UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa.
This wonderful, magical night at the State University of Pennsylvania was about an amazing number, but it isn't the one you might think. It wasn't so much about Joe Paterno's 400th career coaching win -- a 35-21 come-from-behind stunner against Northwestern Saturday -- although that's an extraordinary total that you and your kids and their kids never will see matched in your and their lifetimes by one coach at one school at the highest level of college football. It was more about the 104,147 fans who came to Beaver Stadium to see sports history, a much different, more throbbing crowd than the one of 40,911 who turned out at the stadium for Paterno's first victory against Maryland back on Sept. 17, 1966. Really, it's about the total number of fans who have watched Penn State play at Beaver Stadium during the Paterno era, now in its 45th year and showing no signs of stopping.
Good luck wrapping your arms around that figure.
"It's funny; his whole thing when I played here [in the late-1960s] was about putting Penn State on the map," former All-American and Steelers Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Ham was musing about Paterno before the game Saturday. "People thought we were the University of Pennsylvania. They thought we were in Philadelphia. Now, they know better."
Certainly, the big crowd Saturday night realized what Paterno has meant to Penn State. Just about all of the 104,000-and-change hung around to watch the classy on-field tribute that school officials did for him. Video on the scoreboard took him way back in time, tracing his life at Penn State, beginning in 1950 when he broke his parents' hearts by passing up law school to join coach Rip Engle's staff for the first of 16 seasons as an assistant coach. His wife, Sue, was on his arm. His five children, including son, Jay, his quarterbacks coach, who was in tears, were there on the podium, as were their spouses and the 17 Paterno grandchildren.
You should have heard those fans roar when they finally handed Paterno the microphone. His voice, so weak this summer when he was sick and looking as if he wouldn't make it through the season, sounded mighty fine and powerful. At that incredible moment, he didn't look at all 83, soon to be 84 on Dec. 21.
"People ask me why I've stayed here so long," Paterno said. "You know what, look around ... Look around."
It was an incredible sight.
The energy was staggering.
It's just one piece of the Paterno legacy, a legacy that's unmatched in college football history. There's the Paterno Library on campus. The $4 million he and Sue have donated to Penn State. The countless millions he has raised as the university's best goodwill ambassador.
And, of course, those 400 wins.
"I can't imagine anyone ever getting there again unless they start playing 25 games a year in college football," Ham gushed under his white "JoePa" ballcap,
A man has to have incredible staying power to get to that number. Harry Truman was in the White House when Paterno joined Engle's staff. Ten presidents have come and gone since then with there being no guarantees that the 11th -- Barack Obama -- will outlast Paterno. In typical fashion for a man who's always looking ahead to the next game, the last thing he told the crowd was, "Now that the celebration is over, let's go beat Ohio State [next Saturday]!" He didn't sound at all as if he was close to retiring.
That's just fine with the Penn State students. They like living in "Paternoville" outside Beaver Stadium the night before home games, better to get the good seats when they open the gates. They had chanted "JoePa-Terno" as the clock ticked down on Penn State's comeback from a 21-0 deficit, matching the largest comeback by a Paterno team. Cameras flashed throughout the stadium. People wanted to capture the moment. Kids held up signs, "400 The Paterno Way." The scoreboard rolled off a list of each of his wins. Good thing the Penn State people did it at the same speed they run movie credits or we'd still be waiting for the finish.
"It's not just about the 400 wins," Penn State athletic director Tim Curley told the crowd. "It's about how they were accomplished: Success with honor and integrity."
400 The Paterno Way.
The final words here are reserved for Alabama coach Nick Saban, one of the many coaches who only can dream of having a career like Paterno's. His team put a 24-3 licking on Penn State in Tuscaloosa Sept. 11, giving Paterno one of his 132 defeats.
"In his 45 years at Penn State," Saban said, "there isn't a classier program or classier gentleman, a better teacher or a guy who has affected more lives in a positive way ... "
What a nice way to be remembered.
And 400 wins to boot!
"I've been awfully lucky," Paterno said, quietly.
Pretty good, too.
Ron Cook: email@example.com . Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.