Iowa City, Ia. — The only “R” word Joe Paterno mentions less than retirement, is revenge.
Even when it comes to discussing Penn State’s struggles against the Iowa Hawkeyes and coach Kirk Ferentz, the 83-year-old college football icon is more reflective than regretful.
“They beat us fair and square,” Paterno said. “I think we had chances to win.”
Paterno compiled a 9-3 record against Iowa before Ferentz took over the program in 1999.
Now, as they prepare for Saturday’s 7 p.m. showdown, Ferentz owns more victories over the Nittany Lions (seven) than any active coach.
“Any time you have a winning record against a Joe Paterno team, that’s something special,” former Ohio State coach John Cooper said, “because I put him right at the top of my list as a football coach and as a person.”
Paterno, the all-time NCAA Division I leader with 397 wins, has matched wits with more than 170 rival coaches since his career began in 1966.
Of the 56 coaches who have faced Paterno on at least four occasions, only Bear Bryant (4-0) and Lloyd Carr (9-2) have a better winning percentage than Ferentz (7-2, .778).
“I think when he plays Penn State maybe there’s a little bit of something there, because he is a Pennsylvania kid,” Paterno said of Ferentz, who grew up in the Pittsburgh area. “You’ve got to beat (the Hawkeyes). They don’t beat themselves.”
The significance of Ferentz’s success is rooted in a timeless admiration for Paterno.
“I was probably more excited about (competing against Paterno) and more fired up about it than my team,” said Cooper, who coached the Buckeyes from 1988-2000. “He’s a legend. He’s the all-time winningest coach, and he does things the right way.”
Cooper, an Iowa State alum, went 5-3 against the Nittany Lions.
“The thing you respect about coach Paterno, they’re not going to gloat when they beat you,” Cooper said, “and they’re not going to get all bent out of shape if you win the game.”
Glen Mason split eight meetings with Paterno while coaching Minnesota, but gained a unique perspective following a controversial 16-15 loss in 1997.
“We had just a horrible official’s call against us,” Mason recalled. “I really got to know Joe on that day, because as he shook my hand he said, ‘You got robbed. You outcoached us. You outplayed us. You beat us.’
“And then, he came into our locker room and told my team the same thing. I had never experienced anything like that.”
Ferentz’s adoration also runs deep.
He came of age during the 1960s and ’70s, when the foundation of Paterno’s legacy was cemented.
“I was a young guy in awe of him,” said Ferentz, who celebrated his 55th birthday in August. “I’m past 50 and still in awe of him.”
There have been 860 NCAA Division I coaching changes during Paterno’s 45-year tenure at Penn State, and Ferentz was a relative unknown when he attended his first Big Ten meetings in May of ’99.
“I remember being in a room with Paterno, where I was actually like, kind of on the same line,” Ferentz said. “That was kind of neat.”
It was 18 months later when Ferentz earned his first triumph over the Nittany Lions – a 26-23 double-overtime thriller at Beaver Stadium.
“He’ll never tell you,” Cooper said, “but I’m sure it was extra incentive to go up against a legend like Joe Paterno.”
Players are fueled by more recent history.
Penn State was ranked among the top five nationally each of the past two seasons, but tumbled after losses to Iowa.
“I guess it kind of creates a rivalry for us,” Nittany Lions running back Evan Royster said. “We kind of have a grudge against them, just because they’ve kept us out of a BCS bowl the last two years.”
For Hawkeyes such as Julian Vandervelde, Paterno is college sports fixture.
“It’s what you see on ESPN Classic,” the senior lineman said. “It’s kind of weird to turn on some of those old games from the 1980s and you see a young Joe Paterno.”
Ferentz’s rise to prominence is easier to chart.
“I eat at the Hungry Hobo three times a week, and they’ve got a poster from the 1981 season,” Vandervelde said. “There’s a shot of coach Ferentz (then an assistant), and he looks like he’s 20 years old.
“It’s just kind of surreal.”
Saturday’s game will provide additional images for the Paterno-Ferentz scrapbook, even if the participants are blinded by the intensity of the moment.
“They probably don’t fully appreciate it,” Mason said, “but as time passes they will.”
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football