STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) – Now, Joe Paterno has truly done it all at Penn State.

He built a powerhouse, sustained it for decades, saw it slip into to the depths of the Big Ten and then performed maybe his greatest trick of all by returning the Nittany Lions to prominence.

Joe Pa’s all the rage again and Happy Valley might be the giddiest it’s ever been.

After beating Ohio State 17-10, the resurgent Nittany Lions are 6-0 for the first time in six years. They’ll head to Michigan on Saturday alone atop the conference and with very real national title hopes.

The 78-year-old Paterno, of course, doesn’t see what all the fuss is about.

“I never felt that we were far away,” he said.

Coach, you might be the only one.

Even in this new era of college football, where tradition guarantees nothing (just ask Notre Dame and Alabama) and contenders have sprouted in once-barren places (think Virginia Tech and Kansas State), Penn State’s decline after 1999 was dramatic.

After only one losing season in 34 years, Paterno and the Nittany Lions were below .500 in four of the last five years. The past two years they won a total of three Big Ten games.

And forget about being a factor on the national scene: Penn State had been passed by Wisconsin and Purdue in the Big Ten pecking order and found itself hanging out at the bottom of the standings with Illinois and Indiana. At least those schools could look forward to basketball season.

Paterno passed Bear Bryant as the winningest coach in major college football in 2001 with a win No. 324. Two years later, Florida State’s Bobby Bowden passed Paterno. Bowden currently leads 356-349.

While it’s been tempting to compare Bowden’s recent “struggles” to Paterno’s, in reality there is no comparison.

From 2001-2004, Bowden and the Seminoles went 36-15, never winning less than eight games.

From 2000-2004, Paterno’s Nittany Lions went 26-33.

In the public eye, Paterno had become a stodgy caricature of himself, bristling at those who suggested the program was getting away from him and griping about poor officiating.

Paterno can’t recruit anymore, the critics said. He set the program back by making his son, Jay, the quarterbacks coach. Penn State was sliding down a slippery slope, the deeper they sank the more unlikely it seemed Paterno could get it turned around.

But what could athletic director Tim Curley and university president Graham Spanier do? This was uncharted territory – none of college football’s coaching icons had ever endured such a woeful run.

Certainly not Bryant at Alabama. Bo Schembechler left Michigan never having had a losing season. Woody Hayes had one at Ohio State. Rebuilding for them was bouncing back from a 6-5 season. Hayden Fry’s worst season at Iowa (3-8 in 1998) was his last.

But if any coach had earned the right to determine his own departure it was Paterno, the man whose name is on the library at Penn State.

So Curley and Spanier did the only thing they could do: They supported Paterno and hoped.

And as it turns out, Paterno was right. Despite the losses, there was reason to be hopeful. As far back as 2003, some Penn State supporters had targeted 2005 as the Nittany Lions’ return to glory.

Recruiting appeared to be on the upswing with linebacker Paul Posluszny leading a solid class in 2003 and fellow backer Dan Connor as the prize of another strong class in 2004. The defense was among the best in the country last year, but the offense was anemic and a 4-7 record made it tough to accentuate the positives.

“I didn’t feel that we were that much out of it,” Paterno said. “I knew we had to go out and get a couple of kids that could make plays. We went out and worked hard and were fortunate to get four or five.”

Most notable are freshman Derrick Williams and Justin King.

The two fleet receivers have helped bring the big play back to State College. And Paterno’s patience with and loyalty to quarterback Michael Robinson has also paid off.

The result has been a dynamic, new-age offense to go along with that rugged, old-school defense.

And the fans are eating it up. With winning no longer a given, Penn State fans young and old are embracing the rebirth and the program’s new role as underdog up-and-comer.

“The students were absolutely unbelievable,” Paterno said. “In all the years I have been here, I have never seen more spontaneous enthusiasm and wanting to help.”

In his first 39 season as Penn State’s head coach, Paterno won two national titles and had five unbeaten seasons. In his 40th season, he’s become the Comeback Kid.



Ralph D. Russo covers college football for The Associated Press. Write to him at rrusso(at)ap.org.

AP-ES-10-10-05 0020EDT


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