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Not An Ordinary Joe
In the often murky world of college athletics, Penn State coach Joe Paterno is a beacon of integrity -- and he knows how to win
By Rick Reilly
As this year's Sportsman of the Year, we choose a tenured professor who wears glasses thicker than storm windows, a jacket and tie, white socks and pants legs that indicate continual fear of flash floods. He goes about 5 ft. 10 in., 165 and looks less like a football coach than a CPA for an olive oil firm. On most mornings he leaves a red Ford Tiempo in the modest driveway of the modest house he has owned since 1967 and walks to the office. He has worked at the same place for 37 years. For excitement, he likes to sit in his La-Z-Boy and doodle on a yellow sketch pad. Such a glitzy celebrity is our honoree that his number is in the book.
But legends have a confounding habit of showing up in strange shapes. And a funny thing happens when this one starts to say something. Two-hundred- eighty-pound linemen, college presidents, NCAA honchos, network biggies and even your basic U.S. vice-presidents cross-body-block one another to get near him. Good thing, too, because Joe Paterno, the football coach at Penn State University, can teach you some of the damnedest things.
From whom else but Paterno did we learn that you can have 20-20,000 vision and still see more clearly than almost everybody else, that you can look like Bartleby but coach like Bryant, that you can have your kids hit the holes like 'Bama's and the books like Brown's, that the words ''college'' and ''football'' don't have to be mutually exclusive. ''We try to remember,'' Paterno once told The Reader's Digest, ''football is part of life -- not life itself.''
Maybe for that wisdom alone, we choose Paterno as Sportsman of the Year. But that's not exactly right. Because what he has done in 1986 is not much different from what he has done for 21 years as head coach. He went undefeated for the regular season. He has done that six times, a feat equaled only by Bear Bryant. In two weeks Penn State will play for the national championship. It has done that four times in the last nine years, more than any other school. Over the past two years, his team has been 22-1. But he has done better than that. From 1967 to '70 he had a 31-game unbeaten streak. This year 100% of his seniors are expected to graduate. Next year Paterno will become the first Division I-A coach to achieve this trifecta: 200 victories, a winning percentage of more than 80 and an 80% graduation rate by his players. Not bad for a kid from Flatbush.
No, this is one for the ''stayers'' of the world, one of those Irving G. Thalberg ''lifetime achievement'' awards. This is for the guy who keeps churning out good stuff, always kicks in when the birthday hat comes around and never punches out before seven.
In an era of college football in which it seems everybody's hand is either in the till or balled up in a fist, Paterno sticks out like a clean thumb. His standard of excellence is so season-in, season-out consistent it borders on the monotonous: win 10, 11 games; send off another bunch of future doctors, lawyers and accountants. In the heyday of the Bosworth Ethic, when talking trash is hot and shaking hands before the coin toss is not; when the Texas coach gets fired for winning just 75% of his games, the Maryland coach runs a 9.9 100 to chat with a referee, and the Cal coach lets his Fruit of the Looms do his talking; when the going rate for a linebacker at SMU is said to be $25,000; when it takes a paralegal just to make out the sports page, we need the guy in the Photogray trifocals more than ever.
Over the last three decades, nobody has stayed truer to the game and at the same time truer to himself than Joseph Vincent Paterno, Joe Pa to Penn State worshipers -- a man so patently stubborn that he refuses to give up on the notion that if you hack away at enough windmills, a few of the suckers will fall. Maybe we choose Paterno because he is a great football coach.
He has won more games than any active coach but Bo Schembechler. He has finished in the Top 20 18 times, in the Top 10 15 times. Do you realize Paterno had three unbeaten teams that were voted out of national championships before he was voted into one, in 1982? What's more, he missed an undefeated season in 1978 by one touchdown to Alabama and another in 1977 by four points to Kentucky.
