After a loss to UCLA on Oct. 7, 1967, Penn State went 31 straight games without a defeat.
It was during this time that Paterno went public with his "grand experiment" idea that emphasized academics.
Some would view the notion as holier than thou. Yet while Penn State had its share of off-the-field problems, the school never incurred major NCAA violations on Paterno's watch.
Earning football respect, though, was a battle Paterno waged for years.
His teams in 1968 and 1969 went 11-0 but finished second both seasons in the Associated Press poll.
Penn State, which played as an independent for more than 100 years until joining the Big Ten 1993, was penalized by pollsters for facing inferior competition.
Paterno was a strong playoff proponent, and his frustration might have influenced him in 1972 to consider a $1.4 million offer to coach the NFL's Patriots. He accepted in principle before changing his mind.
He would remark at a 1973 commencement address, "Money alone will not make you happy. Success without honor is an unseasoned dish."
Paterno's frustration continued in 1973 when his 12-0 team ended up fifth in both major polls, the Associated Press and UPI. He bought his players championship rings and continued to press for a playoff.
His quest for a national title was finally realized in the 1982 season when a Penn State win over Georgia in the Sugar Bowl pushed the Nittany Lions to No. 1. Paterno claimed his second national title four years later after a hyped win over Miami in the Fiesta Bowl.
In 1994, Penn State capped a 12-0 season with a Rose Bowl win over Oregon, but the Nittany Lions ended up No. 2 behind Nebraska in both polls.
Competing in the Big Ten would become increasingly difficult.
Penn State endured four losing seasons in a five-year span beginning in 2000, prompting calls by some for Paterno to retire. There were websites devoted to his departure, but Paterno vowed to coach as long as his health allowed.
Paterno exacted revenge on detractors when his 2005 team finished 11-1 and defeated Florida State in the Orange Bowl.
His survivors include his wife, whom he married in 1962, and children Diana, Mary, David, Jay and Scott — all Penn State graduates — and 17 grandchildren.