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Penn State Football: the Dalai Lama and Joe Paterno’s 132 Losses

by on November 03, 2010 1:12 AM

There’s no doubting that Joe Paterno is a great coach. His chance to get win No. 400 in Penn State’s game on Saturday against Northwestern in Beaver Stadium is testament to that.

There’s no doubting Joe is a great man as well. But it isn’t just the winning that has made him so. If anything, his 132 losses (and maybe his three ties) have had much more to do with what he has accomplished since becoming head coach in 1966 after 16 years as an assistant at Penn State.

Why? Just ask another wise man, whose reign also began in 1950: the Dalai Lama.

I’m not sure if the Dalai Lama is a fan of the Big Ten or the Big (Far) East. But he does know the importance that good often comes from not succeeding, on and off the gridiron.

“When you lose,” he says, “don't lose the lesson.”

So, as while everyone celebrates the 19 score and 19 wins accumulated by Paterno over the course of 45 seasons, 534 games, 38 bowl games, five undefeated seasons and two national championships, let’s look at the games that truly shaped the Penn State coach -- his losses.

Losses? Really? On the week of Joe’s coronation? Tibet-cha.


Ranking Paterno’s losses would be counterproductive; they all provide meaning and offer teachings. It also would inspire arguments about whether the defeat to Minnesota in 1999 hurt more than the Sugar Bowl loss of 1979.

I prefer to think they all hurt the same, just some more than others.

So, in honor of Joe, we are picking the 23 most significant losses (the Dark Years of the early 2000s count as one) in Paterno’s reign as a head coach, then suggesting the coach’s life lesson that is a result of that particular loss.

We’ll do this chronologically, so as to limit the American obsession to rank everything – even the games that were rank. (A denotes an away game; H is home.)

THE 1960’S

Sept. 24, 1966 (A); Michigan State 42, Penn State 8. Joe’s first loss as head coach, against No. 1 MSU. He was quickly 1-1. Life lesson: Joe, you are not perfect.

Sept. 23, 1967 (A); Navy 23, Penn State 22. This loss put Joe's "career" record at 5-6, the only time he's ever been under .500. It motivated him to shake things up the next week and play many sophomores in the heat of Miami, as PSU won 17-8. After a loss to UCLA the next week, the Lions went on that 31-game unbeaten streak. Life lesson: If not ship-shape with the older guys, gamble and play anyone with talent.

THE 1970’S

Sept. 26, 1970 (A); No. 18 Colorado 41, No. 4 Penn State 13. Life lesson: You get only one 31-game unbeaten streak – and this was it.

Dec. 4, 1971 (A); No. 11 Tennessee 31, No. 5 Penn State 11, and Sept. 16, 1972 (A); No. 7 Tennessee 28, No. 6 Penn State 21. Two of the Lions’ only three losses in 1971-73. Life lesson: Never volunteer to play a team on the road to end one season and then do it again to start the next.

Sugar Bowl, Dec. 31, 1972; No. 2 Oklahoma 14, No. 5 Penn State 0. John Cappelletti missed the game with a virus. Life lesson: Hey, offensive linemen -- cover your mouth when you sneeze in the huddle.

Sugar Bowl, Dec. 31, 1975 (New Orleans); No. 4 Alabama 13, No. 8 Penn State 6. Life lesson: Do not ever, ever play Alabama in the Sugar Bowl again.

Sugar Bowl, Jan. 1, 1979 (New Orleans); No. 2 Alabama 14, No. 1 Penn State 7. Up the middle. JoePa brooded for months over the loss. Life lesson: The tide recedes. There are always other chances.

THE 1980’S

Oct. 31, 1981 (A); Miami 17, No. 1 Penn State 14. Life lesson: Never play a team named the Hurricanes in a driving rainstorm, especially on their home field, especially at night, especially on Halloween.

Oct. 9, 1982 (A); No. 4 Alabama 42, No. 3 Penn State 21. Life lesson: A kick in the pants can do wonders, even if it doesn’t seem so at the time.

Kickoff Classic, Aug. 29, 1983 (N.J. Meadowlands); No. 1 Nebraska 44, Penn State 6. Just eight months after winning the national title, the Lions are routed in the next season’s first game. Life lesson: What you did yesterday does not count today – especially if Blackledge and Warner have gone on to the pros.

Sept. 10, 1983 (H); Cincinnati 14, Penn State 3. Life lesson: Be patient for retribution; it will come. (And it did, in the form of 81-0 in 1991.)

Orange Bowl, Jan. 1, 1986 (Miami, Fla.); No. 2 Oklahoma 25, No. 1 Penn State 10. Life lesson: Sharing is nice, but giving away four interceptions is too many, Sooners or later.

THE 1990’S

Nov. 6, 1999 (H); Minnesota 24, No. 2 Penn State 23. Hail Mary, field goal, end of national title hopes. Life lesson: Being friends with a mason can rock your world.

THE 2000’S

Aug. 27, 2000 – Nov. 6 2004 (H, A, Capital One Bowl, Orlando, Fla.); 24 victories and 33 defeats. Life lesson: Once in your life, maybe for years, you need to have the patience of Job Paterno.

Sept. 2, 2000 (H); Toledo 24, Penn State 6. Life lesson: The Dalai Lama likes his one: Holy Toledo!

Sept. 1, 2001 (H); No. 2 Miami (Fla.) 33, Penn State 7. Christening of the new Beaver Stadium. Life lesson: When inviting party guests over to play cards, best not to invite that guy who plays poker on ESPN2.

Oct. 23, 2004 (H); No. 25 Iowa 6, Penn State 4. Hawkeyes take safety, dare Lions to kick field goal. They don’t. Life lesson: Well, if this isn’t the bottom, we can certainly see it from here. (After two more losses, the Lions reel off 14 wins in their next 15 games.)

Oct. 15, 2005 (A); Michigan 27, No. 8 Penn State 25. Seconds, anyone? Life lesson: Don’t kick to the kid from Pennsylvania.

Dual entry: Nov. 8, 2008 (A); Iowa 24, No. 3 Penn State 23. Good-bye national championship. Sept. 26, 2009 (H); No. 22 Iowa 21, No. 5 Penn State 10. Good-bye national championship. Life lesson: Hmmm, still haven’t figured that one out.


There are two victories that can also be counted as losses, in their own twisted way:

Orange Bowl, Jan. 1, 1970 (Miami, Fla.); No. 2 Penn State 10, No. 6 Missouri 3. Texas beats Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl to claim No. 1. Life lesson: Um, guys…maybe we can do a little better next time when picking a bowl, especially when we have a shot at the national title.

Nov. 5, 1994 (A); No. 1 Penn State 35, Indiana 29. The Nittany Lions were crushing the Hoosiers, took their pedal off the gas and Indy made it close. The pollsters dropped PSU to No. 2, despite the win. Life lesson: Run all the way through the finish line.

Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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