Penn State has achieved this kind of football success despite Paterno's almost unprecedented acceptance of scholastic accomplishment and—God forbid!—minor sports as part of a student's college life. Players are not only allowed but urged to attend Saturday morning classes on the day of home games, and Paterno likes to emphasize the fact that over 90% of his football players over the years have graduated on schedule. Perhaps even more impressive: during the week of the Air Force game this year, Paterno's top placekicker, Chris Bahr, chose not to make the trip to Colorado with the football team but rather to compete with the Penn State soccer team. Paterno was asked about this on a local television show a couple of days later and he replied for all the world to hear: "That's what Chris decided to do and that's what he should have done. He's an All-America soccer player and it was his choice whether to play football or soccer that Saturday. He was right. We want to see our soccer team win, too. We want to see all our teams win at Penn State."
Politics and Paterno have always been close—at least symbolically. "My father did a lot of legwork for the Democrats in Brooklyn when I was a kid; God, he'd roll over in his grave if he knew I was a registered Republican. I've always been fascinated by politics and if I hadn't come down here with Rip from Brown I' might've gone into that game. There's a similarity between good politics and good football—you can't do either one without a lot of early work, preparation. But I'm not going to get involved in politics for a while—if I ever do. I want to coach for another four or five years. Then maybe take a year or so off to study. Yeah, maybe I'll study political science. But, look, I'm not fooling myself about politics any more than I fooled myself about football.
"Getting elected to office is only the beginning. So people know Paterno, so maybe they'd vote for Paterno because they heard of him, because he's popular. But then what? I don't want all kinds of obligations to vested interests. I don't want to be a party man. I want to run for office by saying, 'Look, I believe this and this and this and I'm not going to compromise.'
"Well, I'm not so naive as to think that can be done these days. I have no private money. I can't finance my own idea of integrity in politics."
Of course, Joe Paterno is not all that much of a pragmatist. Having disclaimed politics on the basis of realities, he quite naturally returned to the idealism of it all. "Someday there might be a time when I'd like to get involved in politics. I'd like to show my kids that it can be done—that it should be done. I'd maybe do it behind the scenes. I don't know. There have to be a lot of qualified people coming up now. There are kids coming out of the rebellions of the '60s who will be terrific leaders. Some of the black militants showed great courage, .great imagination then and they'll be ready to lead. I'm not discouraged about the future. Not at all...."
He paused, then said sharply, "Look, there have to be people better qualified than a football coach to run for the kind of high offices I'd want."
Possibly. But how about a football coach who also turned out to be an authentic folk hero in a society desperately hungry for integrity?