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"I think of myself as a teacher. In the pros you get the same guys for 10 or 12 years. Listen, I know that Paterno the Teacher doesn't have so much to say that guys want to hear him for 12 years. At Penn State the kids don't want to hear Paterno anymore after two, three years. By then they've either bought what I'm teaching or they haven't. By the time I finally dissected my decision to go to New England, I realized that the only real reason I accepted the job—the only one—was the money. There was no other. I WAS flattered by the dough. Period.
"Frankly, I had always thought of myself as being a little above all that kind of thing. So I've got more humility about myself now because I accepted that job. In retrospect, I was disappointed with myself for doing it and I was surprised. I mean, now I know that it's possible to buy me for a million bucks."
It is common for people who know Joe Paterno well to say that he has mellowed, that he has developed patience, lost some (not all) of the abrasive cock sureness that used to irritate even his close friends on occasion. His wife Sue, a graduate of Penn State and mother of the five Paterno children, married Joe 11 years ago. She said, "He didn't use to be able to handle losing. He'd shut the door and not come out. He was a real s.o.b. But he's matured now, he's not so tough. After his first year as head coach in 1966 the team was 5-5 and he was despondent. He spent the whole summer planning a new defense—oh, that was rough, keeping the kids out of his hair and all. He said that if he didn't have a winning season the second year he would quit and go back to assistant coaching. He said it wasn't fair to the kids to be coached by a loser."
A close friend of Paterno's at Penn State is Jim Tarman, associate athletic director, who has been at the university since 1958. Tarman is a wry, low-key, witty fellow whose specialty is public relations. He said of Joe, "He really feels qualified to talk about any subject that comes up. He's not a phony with himself, he knows he's right about a lot of things—and he is. But he isn't as abrasive as he once was. He probably doesn't have the sense of living on Mount Olympus that he used to have. He was terribly intense in his desire to win. I think there was a time when he probably would have done almost anything to win."
But no longer. Paterno grows ever more concerned with the moral conflict that coaches face. "I have never seen so many recruiting violations and dirty tricks as there are going on in college football now," said Paterno. "And a helluva lot of people blame the coaches for what's happening. Well, I don't. These guys are victims. Look at how it works. Here's a new head coach, maybe 37 years old and he's got this big job, his first break. The only thing he knows how to do is to coach football. He's got a young family, not much dough saved, hell, maybe he's making $30,000 now [which Paterno says is slightly less than his own salary]. And the only demand made of him when he takes the job is that he's got to win. The alumni tell him that. They don't want good students, they want winners. So he's young, his family's young, he doesn't want to take a step backward. It takes a lot of guts to do that. He's not going to deliberately destroy his career, so he does what he has to do to win—he buys kids for his team."
Paterno sighed and gestured in futility. "Look, I've been damn lucky. I'm a full professor here. I'm not at the mercy of alumni, they can't interfere with me. I've never had the dilemma of whether I should have to cheat to save my career. So I'm reluctant to criticize the coaches who have had to break rules. The people to blame for recruiting violations are college faculties, administrations and—yes—the NCAA. The NCAA has to take the responsibility. If the NCAA had 12, 15 guys on the road digging up violations, things would be different. Now the only way violators are caught is if someone blows the whistle on them.
"Listen, I have a beer with steelworkers or other guys off in the mountains sometimes when I'm traveling. They all assume every football player's given a car, that they go play for the school with the highest payroll. They assume that's the system. We ought to be able to build a good team without having everyone say, 'Oh, hell, they bought those kids.' The NCAA should be policing this so tough that we don't have to go hand around the stigma—the public assumes that if we're winning we're probably cheating. It's demeaning."
It is now 23 years since Joe Paterno came to Penn State, and the marriage seems made of the stuff of a lifetime. At least Joe's lifetime as a coach. His Nittany Lion teams roll on and on, endlessly powerful, though endlessly still seeking the No. 1 ranking that Paterno set as a "symbolic" goal when he first became head coach. "Maybe people have mistaken my talk about being No. 1," he said pensively not long ago. "At first, I meant that Penn State should have the attitude that we can be No. 1—not so much the real demand for it. It was symbolic in the sense that I thought we needed the psychological boost to consider ourselves as good as anyone else in the country in athletics. Some people think—and I'm afraid some of the kids might think—that we've failed because we've never been No. 1. I never meant that we had to achieve it to succeed—just that we had to think we could achieve it."
One year that No. 1 was a very real possibility was 1969 when Penn State was unbeaten. That was the season President Nixon made his locker-room declaration after the Texas-Arkansas game that the Longhorns now rated No. 1. Paterno snapped back then at Nixon for ignoring Penn State, and in his commencement address last spring one of the early lines was, "I'd like to know, how could the President know so little about Watergate in 1973 and so much about college football in 1969?"
This season Paterno says that his team is "possibly the most interesting we've had here." Penn State is rocketing along unbeaten, having outscored its opponents 349-97 in its first nine victories. John Cappelletti, a magnificent power runner, has about as good a chance as anyone at winning the Heisman Trophy, and Defensive Tackle Randy Crowder and Linebacker Ed O'Neil are surely two of the finest linemen in the country. Another major bowl offer is a certainty, with still another financial windfall for the university included. In the seven years since he became head coach, Paterno's teams have gone to five bowls and have brought home more than $1,500,000 for the school. Most of that money can now be seen on the Penn State campus in the form of tennis courts, intramural fields, a golf course, a skating rink, etc. etc.