STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- On his morning walk, 'ol No. 300 hit Joe Paterno like a locomotive.
"I really didn't think it would be a big deal until this morning," the choked up Paterno said Saturday after No. 9 Penn State beat Bowling Green 48-3 and gave JoePa his 300th victory. "I got to think about a lot of things, my first game ... A lot of things went through my mind, and I thought I'd better be careful or I'll get carried away."
He was carried away all right. After twice being doused with water as the final seconds ticked down, two of Paterno's players lifted him onto their shoulders and carried him to the middle of the field.
By then, Paterno was truly overcome with emotion. As he was handed a microphone to address the fans, who a few minutes earlier were chanting "Joe Pa-terno!" it was tough to tell if he was wiping away sweat, tears or water. With those thick glasses he wears, who could tell?
"I'm so overwhelmed, I really can't tell you how welled up I am with the memories," Paterno said after becoming the sixth coach in NCAA history to win 300 games. "After 48 years at Penn State, I salute all the efforts of every team I've been a part of, and that includes all you fans and all you alumni. I love every one of you. After all, we are ... "
And the crowd answered: "Penn State!"
The 71-year-old Paterno tried his best to lay low this week, choosing to sidestep most questions about reaching 300.
"I would have been jumping up and down and waving my hands," linebacker Brandon Short said.
Paterno didn't go that far, but after being presented with a portrait of he and his wife, Sue, and a cake with the number 300 on it, JoePa was headed home for his post-game pasta party for 60.
"I think a lot of guys just respect the moment," cornerback David Macklin said. "I know I really respect coach Paterno and what he has accomplished. As a kid, I remember watching Penn State games on TV and seeing him and now I'm a part of it."
Playing the game was easy. Cordell Mitchell ran 77 yards for a touchdown on Penn State's first play, Bruce Branch followed 83 seconds later with a 73-yard punt return for a score and the Nittany Lions coasted.
Penn State (2-0) also scored on interception returns of 16 yards by Lavon Arrington and 30 yards by Joe Dawkins, and Mitchell finished with 104 yards and two TDs in Paterno's milestone victory before a crowd of 96,291 at Beaver Stadium, most of whom hung around for a post-game ceremony.
"I didn't expect to see him break down and cry, but it was great," Arrington said. "It was like seeing your father cry, or grandfather."
Paterno, in his 33rd season as coach, joins Bear Bryant (323), Pop Warner (319) and Amos Alonzo Stagg (314) as the only major-college coaches to collect 300 wins. Eddie Robinson, who retired from Grambling last season, has the NCAA record of 408 and John Gagliardi of St. John's, Minn., has 342.
Paterno earned a few distinctions of his own. He is the first major-college coach to win 300 games at one school, and he also reached 300 quicker than anyone else -- 380 games.
While Paterno wasn't talking much before the game, some former players were on a weekend when Paterno's 1973 undefeated team returned to Happy Valley.
"I think it's another game to him, but he understands the exposure it gives to the university, how it helps recruiting," '73 Heisman Trophy winner John Cappelletti said during a pre-game party just outside the stadium. "After the game he'll go with the flow, and then he'll try for the next guy on the list. You know Joe."
That next guy would be Bryant. The way Paterno is going -- he says he'll stick around at least four more years -- he'll pass Bryant sometime during the 2000 season.
Numbers alone don't do him justice. Paterno has a genuine love for the game and has as much enthusiasm as any player celebrating a game-winning touchdown. But he works his players hard -- some handle it, others don't.
"In today's kinder and gentler society, you can't be as tough on the kids" Cappelletti said, "but he's a pretty good taskmaster. He drove us hard, because he always tried to get the best out of you."
But there's much more. There's the college Joe, the caring coach who takes a personal interest in his players and doesn't break NCAA rules. There's concerned Joe, who has called for a college football playoff and for players to receive a stipend. And there's generous Joe, who gave Penn State $3.5 million to endow faculty positions and scholarships.
Let's not forget corporate Joe, who starred in a Burger King commercial, pitches local products such as Milano Italian bread and has an ice cream flavor named after him -- Peachy Paterno. Or celebrity Joe, who has attended state dinners under presidents Reagan, Bush and Clinton.
During the week, Paterno reminisced about his head coaching career, which began in 1966 after 16 seasons as an assistant to Rip Engle. He said Nebraska's Tom Osborne and Notre Dame's Lou Holtz were the toughest coaches to go against, and singled out victories over Miami in 1967, his second season as coach, and Georgia in the 1983 Sugar Bowl as standout games.
The 27-23 victory over the Bulldogs and Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker gave the Lions the first of their two national titles, The win over Miami came a week after a 23-22 loss to Navy that had him questioning whether he should have gone to law school instead of into coaching.
On a sunny Saturday, it was business as usual on the field. The Lions dominated, piling up 432 yards and holding Bowling Green to 239. The Falcons trailed 34-3 at the half after Jason Strasser kicked a 43-yard field goal late in the second period.
Paterno's record improved to 300-77-3. Indeed, his .793 winning percentage is amazing enough, but consider this: Paterno has accounted for 41.9 percent of Penn State's 716 victories since the Lions began playing football in 1887.
Under Paterno, the Lions have produced five perfect seasons, 12 seasons of 11 or more victories and 18 bowl victories, the most by one coach.
"He is truly a great legend," Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said this week. "He will be remembered not only for the great teams and players he has coached, but also for being a great ambassador for college football."
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