On the gridiron, things were far different than they are today. Army was second-ranked and Princeton No. 6. Penn State was an independent, decades away from joining the Big Ten Conference. H-shaped goalposts were made of wood, and players had single-bar face masks, if any at all.
Despite all that Paterno has done plying his trade in Pennsylvania’s “Happy Valley,” it wasn’t long ago that even the faithful began to think the Brooklyn native may have stayed too long at the dance. Yes, he had led the Nittany Lions to five undefeated seasons, two national championships (in 1982 and 1986), and more bowl wins than any coach in history (35) – this while making generous financial gifts to the university. But the “Grand Experiment” – Paterno’s vision for successfully marrying winning football with academic integrity – appeared to be faltering.
During a five year stretch, from 2000 to 2004, Penn State won just 26 games and finished a mortifying ninth in the Big Ten in ’03 and ’04. With “it’s-time-to-go-Joe” sentiment growing, Paterno said that if he didn’t get things turned around in 2005 he would step down. The result? The team went 11-1 and wound up tied with Ohio State for the conference title. The Nittany Lions repeated the feat in 2008.
This year Penn State is 7-1, with its lone loss coming in Week 2 to currently second-ranked Alabama. Last Saturday, it knocked off Northwestern, prompting Pat Fitzgerald, the Wildcats coach, to say, “There is a reason why Coach Paterno is tied with Eddie Robinson; he is the best ever.”