Whatever problems the census takers in State College, Pa., might have, they don't come from the Penn State coaching staff. Joe Paterno, who turns 73 on Dec. 21, is in his 50th year at the university, the last 34 as head coach, and he still runs gassers with the linemen at practice. Five of Paterno's assistants (including his son, Jay) played under him in Happy Valley, four have been on his staff for more than 20 seasons, and two turned down major head coaching jobs to stay in State College. So when someone from the fold takes his leave, it is big news. When that someone is Jerry Sandusky, four years a Penn State player, 32 years a Penn State assistant and 23 years the defensive coordinator at Linebacker U, it is worth a standing ovation.
That's what Sandusky, 55, received from 96,480 fans before the Michigan game on Nov. 13, when he ran onto the Beaver Stadium sod for the last time as a Nittany Lions coach. Among the players who embraced him at midfield was his son Jon, a reserve defensive back. Among those cheering from the sidelines was another son, Matt, a Penn State manager.
Matt Sandusky, 20, used to have a different last name. He was a troubled kid from a town near State College. When he was eight, he got involved with a program called the Second Mile that Sandusky had started in 1981 to help kids like Matt. But it wasn't enough to keep him on the straight and narrow. When Matt was 15 he ran afoul of the law—"I'd rather not say for what," he says—and was put on probation. Jerry and Dottie Sandusky took him in as a foster child and adopted him two years later. Result? Matt is now a junior at Penn State and expects to graduate next year with a degree in guidance.
"My life changed when I came to live here," says Matt. "There were rules, there was discipline, there was caring. Dad put me on a workout program. He gave me someone to talk to, a father figure I never had. I have no idea where I'd be without him and Mom. I don't even want to think about it. And they've helped so many kids besides me."
Around central Pennsylvania, Jerry's Kids has nothing to do with a Labor Day telethon. With the proceeds from his book, Developing Linebackers the Penn State Way, and a lot of hope, Sandusky started the Second Mile, which began as a group foster home. Today the organization has 20 full-time employees, hundreds of volunteers and a fund-raising machine that rustles up about $1 million per year; through a network of school-and community-based programs it reaches about 100,000 at-risk youngsters. Jerry and Dottie have done more than their share of personal reaching, too. All told the Sanduskys have six children, all adopted, three as infants, three after having had them in foster care. Besides Matt and Jon, 22, the Sandusky lineup consists of Ray, 36, a businessman in Nashville; E.J., 30, who played center for the Nittany Lions and is the football coach at Albright College; Kara, 27, a Penn State grad who is married and works at the university; and Jeff, 24, a Marine who is stationed in North Carolina. "Who knows how any of us would've ended up if we hadn't become Sanduskys," says E.J.
Who knows how countless others would've ended up had Sandusky's organization not gotten involved. Partly because of his Second Mile responsibilities, Sandusky turned down a prime head coaching opportunity, at Maryland in 1991, and his decision to retire at the end of this season (his last game will be the Dec. 28 Alamo Bowl against Texas A&M) was partly based on his wanting to get more involved in fund-raising and program development for the organization. "Jerry has always been our heart and soul," says Hank Lesch, Second Mile's vice president of development.
If Sandusky did not have such a human side, there would be a temptation around Happy Valley to canonize him: Saint Sandusky, leader of linebackers, molder of men. Fortunately, it's easier to conjure up an image or Sandusky as a fuming, fussing fire-breather on the sideline, flashing signals like a crazed third base coach, copies of his defensive alignments dangling from his belt like elongated key chains. LaVar Arrington, the ninth All-America linebacker to play under Sandusky, remembers with glee a moment from the Nittany Lions' Sept. 18 game against Miami in the Orange Bowl when Arrington was taunting the crowd from the sideline. Sandusky lit out after him but tripped on a wire and went sprawling over the bench. "He gets caught up in the moment sometimes," says Arrington.
Because Sandusky is so respected, as a man and as the dean of Linebacker U, there's the impression that it's just fine with him that he has never been a head coach. It's not. "I wouldn't call it devastating," says Sandusky, choosing his words carefully, "but I would call it a little disappointing. That was definitely a goal of mine when I started. If I hadn't had the other part of my life—my family and the Second Mile—I would've been a head coach."
Sandusky had already turned down Marshall and Temple before Maryland came knocking. He says that his three reasons for saying no to the Terrapins were, in order, family, Second Mile commitments and the chance he would get Paterno's job. But as the '90s wore on, Paterno never wore down. Joe Pa says he wants to remain the head man "at least until I'm 75," and only a fool would bet that he won't last a year or two beyond that. On July 1, when Sandusky announced his intention to retire, one of the first calls he received was from Matt Millen, a Penn State All-America in 1978, who greeted him with, "It figures that the guy who has been there for 30 years would get out before the guy who has been there for 50." Sandusky says he doesn't second-guess himself about the Maryland decision but allows that even if he had gotten the chance to succeed Paterno, it would not have been an ideal situation. "It would've been like inheriting Papa's business," says Sandusky. ( Tom Bradley, a former Nittany Lions player who is in his 21st year as a Paterno assistant, is more colorful in describing what it's like to follow a legend: "Next guy in always gets whacked.")
Working under Paterno takes something out of a man, too. Sandusky was asked last week if he'll miss Joe Pa. "Well, not exactly," he said. "You have to understand that so much of our time was spent under stress, figuring out how to win. That takes a toll. We've had our battles. I've quit. I've been fired. I've walked around the building to cool off." Paterno says, "I'm not the easiest guy to work with." Millen puts it another way: "Figuratively speaking, that Paterno nose is everywhere."