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Reflecting On Joe Paterno’s 409th Win One Decade Later

It was Saturday, October 29, 2011.

No. 19 Penn State football (7-1, 4-0 Big Ten) took on Illinois (6-2, 2-2 Big Ten) on a cold, snowy Saturday afternoon in Happy Valley. About 60,000 fans were in attendance in anticipation of head coach Joe Paterno potentially breaking Eddie Robinson’s record to become the winningest coach in Division I college football history.

There wasn’t much action throughout the game, as the temperature and precipitation limited each team’s ability to move the ball effectively. The game was a scoreless tie going into halftime, but the Fighting Illini struck first with a touchdown in the third quarter, putting them up 7-0. Penn State kicker Anthony Fera drilled a 30-yard field goal in the fourth quarter to cut the team’s deficit to four points, and Silas Redd rushed for a three-yard touchdown with 1:08 to play in the game, capping off a 10-play, 80-yard drive.

The Fighting Illini drove the ball down to Penn State’s 25-yard line, setting themselves up for a 42-yard field goal to send the game to overtime with five seconds left. Illinois kicker Derek Dimke, who hadn’t missed a field goal attempt all year, knocked his kick off the right upright, giving Paterno his 409th win to break Robinson’s record.

Little did the world know, the win would be JoePa’s last. Eleven days later, Paterno was fired in the wake of the Sandusky child sex abuse scandal, and 74 days after that, Paterno died on January 22, 2012.

Fast forward seven months to July 2012, one month after Jerry Sandusky was convicted on 45 counts of child sex abuse, Penn State removed the Joe Paterno statue from outside of Beaver Stadium. One day later, the NCAA imposed heavy sanctions on Penn State football, including vacating 111 of Paterno’s wins from 1998 to 2011 to drop him to 12th on the all-time list.

Three years later, as a part of a settlement between the NCAA and Penn State, the NCAA reinstated Paterno’s last 111 wins, moving him back to the winningest Division I college football coach of all time.

Ten years later, it’s hard not to reminisce over the legendary coach’s time at Penn State.

With 409 wins and over 45 years as head coach, five undefeated seasons, three Big Ten championships, and two national titles, Paterno’s accomplishments on the field speak for themselves. More importantly, his accomplishments off the field were just as impactful to players, students, and alumni alike.

Once Paterno was appointed head coach of Penn State football in 1966, he began his “grand experiment” — an initiative to blend athletic and academic success. It quickly proved to be a success for Paterno, with Penn State’s players consistently demonstrating above-average academic success compared to other Division I schools nationwide. Even when he was on top of the college football world, Paterno helped to set the bar for academic standards in college athletics as he preached “success with honor.”

In 2011, the year Paterno was fired, Penn State had the highest graduation rate of its football players (80%) without showing an achievement gap between Black and white players, which was rare for Division I teams, according to TIME magazine. Countless players, including former offensive tackle Donovan Smith, have said they attribute their degrees to Joe Paterno.

Paterno’s commitment to academics didn’t benefit only the players in the locker room, either, but it benefited every student at Penn State and its surrounding community. After challenging Penn State’s Board of Trustees to push Penn State into becoming a leading academic institution in his 1983 speech, Paterno and his wife, Sue, donated more than $4 million to the university and helped raise over $13.5 million for the construction of a five-story addition to the Pattee Library, which was named after the Paterno family. The Paternos also donated $1 million to help fund the expansion of Mount Nittany Medical Center in 2009.

Ten years later, Paterno’s accomplishments and impact on Penn State should not be forgotten. The university has changed massively in the last decade, but Paterno’s values of “success with honor” and winning the right way are still upheld in the athletics program and university.

409 isn’t just a number that you see on flags and t-shirts while walking through the Beaver Stadium tailgate fields, nor is it a number that only signifies Paterno’s wins that made him the winningest coach in Division I college football history. The iconic figure signifies the life-long impact he made on countless individuals and Penn State as a whole, and that’s the way it should be.

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About the Author

Frankie Marzano

Frankie is a senior accounting and economics major from Long Island, NY. You can probably recognize him as the typical Italian-American with slicked back black hair. He is an avid fan of the New York Rangers and Mets, along with every Penn State Athletics team. Follow him on Twitter @frankiemarzano for obnoxious amounts of Rangers and Penn State content or email him at [email protected]

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