Then again, maybe we pick Paterno because he aspires to be more than a coach. Indeed, he was bred for more. Paterno's aunt was in charge of foreign languages for a Long Island school district, his cousin became president of Chrysler, his father never read the newspaper without a dictionary next to him. ''At the dinner table, we were allowed to argue about anything,'' recalls Paterno. ''And we did. You name it, we'd argue about it. Kids from the neighborhood would walk into our kitchen, unannounced, and sit in, just to listen.''
To Paterno, an education was a weapon, a reward. His father went to night school until he was 40 to get his law degree. Joey may have grown up in the same neighborhood as Vince Lombardi, but he aspired to be Clarence Darrow. In fact, when Paterno accepted Rip Engle's offer right out of Brown to take an assistant coaching job at Penn State in 1950, he promised his father he did it only to earn extra money for law school. Thirty-seven years later, it looks as though Joey will never become a lawyer. He seems to have spent a lifetime making up for it.
This year he gave $100,000 to the school library and $50,000 to a minority-student fund. When he won the national championship in 1982, he marched into a meeting of the university's board of trustees and, in effect, scolded them. He urged the board to raise entrance requirements and to spend more money on the library. To professors across the land, that may look like a misprint. The football coach wants to make the entrance requirements tougher? Quick, drug tests all around. It may go down as the only time in history that a coach yearned for a school its football team could be proud of. Out of that meeting with the trustees came a five-year, $200 million fund-raising campaign, of which a certain Mr. Paterno, J., is vice-chairman.
''Joe's different from the rest of us,'' Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer once said, and he's right. How many coaches draw up game plans while listening to opera? How many quote Browning (''A man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?'') to their teams? How many write opinion pieces for The New York Times and throw in words like ''sophistry,'' ''proselytizing'' and ''mendacious''? How many even read The New York Times? How many gave their seniors the spring off this year so they could get their degrees by December? How many let their best lineman (Mike Reid, 1967) take a year off to star in a theater production? Let their kicker (Chris Bahr, 1973) stay home from a road game at Air Force to play for the soccer team? Make their players buy their own sweats?
It doesn't say Penn State on Paterno's jacket just because he draws his paychecks there. Paterno immerses himself in the university. He attends the monthly meetings of the X Club, the school's oldest faculty club, where the lecture might be on anything from zoology to Zen. Paterno once addressed the club on the relationship between football coaching and The Aeneid. Just a little something that came up at the last coaches' convention.
Paterno wouldn't give up academia for a million bucks. Make that about $1.3 million, which is what he turned down from the New England Patriots in 1973 to stay at Penn State, which was paying him about $1.25 million less. What Paterno said that day in declining the offer ought to be nailed to the front door of every college coaching office in the country, like fire instructions on a motel door:
So in a couple of years, maybe we'd have gone to the Super Bowl. So what? Here, I have an opportunity to affect the lives of a lot of young people -- and not just on my football team. I'm not kidding myself that that would be true at the professional level.
Paterno is one of those men who come along once a decade with an overwhelming feeling of responsibility for everyone and his roommate. ''My sister and I kid him,'' says his brother, George, who is a professor of physical education at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. ''We have a picture of us as kids -- he was about six, I guess, the oldest -- and he looks dead serious. He always looked that way. I told him, 'Joe, I think you were born with a frown on your face.' Even in college, Joe was all concerned about my studying, and I'd be out playing pinochle.''
Paterno means fatherly in Italian, and Paterno is eternally paternal. He worries. He doesn't sleep much, so weighed down is he with the problems of young people today. Maybe he's like that in part because his son, David, now 20, was given last rites as a child after a trampoline accident. But Paterno is a born brooder, a fanatic about detail, a hopeless notemaker. His bed is a precarious place of lurking pencils. He is in it by 11:30, out of it at 5 -- and rummaging about his den ''God knows how often'' in between, says Sue, his wife of 25 years.
''I worry about kids today,'' says Paterno. ''I remember when I was a kid, you never heard about a kid committing suicide. The choices just weren't that hard. You had it all laid out in front of you. Your church told you what to do, and your parents told you what to do, and you knew what was right and wrong. But now, kids have so many choices to make, so many people to listen to, no direction. Now you hear of kids committing suicide every day. It's very frustrating for me.''
