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
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.