie Robinson for the all-time division one coaching wins record.
A week later Paterno would be fired as a result of his link to the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal that hit the entire community pretty hard. At the time Penn State was 8-1 and sitting pretty in the Big Ten Leaders Division with three games to play after a bye week. But, as we now know, things spiraled downward for Penn State every way you looked, aside from a win at Ohio State.
1. 1987 Fiesta Bowl
No win in Paterno’s storied career will be as significant as the 1987 Fiesta Bowl, against Miami. By now you know the story of the mid-1980’s Miami Hurricanes. They were loaded, and they knew they were the best in college football. If they had played Penn State ten times they may have won nine of those meetings. Stacked with future NFL talent at all positions with guys like Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Vinny Testaverde, receiver Michael Irvin, running back Alonzo Highsmith, defensive tackle Jerome Brown, and even punter Jeff Feagles. As far as the nation was concerned, this was the ultimate battle of good (Penn State) vs. evil (Miami) in college football.
The Hurricanes walked off their team plane dressed in fatigues. Penn State showed up in their ties and sports coats. Miami players walked out on a joint-team dinner prior to the game, displaying their dissatisfaction with having to share space with Penn State.
“Did the Japanese sit down and eat with Pearl Harbor before they bombed them?” Jerome Brown said following a skit performed by Penn State punter John Bruno. “No. Well, fellas let’s go.”
“Excuse me, but didn’t the Japanese lose the war?” Bruno replied. And so the war of wit and words was on.
But it was not like a Paterno team to resort to words when it came to football. Miami continued to do their share of smack talk, and when it came to play Penn State did their talking on the field against the favored Hurricanes (seven-point favorite). Miami out gained the Nittany Lions, 445 yards to 162, and had a significant advantage in first downs, 22-8, but turnovers proved to be the difference in the game. Penn State forced seven turnovers, including five interceptions off of Testaverde. None were more important than the fifth pick, by linebacker Pete Giftopoulos, with 18 seconds left in the game and Miami in a fourth-and-goal. It was Giftopoulos’ second pick of the game and it locked up the win for Penn State, their second of the decade.
It would be Paterno’s final national championship squad, although the 1994 team came as close as you can get. One of the reasons Paterno continued to coach in to the 21st century was because he wanted to have just one more national championship run. He said this on a few occasions. His 2005 and 2008 seasons proved to be solid teams of course, but Penn State never played for another national championship since that night in Tempe.
Paterno ended his career with two national championships, five undefeated teams and six once-beaten teams. In the BCS era Paterno finished with two losses or less three times in his final seven seasons, with a pair of Big Ten championships to add to the career marks.
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