Penn State’s ninth game of 2011 was a white out as nature intended it.
Few would argue that Happy Valley and Beaver Stadium didn’t look majestic covered in a sheet of snow. It blanketed the streets, the sidewalks and the stands. Tens of thousands of fans trudged through it unperturbed.
They would witness this 60-year story reach its climax.
It was a fitting stage for the man who would become the winningest coach in Division I college football history that day. A victory against Illinois would give Joe Paterno 409 career wins.
But as the players warmed up, the Nittany Lion faithful cooled down. Stationary in the bleachers, they began to the feel the raw effects of 32 degrees with a wind chill — unusually low, even for a State College autumn. By kickoff, 97,828 fans fought to resist numbness throughout the stadium.
Jerry Sandusky watched from the heated president’s box, enjoying what would be his last week of true freedom.
Penn State beat the Fighting Illini, 10-7, after Illinois kicker Derek Dimke knocked the game-tying field goal attempt off the right post. The entire Penn State student-section flocked to the area behind the uprights to distract Dimke, and the rest was history.
“It was a different game, how it was snowing and how the ending was,” defensive tackle Jordan Hill said. “It was definitely one of the funniest games I’ve ever played in. And just to look back on it as coach Paterno’s last game, just happy to get him to go out with a win.”
The game even left an impression on Penn State’s opponent.
“It was the first and only snow game I’ve played in, so I think we remember that,” Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said this week. “But it was one heck of a game, hard fought on both sides.”
After the missed field goal, a brief ceremony was held to honor Paterno’s achievement. Athletic director Tim Curley and then-President Graham Spanier presented him with a commemorative plaque to forever set that day in stone.
“This is something I’m very proud of… Something like this means a lot to me, an awful lot,” Paterno said. “For all the fans out there, thanks for sitting through that today… You’ve got to be nuts!”
Just under a week later, police had arrested Curley and Sandusky. Two weeks later, Paterno and Spanier had been fired. Three months later, Paterno died of complications due to lung cancer.. Eight months later, Sandusky was found guilty on 45 of 48 counts of child sex abuse. Nine months later, the late Paterno was stripped of 111 wins as a part of the NCAA’s sanctions against Penn State. He was no longer the winningest coach in Division I history. He is the seventh winningest.
The last time Penn State played Illinois was the last time things were truly normal in State College. Nobody cared about Illinois coach Tim Beckman, who was then the head coach at Toledo, or Bill O’Brien, who was then the offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots.
As far as most people were concerned, Paterno would be Penn State’s head football coach in 2012.
With Paterno’s firing, Penn State football history has been reset. No one but Larry Johnson Sr. and Ron Vanderlinden remain from the old primary coaching staff. The statue of Paterno has been uprooted. The only time he was acknowledged in Beaver Stadium this season was on a video montage made for the 1982 championship team reunion, and he didn’t have more than a few seconds of face time.
Following the sanctions, O’Brien emphasized moving past the scandal. It’s far from over for Penn State, but there’s football, a big reason many of the players are here.
They didn’t approach last year as anything more than a game, and they’re entering this Saturday with the same mindset.
“It was just a good game between two teams who really didn’t do too much offensively,” quarterback Matt McGloin said. “It was definitely a good emotional win for us, and they’re probably going to use that as some kind of motivation coming into Saturday. So we’ll just have to match their intensity.”
Fullback Michael Zordich added that the team isn’t really thinking too much about last season since they’re led by coach O’Brien now, who had no part in Paterno’s milestone.
But to many Penn Staters, last year’s game was more than another win. It was Paterno’s 409th win. It was Paterno’s last win, and it was the storm before the storm in Happy Valley.
“I haven’t even thought about that,” said senior cornerback Stephon Morris, who forgot Oct. 29 was the final game Paterno coached.
“It was a very special win, and it’s even more special now given the fact that coach Paterno is no longer here.”