- Associated Press - Monday, January 23, 2012

In the mid-1960s, there was no such thing as a Northeastern power in college football.

Michigan State and Notre Dame dominated the Midwest. Bear Bryant’s Alabama teams ruled the South. Out West, UCLA was at its best and USC was rising again.

Then came Joe Paterno.

“Here was this little old school from the East that didn’t know how to compete with the bigger conferences,” said Charlie Pittman, who played running back at Penn State from 1967-69.

That’s what others said about Penn State. The Nittany Lions knew better.

With players such as Pittman, Franco Harris, Lydell Mitchell, Jack Ham and Mike Reid, Paterno changed that in 1968 and `69, with back-to-back undefeated seasons.

Neither earned the Nittany Lions a national championship. They had to settle for No. 2 in the AP’s college football poll each year, but Penn State was now a national powerhouse and Paterno was a coaching star.

“He rose to the prominence as Penn State rose to prominence as the leader of Eastern football,” said Jordan Hyman, a Penn State alumnus who has written two books about Nittany Lions football during the Paterno era.

Paterno died at 85 on Sunday, less than three months after being fired amid a child sexual abuse scandal involving one of his former assistants.

He won 409 games during his 46 seasons at Penn State, more than any other Division I coach, and two national championships.

His career started modestly in 1966, going 5-5 in his first season as the replacement for his mentor, Rip Engle. Engle had had some good teams, but the East hadn’t had a national title winner since Syracuse in 1959 and was looked upon as a weak region in the college football landscape.

Paterno’s first team lost 42-8 to No. 1 Michigan State and 49-11 to No. 4 UCLA, and the `67 season started with a loss to Navy.

Paterno knew, Hyman said, that he needed to make some changes.

Instead of being loyal to the upperclassmen, “He decided to play the best guys,” Pittman said.

Against Miami, Paterno began playing his talented sophomore class, players such as Pittman on offense and linebackers Dennis Onkotz and Jim Kates on defense.

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