JoePa bears down in defeat

John Eligon

If Penn State’s 0-4 start is enough to get Joe Paterno’s critics riled up and calling for his job, then perhaps a quick glance at the 74-year-old coach’s numbers is needed to help silence the clamor.

In his 36th year at the Nittany Lions’ helm, Paterno has amassed 322 wins and 20 bowl victories. He’s produced 55 first-team All-Americans, more than 250 professional players, five undefeated seasons and two national championships.

Still not convinced?

Then consider Paterno’s awe-inspiring presence at the American Football Coaches Association meeting 11 years ago, which Northwestern head coach Randy Walker witnessed firsthand.

“There were people battering things back and forth: ‘You’ve got to do it this way, you’ve got to do it that way,'” Walker says. “I just kept my mouth shut watching, and all of a sudden Joe Paterno would stand up. No one similar could command that order of respect. It was just like a hush. What he said carried a lot of weight and everybody listened.

“I’ll never forget the impact he had. I just went, ‘Whew!'”

Paterno, who began his career at Penn State in 1950 as an assistant coach, is once again hearing lots of chatter this season — but not for the usual reasons. The Nittany Lions are off to their worst start in the program’s storied 115-year history, and Paterno is still one win shy of Paul “Bear” Bryant’s career wins record. This news has been too loud for even a legend to silence.

And despite being deafened by talk of the elusive 323rd win, Paterno maintains that he’s looking the other way.

“I try not to pay any attention to them,” he says. “I don’t read the newspapers or listen to any talk shows. I know who I am and I know what kind of football team I have. I wish people wouldn’t ask me because they waste my time.”

Penn State players are trying especially hard to avoid the talk in hopes of turning their season around.

“It’s not affecting us because we don’t even talk about it,” Nittany Lions junior wideout Bryant Johnson says. “Our objective is to go out there and get one win under our belt so we can get rolling.”

Although talk of the record may not be bothering the players, something has clearly gotten under the skin of this perennial power.

After finishing no worse than fifth in the Big Ten every year since they entered the league in 1993, the Nittany Lions currently have the worst record in conference. They’re also last in the league in 14 statistical categories — including total offense and total defense.

Paterno attributes the team’s deficiencies to an inept running game, careless mistakes, bad field position and poor execution. He also credits the opposition.

No. 1 Miami trounced Penn State 33-7 in the season opener. Since then, the Nittany Lions have dropped games to Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan.

And the road doesn’t get any easier for Penn State, which still has games against NU, Illinois, Ohio State and Michigan State. The Nittany Lions also will play host to Southern Mississippi, which boasts one of the nation’s best defenses.

Paterno’s best chance to tie Bryant’s record may come on Nov. 17, when his team hosts the Big Ten’s second-worst team, Indiana.

But Paterno says he doesn’t want his players to even think about the record.

“I have never spoken to my players one word about how many games I want to win or lose,” Paterno says. “I get paid to help them be as good a football team as they can be.

“They want to win for themselves. They work hard and practice hard. They’ll only be in college for four years, some of them five. They ought to enjoy every moment of it and not worry about whether some old bloke whose been coaching for 150 years is going to win more games than somebody else. “

Although Paterno has always been the kind of coach who’s not afraid to crouch under center and show his quarterbacks how to take a snap, many players have noticed a minor change in his style.

“He’s a lot more involved in encouraging people,” Penn State senior linebacker Shamar Finney says. “He takes a lot more time to show people what to do. He’s gotten more involved in individuals doing things the right way.”

One thing about Paterno remains the same, no matter what has happened to his winning percentage as of late.

“He’s still the same guy that’s hungry and wants to win,” Johnson says.

While Paterno usually exhibits a cool persona in public, he has had brief episodes of frustration this season.

“The only thing I feel like doing right now is punching a wall,” Paterno told reporters following Penn State’s Sept. 22 loss to Wisconsin.

And after losing 20-0 to Michigan two weeks ago, Paterno inadvertently knocked over a water bottle during the postgame press conference — an act symbolic of Penn State’s season so far.

“I think on TV and at games he seems to be a lot more cool and calm,” junior center Joe Iorio says. “He’s definitely a lot more frustrated with the losing thing. Behind the scenes, he’s a lot more intense. He wants to see people improve. He gets up in their faces. He’s a real fireball.”

Yet Paterno isn’t the only one gritting his teeth.

“He’s not a loser,” junior quarterback Matt Senneca says of Paterno. “I feel for all the coaches and all my teammates. Nobody came here to lose. This isn’t what Penn State’s about.”

Should the Nittany Lions’ woes lead them to a winless season, Paterno will still boast a stellar 322-101-3 career record.

“That isn’t an accident,” Walker says. “It isn’t just because he’s a good-looking, nice guy that gets good players. He’s done some of the right things, made the right decisions in coaching for a long, long time.

“You don’t ever say, ‘things don’t get broken’ or ‘there’ll never be another one like him.’ But you get close to saying that about Joe Paterno. Golly, it’s hard to fathom what he’s accomplished.”

That’s no surprise — there’s only one “JoePa.”