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 5'10", 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.