He wants parents to stop thinking about money and BMWs and start thinking about their kids. He wants kids to stop thinking about money and BMWs and start thinking about serving others. Paterno himself lives in a home far below what he can afford. He takes no salary for his weekly TV show. When the Paternos give one of their regular dinner parties for 40 or so, there's no catering. For two days, Sue cooks manicotti and lasagna and freezes it all. ''Joe and I think if you're going to have someone to your home, it should be your home,'' she says.
Paterno wouldn't know chichi if it bit him in his Sansabelts. And if he did, he wouldn't admit it. Year after year, Penn State players complained about seeing lavish visiting locker rooms around the country and then coming home to their spare quarters. ''Yeah, but we're different,'' Paterno always told them. ''We're tougher, we're more spartan. It is more of a challenge.''
A funny thing happens to a Penn State player after four years of Paterno's preaching ''us'' not ''me,'' and ''M.B.A.'' not ''NFL.'' They get to sounding like Paterno. The team's famous boring uniforms? ''I hated our uniforms at first,'' says safety Ray Isom. ''Now I think they're beautiful.'' Before last season's Orange Bowl game, Paterno brought out the traditional patch (a tiny orange) for affixing to the team's jerseys. ''Everybody was quiet while Joe held them up to the jerseys,'' remembers Isom. ''Then everybody started saying, 'Nah, nah. Too flashy. Too gaudy.' '' The offending, garish, end-of-civilization-as-we-know-it patches were vetoed. ''After all,'' says defensive tackle Bob White, ''it's not what's on the outside that counts; it's what's on the inside.''
Nobody knows that better than White. As a three-sport star in high school, he was wooed by a dozen major schools. But when Penn State talked to him, Paterno said something outrageous: that he would give White a scholarship if, over the spring and summer, he would agree to read a dozen novels, assigned by Sue, and file a two-page book report every week.
To White, this was an insane proposal. Nobody else was complaining about his grades. He had a 2.0, which will get you a scholarship and maybe a Firebird most anywhere else. Why should he hit the books in the summer, for crying out loud, when everyone else was hitting keggers? Why should somebody be so worried about him? So, of course, he agreed. Sue's first assignment was Huckleberry Finn. It became the first book White ever completed. Today, White is a B student in administration of justice, a team leader and a lover of books. ''I'm so happy about the way things turned out for me,'' says White. ''There was a time I never really thought I'd get through college.'' Call it the Paterno Plan, and it has worked dozens of times.
''The older I get,'' says 1967-68 All-America tight end Ted Kwalik, ''the smarter Joe Paterno gets.'' It's a working theme: The more messed up college athletics gets, the more sense Paterno makes. Pull up a chair and listen to the professor:
-- On Division I-A playoffs: ''I've never wanted anybody to vote me out of a national championship, and I've never wanted anybody to vote me in. After we won in '82, I think someone should've been able to get a shot at us. I can see an Arizona State kid, undefeated, saying, 'Oh, geez, just give me one shot at those babies.' And he should have had it. . . . A lot of bowl people think a playoff would detract from the bowls. Not me. A playoff would add more meaning to the games. Your winner can go on, like in the NFL playoffs. The excitement builds.''
-- On the NCAA: ''It's time to start from scratch. Appoint three committees and redefine what recruiting is, what an amateur is, what alumni should be allowed to do. . . . There are so many rules now that you might be breaking one and not realize it. I think we run a clean program, but I could not positively tell you that we're not breaking a single rule somewhere.''
-- On SMU: ''If SMU is guilty, it should get the death penalty (suspension of a school's program, as mandated by NCAA rules forrepeat serious offenders). You can't cry wolf now.''
-- On freshman eligibility: ''When a kid plays football games before he attends a class, something is wrong.''
