UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Penn State's Joe Paterno is nearing yet another milestone in his legendary coaching career.
He needs one more victory to become the first major-college coach to reach 400 wins and could do it as early as Saturday against Northwestern at Beaver Stadium.
"I know Joe won't say it, but 400 is a heck of a number," said former Penn State All-American tailback Curt Warner. "It's an amazing feat."
"It's a record that may never be broken again," said Jack Ham, a former Penn State All-American linebacker and current Nittany Lions' radio analyst.
Only two coaches in NCAA history have reached the 400-win plateau.
John Gagliardi has 476 victories in 62 seasons of college coaching and has spent the past 58 years at Division III St. John's University in Minnesota. The late Eddie Robinson had 408 wins in 56 seasons at Division I-AA Grambling State University.
Gagliardi and Paterno are members of the College Football Hall of Fame. Gagliardi celebrated his 84th birthday Monday. Paterno turns 84 next month.
"His career is more than wins," said Gagliardi, who met Paterno last year at the American Football Coaches Association convention in Nashville, Tenn. "He is the gold standard for coaches. He has done it the right way, with good students who graduate."
Paterno worked 16 years as an assistant under Rip Engle before succeeding him as Penn State's coach in 1966. Paterno is in his 45th season and has won 75 percent of his games, with a career record of 399-132-3.
"This milestone [400 wins] is unique in that you can't compare it to anything else," said Ham, who earned four Super Bowl rings during a Hall of Fame career with the Steelers. "The longevity of Joe's career and what he's meant to college football is unbelievable. Thank God he never left.
"When I was playing [at Penn State], he almost went to Pittsburgh, he almost went to Green Bay, he almost went to the New York Giants as a pro coach. I think it's great for college football that he decided not to do that. He is one of the true icons in college football."
Former Penn State quarterback and current ABC/ESPN analyst Todd Blackledge, who led Paterno's Lions to their first national championship in 1982, said his former coach is a special person.
"We're lucky -- I don't mean just Penn State people, but anyone who loves college football -- every day that we have with him," Blackledge said. "There won't be anybody like him. We lost Bobby [Bowden] this year and I hated to see that happen to him.
"We need to just relish however many more days, months, years we have Joe."
Outside linebacker Bani Gbadyu and wide receiver Graham Zug hope that Penn State (5-3, 2-2 Big Ten) can deliver victory No. 400 Saturday.
"Players love being around him and playing for him. Getting a milestone like that would be amazing, but we're expecting a dogfight," Gbadyu said. Northwestern is 6-2 this season, 2-2 in the Big Ten.
"It would be great to get [the win] in front of the home crowd, with the fans cheering [coach Paterno on], and cheering the team on," Zug said.
As typi'cal, Paterno tried to downplay win No. 400 this week, but he did reflect on his lengthy coaching career.
"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, you know, I've not ever gotten to the point where I have 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, [it's] because, geez, you hang around long enough. ... I really don't give it much thought."
Paterno has led Penn State to five undefeated seasons and two national titles. There have been 863 coaching changes in Division I since he took over the Lions' program.
"My commitment to what I've done with my life is to try to develop some things with some people, 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," said Paterno, whose contract expires at the end of next season.
"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."
Ham has heard the Paterno retirement rumors for years. But Ham dismisses them, even if Paterno does secure win No. 400.
"Of course, he's slowed down and he's delegating more things, but Joe's still got that energy level about him that you don't see in many other people his age," Ham said.
"Will he leave? I thought he was going to do that 10 or 15 years ago. He's got a good, young football team coming back next year. I don't see him going anywhere."
Ron Musselman: firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published November 4, 2010 4:00 AM