STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — The remarkable career of Joe Paterno can reach another pinnacle Saturday.
Penn State’s iconic leader is just a win away from his 400th victory, a milestone no other FBS coach has ever reached. Only Northwestern stands in the way when the Wildcats (6-2, 2-2 Big Ten) visit Beaver Stadium on Saturday.
Not one to promote his own accomplishments, Paterno pleaded this week to keep the focus on the game and not his 45-year tenure on the sideline with the Nittany Lions (5-3, 2-2).
“You’re going to win a couple of games in that time. I really don’t give it much thought,” said Paterno, who turns 84 next month. “It’s not going to make a difference if I win 390 or 400 wins or how ever many.”
But whether he likes it or not, JoePa is the talk of Happy Valley — and much of the rest of the college football world, too. He’s got one especially big fan in the South.
“Joe is going to reach a goal that I wanted to reach,” former Florida State coach and fellow Hall of Famer Bobby Bowden said in a phone interview Thursday from his Florida home. “I’m pulling for Joe to make it. There’s a lot of pressure on this game. Everybody’s expecting him to get his 400th win in this game.”
Bowden at one time was locked in a duel with Paterno for the most wins among major college coaches before a messy split with school administrators had Bowden leaving as Seminoles coach after the 2009 season following 34 years.
Nowadays, Bowden is busy promoting his new book, “Called to Coach,” in which good friend Paterno wrote a foreword. Bowden finished with 389 wins, though 12 were vacated by Florida State following an academic cheating scandal.
After Paterno, only Eddie Robinson (408) at Grambling State of the FCS and John Gagliardi (476) at St. John’s, Minn., have more victories among coaches in all NCAA levels. Like Paterno, Gagliardi is still active, in his 62nd year overall, and 58th at his Division III school.
Bowden doesn’t think anyone else will stick around as long to get the chance to accumulate so many wins.
“Not likely. It doesn’t seem to be the style nowadays,” said Bowden, citing reasons including high salaries and the pressure that comes with the big paycheck, as well as the allure of professional coaching. “And there doesn’t seem to be the desire to stay in it as long as Joe and I have had.”
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald doesn’t think he’ll still be coaching in his mid-80s. But he does admire the way Paterno has run his program, stressing academics as well as athletics.
The most recent NCAA analysis found Penn State had a graduation rate of 84 percent, 17 points above the FBS average and second in the Big Ten only to Northwestern (95 percent).
“Coach Paterno is college football. Anyone that has the role of head coach aspires to run the type of program he has run for 45 years. It starts off the field,” Fitzgerald said. “You look at his success on the field it’s incredible. Anyone in my role would like to emulate that success.”
With one exception for Fitzgerald: Saturday.
Boasting the second-best passing attack in the Big Ten, Northwestern can be a handful led by quarterback and Bethlehem, Pa., native Dan Persa. Fitzgerald said this week that Persa was on schedule to play after suffering a concussion during last week’s win at Indiana.
Persa ranks 12th nationally in total offense, accounting for almost 303 yards per game, but his coach values him especially for his stoic leadership.
“If guys aren’t enthusiastic, I don’t give them pom-poms and ask them to be cheerleaders,” he said. “He’s a guy who’s really focused and determined to help our team win, and I don’t see any negative in that.”
Penn State has its own quarterback questions after Paterno said Rob Bolden and Matt McGloin would compete for the starting job against the Wildcats. Bolden missed last week’s game over Michigan after recovering from a concussion, and McGloin threw 250 yards and a score in the win.
Paterno has said Bolden is feeling much better, but that he wanted to put his freshman through a full week of practice before deciding whether he should regain his starting job.
Not surprisingly, Paterno hadn’t mentioned the milestone during drills.
“Just normal Joe, making fun, making his laughs, trying to relax tensions,” linebacker Bani Gbadyu said. “He hasn’t brought up anything with the 400 wins, but everyone knows what it would mean for him, what it would mean for the program.”