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.

The Nittany Lions beat the Hurricanes 17-8 in Miami, lost 17-15 to No. 4 UCLA and Heisman Trophy winner Gary Beban the next week, and finished the season 8-2-1.

"I think Joe figured it out," Hyman said. "He knew his system worked. He had the talent in '67 and it only grew in '68 and he was off to the races."

Paterno had a keen eye for talent and was skilled at finding the best ways to use it.

"He took quarterbacks and made them linebackers. He took running backs and made them defensive backs," said Pittman, who played two years in the NFL and now is the vice president of publishing company based in South Bend, Ind.

And long before every football coach talked about the "process" of preparing a team, Paterno pored over the smallest details and implored his players to do the same.

"Take care of the small stuff and the big things will take care of themselves," was one of Paterno's messages, Pittman said. That meant on the practice field and in the classroom.

"Penn State won because he wanted to recruit people with the same values he had," Pittman said. "People who wanted to compete at the highest level and people who wanted to participate and truly enjoy college, not just to play football."

Paterno called it his "Grand Experiment."

"I always tell people we came to Penn State as young kids and when we left there we were men and the reason for that was Joe Paterno," Mitchell said.

Mitchell joined Pittman in the backfield in 1968 and Penn State rolled to an 11-0 season that included a 21-6 victory against UCLA in the Rose Bowl and concluded with a 15-14 victory in the Orange Bowl against Big 8 champion Kansas.

The national championship, though, went to Ohio State.

The next season Franco Harris joined the Nittany Lions with Pittman and Mitchell.

"Teams knew we were going to run the ball and they couldn't stop us," Pittman said.

Another perfect regular season led to the Orange Bowl, this time to face Big 8 champion Missouri.

Still, people were skeptical of Penn State's success.

Pittman recalls Missouri star receiver Mel Gray saying the Tigers had played three conference rivals better than Penn State.

"I said, 'You know what we beat them too," Pittman said, referring to victories against Kansas the season before and Colorado and Kansas State in 1969.

Penn State beat Missouri 10-3, but it wasn't enough. Texas beat Notre Dame 21-17 in the Cotton Bowl and President Richard Nixon proclaimed the Longhorns national champions.

The poll voters agreed and Paterno never quite forgave Nixon.

"I'd like to know, how could the President (Richard Nixon) know so little about Watergate in 1973, and so much about college football in 1969?" Paterno said.

Paterno and Penn State finally won the national championship in 1982 and he added another in 1986. The "Grand Experiment" unveiled in 1967 had produced an elite college football program.

"By the time you go to the end of the '69 season, when they beat a really great Missouri team, at that point Penn State was really there to stay," Hyman said. "Joe obviously was the face of it."