-- On kids' sports: ''I don't think it's fair to 12-, 13- and 14-year-olds to say 'Show us you're a winner right now!' Winning isn't everything. I'll never buy that thing that if a boy loses a football game, he's a loser in life.''
-- On television: ''The game is overexposed. It's like kids and candy. It tastes good, but you give them too much and it ruins their teeth.''
-- On firing coaches: ''Coaches have got to be given rank within the university so that you can't fire a coach unless you go through an academic committee, just as you would with a professor. If coaches are to have any stability and security, they need to be treated like an English professor.''
-- On happy-feet coaches: ''Guys who jump all over the place deprive themselves of having an impact on their institution. One thing I'm proud of is that. I think I've made a mark here.''
-- On Bylaw 5-1-(J), which requires minimum standardized test scores and grade point averages for freshman athletes: ''A 2.0 grade average and a 700 SAT is a great start. . . . We've lost a generation and a half of people who were potential lawyers, doctors, teachers and what-have-you, because they were all caught up in bouncing a basketball and running with a football. . . . We were supposed to be educating those kids. Instead, we conned them for 15 years and then, when they were through playing pro football or pro basketball, they knew they'd been conned; they knew they'd been had.''
-- On paying players: ''I'm for giving them something like $65 a month. . . . A kid has got to have some dignity. There's dignity in a kid going out with his friends and saying, 'Hey, this pizza is on me.' Kids need to be able to fit into the mainstream of student life.''
If one misconception exists about Paterno it's that he spends all his time being a conscience for the game and none being a coach. Paterno carries on so much about education you figure he cuts practice an hour short every day so some of the boys can get to debate club on time. Uh-uh. ''Joe's the most intensely competitive man I've ever known,'' says his brother, George.
The man hasn't been Coach of the Year three times (Bryant and Darrell Royal are the only others who have been named three times) because he thought it was only a game. The Professor can hang with the X's and O's boys. You may think of him as a strategic dinosaur, but his '82 team was the first national champion to gain more yards passing than running. He won 22 straight games in the late '60s with Chuck Burkhart at quarterback, and Burkhart wasn't even taken in the NFL draft. He's 22-1 over the past two years with senior quarterback John Shaffer, who has a bright future as a financial analyst.
Maybe we choose Paterno for his resilience after disappointment. In 1968 Penn State went undefeated in the regular season and beat Kansas in the Orange Bowl yet finished second in the polls. That hacked off Paterno considerably, but the next year, when the Nittany Lions beat Missouri in the Orange Bowl in their 30th straight game without a loss and then watched President Nixon present Texas his mythical ''national championship plaque'' (Nixon had earlier deemed that whoever won the Texas-Arkansas game would be No. 1), Paterno became forever pro-playoff. Later, during a 1973 Penn State commencement address, Paterno wondered, ''How could Nixon know so little about Watergate and so much about football?'' And in '73, after learning that the polls had shunned him an infuriating third time, despite a 12-0 season and an Orange Bowl win over LSU, Paterno walked up to reporters on New Year's Night with a solution. ''I had my own poll,'' he said. ''The Paterno Poll. And the vote was unanimous. Penn State is No. 1. I took the vote a few minutes ago.'' To make if official, Paterno gave his team national championship rings.
Imagine how history would treat Paterno if there had been playoffs. Among coaches who have appeared in at least a dozen bowl games, Paterno's 11-5-1 record is the best in history after Bobby Dodd's, who was 9-4 with Georgia Tech, and that includes Bryant, Royal, Tom Osborne, Woody Hayes, Vince Dooley and Shug Jordan. Is there any reason to believe Paterno wouldn't have won a national playoff?
