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."