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The Lion King: Joe Paterno

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Joe Paterno at Beaver Stadium

Joe Paterno has been walking the sidlines at Penn State since 1950.

(Ken White/Getty Images)
There is no simpler way to say it: Joe Paterno was Penn State.

Successful, stubborn and highly principled, the Brooklyn native served as head coach of the Nittany Lions for a staggering 46 years, making him the longest-serving head coach in the history of college football. Even more remarkable is the often-forgotten fact that Paterno was a Penn State assistant for 15 years before taking the top job. In other words, he spent a full 62 years--his entire professional life--in Happy Valley, helping transform a once tiny university into both an academic and athletics powerhouse. And though Paterno's reign in State College ended on a sour note--he was fired in the wake of sexual abuse allegations that were made against a longtime assistant, Jerry Sandusky--his legacy remains in tact.

In his time at Penn State, Paterno literally put Penn State on the map. He picked up two national championships, won more bowl games than any other coach, was named National Coach of the Year five times, and compiled a career record of 409–136–3.

But as any Penn State partisan will point out, Paterno was always about much more than just football. A graduate of Brown University, Paterno always insisted that his Penn State program emphasize to players that college should be about education, not just football. Early in his career, he introduced the so-called “Grand Experiment,” his plan to build a program that would excel both in the classroom and on the field.

For the most part, Paterno succeeded: His teams routinely posted some of the best graduation rates in all of college football. And, of course, they won a whole lot of football games.

By The Numbers

Paterno’s career record was 409–136–3.

Penn State under Paterno recorded five undefeated, untied seasons, and a total of seven undefeated regular seasons. Four of Paterno’s undefeated, untied teams were denied the national championship, however, and the snubs made Paterno one of the nation’s leading advocates for a college football playoff system.

Thirty-five of Paterno’s teams finished in the Top 25 and thirteen finished in the Top 5. Twenty-four of them won the Lambert-Meadowlands Trophy as the best college football team in the East.

Bowl Dominance

Paterno coached in more bowl games (37) and won more bowl games (24) than any other coach. His bowl winning percentage of 66.2 places him third among coaches with at least 15 bowl visits. His Nittany Lions were 12-5 in the games that comprise the Bowl Championship Series. His record in the big four bowl games — Rose, Orange, Fiesta and Sugar — was 12-4, including his two national championship wins (over Georgia in the 1983 Sugar and Miami in the 1987 Fiesta). Paterno is the only coach in history to win the Rose, Sugar, Cotton, Orange and Fiesta bowls.

Defining Moment

When Penn State traveled to Arizona in January of 1987 to take on the No. 1 Miami Hurricanes, few gave Paterno and his Nittany Lions much of a shot.

The Hurricanes, coached by future Super Bowl winner Jimmy Johnson, boasted one of the best offenses in college football history, led by Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Vinny Testaverde and future NFL Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin, among others. Meanwhile, the Hurricane defense, anchored by defensive tackle Jerome Brown, was fast, menacing and dominant. The Hurricanes were good — and they let everyone know it, too. They loved to hit. They loved to score. They loved to talk trash. But at least they backed it up. And so in the weeks leading up to this historic Fiesta Bowl, just about everyone in college football expected Miami to dominate the conservative, old-school Nittany Lions.

Then the Nittany Lions took the field and delivered Paterno the signature win of his career. Fittingly, they did it in Penn State style — stifling defense (they intercepted Testaverde five times), mistake-free (some would say bland) offense and careful special teams. Penn State barely moved the ball, picking up just 162 yards and 8 first downs. But when the Nittany Lions defense needed to make a play, they did. And every time they got a chance to deliver a crushing hit, they did. Eventually, the punishment — and possibly the frustration — took its toll on the ‘Canes.

In the end, the Nittany Lions emerged with a 14-10 win in one of the highest-rated college football games ever played.

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