Of course, the kind of success Penn State has enjoyed doesn't come in vending machines. Paterno is not coaching Swarthmore. ''I tell the kids,'' says Paterno, '' 'I'm not sure it's worth it.' . . . Jack Ham (the great Penn State and Pittsburgh Steeler linebacker) was here this summer, and I showed him our new weight room. He said, 'Geez, we never lifted weights, Joe.' And I told him, 'It's not like the old days. It's a year-round thing now. The competition is at such a level that you've got to lift weights and run a conditioning program all year round. I just don't know if it's worth it.' ''
If a player decides that, what the heck, it's worth it, one day or another, at least temporarily, he will live to regret his decision. Paterno is not a buddy-buddy coach. On the practice field he is a screaming, insatiable, unforgiving loudspeaker. ''When he's yelling at you,'' says receiver Darrell Giles, ''it seems like he's actually inside your helmet.'' And Paterno isn't much for apologizing. He's on your case sunup to sundown, which grates on the best of players. For instance, All-America Matt Millen, who's now with the L.A. Raiders, made more dramatic exits from the Penn State practice field than Jean Harlow did from bedrooms. But as much as Millen disdained Paterno's fieldside manner, he was the first to call Paterno after the '83 Sugar Bowl. ''I don't care if my players like me,'' says Paterno. ''I want them to like me when it's important they like me, when they're out in the world, raising families, using their degrees. I want them to like me when it hits them what I've been trying to say all these years.''
Some people never come around to liking him. His critics deplore the secrecy of his program -- closed practices, names of recruits not being released, freshmen not listed in the press guide. It's hard to get inside the program. In fact, it's hard to get to State College period. Paterno has a personal gridiron Camelot that's a three-hour drive from anywhere.
Further, he doesn't exactly face a caldron of media heat. No wonder they call it the Happy Valley. Paterno once got a standing O at a basketball game just for getting up and going to the bathroom. How would the NCAA look investigating Penn State? Paterno could suddenly decide to turn Penn State into State Pen and nobody would notice for four or five years.
What makes some people doubt Paterno is the nature of the notion that he defies every year: that, simply, you have to use semipro kids majoring in profitable handshaking to win big in major college football. That Paterno can win without cheating is more than a lot of people can digest. ''I don't think people think it's possible,'' says defensive tackle White. ''They're dubious of Joe. Think he's a phony. He's not. It is possible. We're doing it here.''
But for how much longer? Apart from his eyes, Paterno seems in fine fettle. If you were to surprise him in his office, you might find him doing his daily 60 or 70 pushups and any number of situps. ''I can do situps all day,'' says Paterno. He's 59 but looks 45, and not by clandestine methods (e.g., Grecian Formula). ''My mother is 91 years old and to this day, doesn't have a gray hair on her,'' he says. He has the occasional brandy or bourbon on the rocks. He walks a couple of miles a day, sometimes five or six. Walking is his only physical activity because of seeping veins that cause clottage in his left eye. The damage is periodically repaired by laser surgery at Johns Hopkins.
''I don't want to stay too long,'' Paterno says. ''Bear Bryant maybe stayed too long. I don't want to linger.'' Politics calls. His stumping for George Bush in 1980 helped Bush carry the Pennsylvania primary. But Paterno bristles: ''If I'm the best qualified person for an elected government position, what does that say about our country?''
Some jobs do intrigue him. If the NCAA called him about replacing Walter Byers as executive director, ''I'd listen.'' But he says he'll probably stay right where he is for ''four or five more years,'' which is the same quote he issued for public record in 1973, '78 and '82. ''He wants this job to be perfect for the next guy,'' says assistant coach Bob Phillips. But it's not just that, is it? ''Well,'' says Phillips, ''I know he believes that one national championship is not enough. He wants at least one more.''
That's not really it, either. Paterno just isn't ready to give up swatting at windmills. As Paterno once said, ''Look, we're so cynical about everything these days. Everybody's a cynic. But what if an 18-year-old kid wants to be an idealist? What if he wants to find some integrity in college athletics? Where's he going to go?''
For another four or five years at least, he can pack up his copy of Huck Finn and report to the squatty, nearsighted guy in the white socks and the nervous pants legs in State College, Pa., just as kids have been doing with splendid results for three decades. That's why we choose Paterno as Sportsman of the Year.
Issue date: December 22, 1986