JoePa's road to No. 400 worth savoring

November, 1, 2010
11/01/10
2:57
PM ET
It took a little longer than expected for Joe Paterno to reach the doorstep of career win No. 400.

[+] EnlargePaterno
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarJoe Paterno needs one victory to be the first coach to reach 400 at the Division I-A/FBS level.
But after 61 years of Paterno at Penn State, the past 45 as Nittany Lions head coach, what's an extra week or two?

Besides, these days are worth savoring for anyone who loves college football. Especially since we won't see this again.

Paterno recorded his 399th victory Saturday night against Michigan, and he'll take his first stab at 400 this week when Penn State hosts Northwestern at Beaver Stadium. ESPNU will look back at Paterno's journey to the historic milestone during a show called "Going for 400: the Life and Legacy of Joe Paterno," which airs tonight at 7 p.m. ET.

Only two college coaches have recorded 400 victories: John Gagliardi, who has 476 and counting at Division III St. John's University in Minnesota; and the late Eddie Robinson, who won 408 games at Grambling before retiring in 1997. Paterno would be the first to reach the milestone at the Division I-A/FBS level.

"Coach Paterno is college football," said Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, whose team tries to put No. 400 on hold for another week. "Anyone that has the goal of head coach aspires to be able to run the kind of program coach Paterno has run for 45 years. ... What makes Joe so much fun is, he is who he is. He doesn't try to be someone he shouldn't be."

We'll never see another one quite like Paterno, who undoubtedly will want to spend more time this week talking about who will start at quarterback than his road to No. 400.

He recorded his 100th victory in 1976 against NC State, when Fitzgerald was a month shy of his second birthday. Win No. 200 came 11 years later as Penn State opened the season by blowing out Bowling Green. Another 11 years passed before Paterno recorded No. 300, also against Bowling Green.

The jump from 300 to 400 has brought some unique challenges, as Paterno went through the roughest stretch of his career between 2000-04, suffering four losing seasons. He became the all-time Division I-A wins leader in 2001, but his Penn State tenure appeared to be on life support after a 4-7 campaign in 2004.

But Joe wasn't ready to go, and the Penn State program revived itself in 2005 with a Big Ten championship. The Lions have averaged 10 wins since 2005.

This year has brought more adversity for the Lead Lion. Health issues after spring practice forced him to cancel several appearances, and he looked frail at Big Ten preseason media days, leading many to believe this would be his final season.

After Penn State stumbled to a 3-3 start, it seemed like No. 400 might not come in 2010. Back-to-back wins have eased some anxiety, and while Penn State isn't out of the woods, Paterno needs only one more for the milestone.

Fitzgerald, who has won 33 games at Northwestern, was asked Monday if he could ever see himself approaching 400 wins in his eighties.

"I'll be in margaritaville," Fitzgerald said. "No way."

Paterno could have headed in the same direction decades ago, but he's still here, trying to win football games.

Everyone wants to know what comes next and who comes next at Penn State. Those are valid questions.

But it's a lot more fun to enjoy Paterno, and to enjoy this moment.

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