With No. 400, Paterno adds to his legend
Take a good look. There won't be another like Joe Paterno, the eternal Penn State football coach who won the 400th game of his singular career Saturday.
How could there be? There was never another like him before.
JoePa is living, breathing, coaching history, in his 45th season walking the same State College sideline. He has been Penn State's coach for more than half his 83 years, and he will be for as long as his mind and body allow.
No. 400, over very talented Big Ten Conference rival Northwestern, required a dramatic comeback from a 21-0 first-half deficit. The 35-21 victory didn't just flip Paterno's win-o-meter over from 399 to that nice round number, it qualified the team for its 37th bowl game under Paterno.
If the game of football passed Paterno by as long ago as some of his critics suggest, apparently it has come back around his way again. He has a 6-3 record in 2010 despite juggling a couple of inexperienced quarterbacks. It was Matt McGloin, who made the team as a walk-on, who engineered Saturday's Happy Valley comeback.
Not bad for a coach who, if you listened to a number of very vocal alumni and boosters, has been too old for his job for at least 10 years. Guessing when Paterno will hang up his black cleats - or when the university will figuratively push him out on his ice floe - has been a PSU parlor game for longer than most big-time college coaches hold their jobs.
It's just a hunch, but even mortality will be but a mild inconvenience. In 10 or 20 years, you'll find Paterno's spirit stalking that same sideline, wearing those same bulletproof-glass spectacles and too-short black trousers.
Paterno was typically phlegmatic as the run-up to 400 neared its inevitable end.
"When I'm down and I'm looking up, they're going to put 399 on top of me or they're going to put 401," Paterno said over the summer. "Who the hell cares? I won't know."
And it's true. The 400th win is not all that remarkable. It was the 399 that came before, the year-in, year-out excellence that allowed Paterno to add eight or nine or 10 wins a year to his tote board.
What No. 400 really represents is a chance to appreciate the wonder that is Joseph Vincent Paterno. He may have no use for that kind of sentimentality, but so what? That grumpy frumpiness is part of what makes him special. In a profession full of slick operators with thousand-dollar suits and slippery ethics, he is as no-frills and as unpretentious as the Nits' unadorned uniforms and helmets.
He is an analog coach in a digital world, your great-granddad's pocket watch keeping perfect time in a Rolex culture.
Paterno has been rock steady through decades of changing fashion, in football and in society.
He coached the Nittany Lions through the Vietnam era and the enormous changes it wrought in society and in the way young people viewed authority. He was Penn State's coach for the moon landing and the Watergate hearings and the Iranian hostage crisis. For punk rock and disco and the birth of hip-hop. For the Reagan years and the Clinton years and both Bush presidencies. He was coach when the World Trade Center was being built in Manhattan and when it was attacked. He has coached through the advent of the cell phone and the Internet.
One of his first great players, linebacker Jack Ham, went on to play 12 seasons for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Ham won four Super Bowl rings, went to eight Pro Bowls, retired in 1982, and was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1988. That was 22 years ago, and still Paterno is coaching at Linebacker U.
All that, and you get the sense very little has changed for Paterno personally. Same values, same principles, same job. Heck, he probably has clothes older than his current seniors.
"I'm literally a 15-minute walk from the office, I'm three blocks away from the campus, I'm right down from one of the town parks," Paterno said recently. "I'm around young people all the time, so I horse around with them, have a couple laughs, have some fun with them and the whole bit. Hopefully that keeps you young."
He has not remained young. Paterno has aged, sometimes gracefully and sometimes not. He is stubborn and occasionally seems oblivious to the world beyond Happy Valley. He has dealt with injury and illness and ever-changing social mores.
But he has always, always been true to himself and to his mission. He is a true original, the first and last of a kind.
"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 said last week.
In that, he has more than 400 victories. A lot more.
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