You wouldn't think that there would be anything left for Joe Paterno to accomplish at Penn State.
He's been coaching the Nittany Lions since 1966. Paterno has said that, when he told his father of his occupational decision, his father replied, "For God's sake, what did you go to college for?"
It was a fair question, I suppose, given that Paterno was taking over a program that had been mediocre at best in the previous years.
He began his tenure with a victory over Maryland on Sept. 17, 1966. That win — or the one over Boston College a few weeks later — probably qualified as his signature win in that first season at the helm. All the teams the Nittany Lions faced who had winning records that year defeated Penn State.
The next year, though, after a 1–2 start, Paterno led the Nittany Lions to seven straight wins and a Liberty Bowl date with Florida State (the teams fought to a 17–17 tie).
And the next two seasons were even better for Paterno and his teams. Their record was 22–0, which meant that, entering the 1970 season, they had won 27 of their last 28 games — and might have won all 28 if college football had allowed overtime in those days.
They also won a couple of Orange Bowls in the late 1960s, but they didn't win a national championship.
For a long time, the national title seemed a prize Paterno would never grab. He instructed many great players. He had many great teams. He coached against (and often defeated) the best of his contemporaries — Bear Bryant, Darrell Royal, Woody Hayes, Barry Switzer, Tom Osborne — but he always seemed to come up just short when the national title was on the line.
That changed in 1982, and he won another national crown in 1986.
He's won more bowl games than any other coach in the history of college football.
And now, he's won more games — period.
Yesterday's 10–7 triumph over Illinois was sloppy, but, as Stewart Mandel points out in Sports Illustrated, it was "exactly the type of game Paterno enjoys most" — one in which defense and rushing play prominent roles.
So it was appropriate for the occasion. It was Paterno's 409th Division I victory.
The milestone, in which Paterno passed Eddie Robinson of Grambling, is largely symbolic, Mandel writes, which is a fair conclusion. The Illini appear to have peaked, having been in the rankings a few weeks ago but they've stumbled lately.
Penn State has sometimes been criticized for not playing the toughest of schedules, but Robinson rarely, if ever, faced the kind of programs that Paterno has faced, particularly since Penn State joined the Big Ten nearly two decades ago.
It did seem more important when he surprassed Bryant's victory total a decade ago. Bryant, after all, built his record by beating the likes of LSU and Auburn and Georgia every year — not Rutgers and Syracuse and Temple.
Nevertheless, as Mandel said, Paterno deserves our recognition and praise. "In a sport filled with misguided, misbehaved or flat–out devious individuals, JoePa remains our moral compass, as he has for more than five decades."