With his big, thick glasses and even thicker white socks, Joe Paterno never has been what anyone would consider flashy.
So when he finally matched Bear Bryant with that magical 323rd victory -- after almost a year of waiting and more criticism than he's faced in his career -- his understated reaction was almost fitting. There was no Gatorade bath, no triumphant ride off the field on his players' shoulders, nothing to give away that this was anything special.
"I'm just excited for this football team. I didn't even think about it until one of the television guys came up to me after the game," Paterno said after Penn State's 38-35 upset of Northwestern on Saturday enabled him to match Bryant's Division I-A record for all-time wins.
"Sure it means a lot," Paterno continued. "If I got it, fine. If I didn't get it, I wouldn't have worried about it. I'm just fortunate enough to have coached as many games as I have. I've enjoyed every one of them."
Paterno is 323-94-3 in 36 seasons at Penn State. Bryant was 323-85-17 in 38 seasons at Maryland, Kentucky, Texas A&M and Alabama.
If Paterno savors this victory, it will be because of how hard his team worked for it. He's had amazing success at Penn State, with five perfect seasons and two national titles.
But he's going through the roughest stretch of his career, with the Nittany Lions (1-4, 1-3 Big Ten) opening the season 0-4 for the first time. They had lost 14 of their last 20 games, and some questioned whether the game has passed the 74-year-old Paterno by.
He insisted it hasn't, and he proved it Saturday. While Northwestern ran its high-octane spread offense, Paterno dug out the power-I formation, an offense Penn State hasn't used since the '70s.
With three tailbacks in the backfield, the country's worst rushing offense -- make that worst offense, period -- ground out 213 yards rushing, more than its four previous games combined. The Nittany Lions had 501 yards of total offense and came from behind five times.
They finally sealed the victory when Zack Mills -- a freshman quarterback, of all people -- connected with Eric McCoo on a 4-yard touchdown pass with 22 seconds left.
The loss dropped Northwestern (4-2, 2-2) out of the Top 25.
"He still has it," Penn State safety Shawn Mayer said of Paterno. "He isn't coaching any differently. It's just that no one was making any plays."
Omar Easy, who had 38 yards rushing, agreed.
"He knows everything. He can't be stopped," Easy said.
Paterno has insisted all year that his chase of Bryant's record wasn't a distraction to him or his team. After he finally reached it, his players agreed, saying the losing caused them more stress than anything.
"We're more happy with the win," Easy said. "He has the record, it's over with, let's move on. We can't dwell on him getting those wins."
Paterno has six games left to pass Bryant, starting next Saturday against Ohio State. But the Nittany Lions don't get any breaks the rest of the way, facing the Buckeyes, Southern Mississippi, No. 22 Illinois, Michigan State and Virginia.
Their only "easy" game is Nov. 17, against Indiana. And Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, who won his 319th game Saturday night, might be right there with Paterno and Bryant by then.
But the victory over Northwestern will give his young team some badly needed confidence, Paterno said. Now that they've won a game, who knows what can happen the rest of the way?
"I just feel great for these kids because they needed to do what they did -- make plays in the clutch," he said. "I think they'll feel better about themselves now and be more competitive the rest of the way.
"I've been trying to convince them they're good enough to win. If we had walked away from this place without a win, it would have been a difficult job to convince them of that."
So for one night at least, Paterno can enjoy his success. And as he answered question after question about the record, the magnitude of what he accomplished seemed to sink in.
"This is one of the really good ones I've been around. This is one of the really important ones," he said. "I'll go home, probably get in trouble with a good stiff bourbon, take a couple-hour nap and then look at some Ohio State tape."
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