Outback Bowl: Is Joe Paterno the Greatest Coach in College Football History?
We’re just five days away from the Outback Bowl, where the 7-5 Penn State Nittany Lions will face off against the 7-5 Florida Gators. The game itself pits two talented, yet underachieving teams against each other, but the real intrigue lies in the coaching matchup.
Florida’s Urban Meyer announced earlier this month that he would be retiring after the completion of the season, while rumors have been swirling that Penn State’s legendary coach, Joe Paterno, could be stepping down due to health concerns.
Although JoePa has said he will return next season, this possible exodus from one of the college football greats could be one of the more intriguing storylines this bowl season.
With the Outback Bowl marking the potential end of an era, we examine the career of Joe Paterno and determine whether he is the greatest coach in college football history.
After serving as an assistant for Penn State from 1950 to 1965, Paterno finally took the reigns as head coach in 1966. Since then the 84-year-old Paterno has won a Division I-FCS record 401 games, including 24 bowl wins and two national championships (1982 and 1986).
Paterno has won the AFCA Coach of the Year award five times and has actually served on the Penn State’s coaching staff in some function in 691 of the school’s 1,222 games (56.5 percent) since the program’s inception in 1887.
Although Paterno passed Florida State’s Bobby Bowden and the legendary Paul "Bear" Bryant on the all-time wins list, many would argue that Paterno’s wins have been cheapened by his waning involvement in the program.
Paterno has served as more of a figurehead over the past few seasons, staying away from the recruiting trail and allowing offensive coordinator Galen Hall and defensive coordinator Tom Bradley to handle game day preparation.
These two run practice, spend long nights studying film and are the main reasons the Nittany Lions consistently bring in a top-25 recruiting class.
Paterno has led Penn State to five undefeated seasons, two national championships and is the only coach to ever win each of the four major bowls.
Since joining the Big Ten in 1993, JoePa has won three conference titles, including the 1994 title where his undefeated and untied ball club was overlooked for a shot at the national title (they were overlooked for an Orange Bowl bid by the 10-1 Miami Hurricanes).
Despite ranking first amongst Division I-FCS coaches in wins, Paterno still trails Grambling State’s Eddie Robinson for tops in collegiate history. Robinson coached for a mind-blowing 56 years at the historically black university, compiling a 408-165-15 mark.
Although Grambling State was a non-FBS school, the university churned out over 200 NFL players including future Hall of Famers Charlie Joiner, Buck Buchanan and Willie Davis.
Over his long and illustrious coaching career, Robinson turned in 45 winning seasons, including 17 SWAC (Southwestern Athletic Conference) championships.
During World War II, this man filled a litany of roles, coaching baseball and basketball while overseeing the cheerleaders and band.
Robinson coached both James Harris (the first black quarterback to ever start a professional a season opening football game) and Doug Williams (the first black QB to ever win a Super Bowl), helping the coach leave an indelible mark on college football history.
Paterno's High Standards
If Paterno stays on next season, he would likely pass Robinson to stand atop the rankings at the winningest coach in Division I college football history. Still, one has to credit Paterno’s incredibly high standards.
Robinson recorded an 11-22 record over his last three seasons at Grambling, but JoePa has always expressed a willingness to call it a career once he is no longer the best coaching option.
From 2000-2004 Penn State struggled mightily, totaling a 26-33 record over those five seasons. As fans and alumni began reluctantly calling for Paterno’s resignation, the former Brown quarterback stated, "If we don't win some games, I've got to get my rear end out of here."
However, the next season Penn State won the Big Ten championship with an 11-1 record before defeating Florida State 26-23 in the Orange Bowl. And while FSU coach Bobby Bowden was forced to vacate 12 wins due to the participation of ineligible players, Paterno’s track record is incredibly clean.
Independent Versus Big Ten Record
One possible objection to Paterno’s ranking as the greatest coach of all time concerns Penn State’s former conference status.
From 1966 to 1992, the Nittany Lions were an independent, not joining the Big Ten conference until 1993. During this time, Penn State recorded four of its undefeated seasons and both national championships.
As an independent, Paterno tallied a 247-67-3 record (78.9 percent) versus a 154-67 record in the Big Ten (70 percent). The fact that Paterno’s winning percentage dropped significantly upon his arrival in a major conference may diminish some of the legendary coach's accomplishments.
In 2006, the National Football Foundation decided to change their rules that had previously required coaches to be retired before being inducted into the Hall of Fame.
An injury suffered during a sideline collision delayed Paterno’s introduction for over a year, but on December 4, 2007 Paterno was inducted into the Hall of Fame, officially making him a living legend.
Paul "Bear" Bryant
While Paterno has been without question one of the top coaches in NCAA history, there are many who would argue that the title of greatest ever belongs to “Bear” Bryant.
The former Alabama head coach compiled a 323-86-17 record (79 percent winning percentage to Paterno’s 75 percent mark), while winning 14 SEC titles and six national championships.
Bryant led the Crimson Tide to 15 bowl wins and was named SEC Coach of the Year an astounding 12 times. And while Paterno’s 38 winning seasons are one more than Bryant, JoePa has recorded five losing seasons to Bryant’s one.
Impact on the Game
When people start naming awards after you, it’s always a good sign that you’ve made a lasting impact on the game.
Earlier this month, the Stagg-Paterno championship trophy was established as the annual trophy to be awarded to the winner of the Big Ten championship. This prestigious honor comes just months after the Maxwell Football Club established the Joseph V. Paterno Award to recognize the coach “who has made a positive impact on his university, his players and his community.”
Paterno’s vocal criticism of the officiating during the 2002 season was a catalyst for change, and was one of the main factors in the addition of instant replay to the college game.
As we sit less than a week away from what may be Paterno’s last game, it’s the perfect opportunity to appreciate a man who has meant so much to this sport.
As Division I-FCS' winningest coach, it’s somewhat easy to argue for Paterno as college football’s greatest coach of all time. After all, this living legend has won an NCAA-record 24 bowl games, including two national championships. He’s changed the way the game is officiated and was the first college football coach ever to be named Sports Illustrated's “Sportsman of the Year.”
Still, the title of greatest coach ever belongs to Bear Bryant. We can argue for days whether or not the SEC was as talented as the Big Ten without ever reaching a consensus. However, Bryant won more four more championships than Paterno with a higher career winning percentage, including an unbelievable 83.4 percent at Alabama.
I hate to take anything away from a coach with as much impact on the collegiate game as Joe Paterno, but Bear Bryant is the greatest coach in NCAA football history.