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Another coaching milestone on the horizon for Paterno

With win today, he will pass Eddie Robinson’s Division I record wins mark.

The record – such as it is – was never mentioned once during Joe Paterno’s press conference this week.

The Penn State coach had gotten most of the Eddie Robinson talk out of the way in the past week as Paterno tied the late Grambling coach for the all-time Division I wins record at 408.

That he will have a chance for No. 409 today against Illinois has been largely an afterthought heading into the game.

After beating Northwestern last week, a tired-looking and tired-sounding Paterno displayed the most energy in his postgame interview, joking around when asked about tying Robinson’s record.

“Yeah,” Paterno said, practically bouncing up and down. “I went to bed last night and said, ‘Jeez, if we win tomorrow I’m gonna be tied with Eddie Robinson!’ ”

Paterno has plenty of respect for the man – “Eddie Robinson was one of the greatest guys to ever coach,” he said – but the record is just another number in a career full of them.

And that seems to be the consensus of most people around the game. Much of the attention has been spent on the 19th-ranked Nittany Lions and the brutal closing schedule that stands in the way of a division title and a spot in the inaugural Big Ten championship.

The people who are most interested in Paterno’s shot at yet another record appear to be the folks at The Disney Company, who opted to put today’s Penn State game on at the more lucrative 3:30 p.m. timeslot, pushing a more anticipated game between Michigan State and Nebraska into the noon spot.

So expect plenty of the familiar ABC Paterno montages before, during and after the game.

The coach himself sounds likely to be back up in the booth after making a pregame cameo on the field to talk with his players and Illinois coach Ron Zook.

“With this team especially, there’s no different aura on the sideline (without Paterno),” senior tackle Chima Okoli said. “It’s not really a drop-off at all. And when Joe wants something done, you better believe it’s coming down.”

Okoli and his teammates have followed the lead from Paterno and spent the week talking about the Fighting Illini. More specifically, they described their desire to atone for last year’s humiliating 33-13 loss to the Illini at Beaver Stadium.

In what was a disappointing 7-6 campaign, the Illinois game stood out as the one that left the worst memories.

“Whenever you lose by that margin, that’s not what this program is about,” Okoli said. “It definitely wasn’t something that we set out to do. They played better and the better team won.”

Even players who didn’t play in the game were nonetheless embarrassed.

“Just watching it, it left a bad taste in my mouth,” senior defensive end Jack Crawford said. “That was a bad game to watch, and I could tell for everybody on the team how much that game hurt. Just watching the tape, it was hard to watch and see what they did to us last year and see how they schemed us.

“It was frustrating to watch,” said safety Nick Sukay, who suffered a season-ending injury while forcing a fumble on the opening kickoff. “Especially not knowing what was wrong with me. From a team aspect it was definitely hard to watch because you want to be out there with your team when they’re struggling and not playing so well that day.”

This year’s squad is healthier and should be better prepared for what should be a tight game against the Illini. And maybe pick up another win for the Hall of Fame coach.

“Y’know, all I wanted to do was get in it and hopefully have a little luck and have a little fun doing it,” Paterno said on the team’s weekly radio show. “And I’ve been lucky to be around some great athletes and some coaches who have stayed, enjoyed Penn State and enjoyed State College.

“The main fact is that the good Lord kept me healthy. It’s not that I’m the greatest coach – I’ve just been around longer than anybody else.”

GAMEDAY

Illinois at No. 19 Penn State

When: 3:30 p.m., today

Records: Illinois (6-2, 2-2); Penn State (7-1, 4-0)

TV/Radio: ABC; WILK-FM (103.1); WILK-AM (910, 980, 1300)

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