1) Paterno has preached for years that football ultimately is not about winning and losing but about building community, and his community believes him;
2) Paterno is the most powerful person on campus, and no person or committee that tried to force him to retire could survive the wrath of his supporters;
3) Paterno plays a huge role in the economic health of the university and the town.
And then there is this intangible: He makes the university better.
Late Friday afternoon, with a cold front pushing over Mount Nittany, the Penn State marching band was rehearsing for homecoming, on a practice field of its own. A little crowd had gathered to watch and listen and shiver. Off on the side the featured twirler of the Penn State marching band, Bobbie Jo Sullivan, a senior from Williamsport, Pa., was launching her baton 50 feet in the air and catching it flawlessly. She's a world-champion twirler. She grew up on the legend of Joe Paterno. She was interested in only one school. " Coach Paterno is like a presence over everything we do," she says. "He has character, he has fire, he has a good heart. You want to meet his standards." She's met him once.
Later that night Sullivan twirled her way down College Avenue in the homecoming parade, past College Pizza, which before locking its doors at 4 a.m. would sell more than 600 pizzas, close to its single-day record. "Half the businesses in town wouldn't be here if it weren't for Joe Paterno," says owner Dick Frasca. He was recruited by Paterno in 1966, when he was a hotshot quarterback coming out of nearby Altoona High. His mother served spaghetti to Paterno in her house, but Frasca wanted to leave his home state and signed with Kentucky. "Before Paterno they couldn't get city kids and suburban kids to come here. Look at how he's grown the place." In 1966 the student enrollment at the State College campus was 12,192; now it is more than 40,000. In '66 Beaver Stadium held 50,000 fans; now it holds 108,000.
Paterno and his wife, Sue, have pledged more than $4 million to the university, and he has raised far more. There's a library named for him. Early Saturday afternoon, with the Lions' rout of the Wildcats under way on a dank day, the Paterno Library was deeply silent, the sounds of turning pages absorbed by the thick carpeting, low ceilings and endless stacks. All the books by and about Joe Paterno had been checked out. A few students were scattered about, studying. A library staffer, Sam Umbriac, checked on the homecoming game every 10 minutes on the Internet. Scoreless; 7-0, State; 14-0; 21-0; 28-0.... From a nearby wall Joe and Sue Paterno gazed in Umbriac's direction from a portrait, smiling for posterity.
Maybe Paterno will go on forever. His legacy, of course, will. "I hope I know when it's time to get out. I'm not sure I will," says Paterno, who can cite names and plays from long-ago games as if he were doing a live TV broadcast. "It has nothing to do with whether we're winning or losing. We could win the rest of our games this year, and I could say I'm getting out. We could lose the rest of our games this year, and I could say I'm getting out."
He's saying he doesn't care if Bobby Bowden, the Florida State coach, passes him in career victories. Through Sunday, Bowden had 328 wins and Paterno 332, the most by a major college coach. ( Robinson is in the stratosphere at 408.) "I'll do what's best for my family, myself and Penn State. I don't want to go beyond the point where I'm not making a contribution." He knows what happened to Alabama's Bear Bryant, who retired in December 1982 and died a month later. "I don't want to do that," Paterno says. "I don't want to retire and die." He's in the third year of a five-year contract. He has no hobbies. He's going nowhere. "He is god," says one longtime fan. "He is eternal."
He is the most old-school of the old-school coaches, yet flexible and modern and realistic. He doesn't use e-mail. He has no wires dangling from his head during the game. On game day he still rolls up his pants legs. He'd be fine with having an openly gay player on his team "as long as he wasn't aggressive in the locker room about it." He would like his team to be 100% steroid-free but cannot promise that it is, he says, because users can mask their use on urine tests too easily.