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It is arguable whether Joe Paterno, at 46, is an authentic folk hero. Possibly he is not. As everyone knows, he looks a bit like the third barber down in a hotel barbershop and he talks almost as fast and as much. His inflection is not precisely heroic, either. It is true that 20 years ago he bought a tape recorder and spent a lot of time trying to trap for himself the pear-shaped pronunciations of Rex Harrison, but he gave it up on a friend's advice that he just be himself, so the characteristics of a Brooklyn upbringing remain whenever he speaks. His eyesight is bad, so he wears thick glasses and he is proud of holding the rank of full professor on the Penn State faculty and he likes to listen to Beethoven or Puccini when preparing game plans for the Penn State football team. If the question of his folk-herohood is raised, Joe Paterno leans forward intently, resembling some kind of skinny Italian owl through those spectacles and says, "Look, I'm reluctant for people to read too much into me. I get letters from people who seem to think that if only Joe Paterno can spend 20 minutes with a kid then his troubles will all be over. Nuts! People want to give me too much credit. I'm a football coach who has won a few games—remember? Now what the hell does that mean? If I were an accountant no one would pay that much attention to me, right?"
Of course. Yet there are many people who firmly believe that Joe Paterno already deserves a place in the hallowed neighborhoods of Moses, Mr. Clean, Demosthenes, Joan of Arc, Knute Rockne, Father Flanagan, etc. etc. etc. One night last winter during a basketball game at Penn State, Joe Paterno rose from his seat high in the bleachers and began to make his way to the men's room. Someone saw him and began to applaud. Others joined in. The clapping spread through the gymnasium until 7,000 people were on their feet with an ovation for Paterno, and the game was halted until he managed to get out of the auditorium. It is well known that Paterno was chosen to make the commencement address at Penn State last spring, that he once stood up to the President of the U.S. in defending his team against what he considered an insult and that the state of Pennsylvania bloomed with postcards and bumper stickers saying DON'T GO PRO, JOE when he was debating an offer of more than a million dollars to coach the New England Patriots. Lots of people think Joe Paterno should be governor of Pennsylvania and some of them would not even scoff at the notion of President Paterno.
Well, these are bizarre times. Most of the worship around Paterno the football coach does not arise from the fact that he has the best winning percentage of any major college football coach in America (73-13-1). Nor does it arise from the 12 All-Americas he has produced in the past seven years nor from the 12 Penn State alumni now starting on NFL teams. Nor does it arise entirely from his kinetic personality nor from his quick intelligence. The admiration for Joe Paterno springs mostly from the fact that he is a man who seems to speak truthfully and with candor and who does not believe that money is the root of all the fruits of life. It is that simple. In these days when feet of clay and souls of brass seem to be the identifying marks of so many leaders, the mere fact that Joe Paterno expresses himself with an unforked tongue is apparently enough to warrant standing ovations and hero worship.
The ironies of the situation are not lost on him and he says, "There is something really strange about a society that figures a guy is great just because he speaks his mind. Frankly, I'd like to think that there are people more qualified than a football coach to tell this society how to live. God knows there must be someone more qualified than a football coach to be governor."
Nevertheless, that is the way many people think and it is worth examining the conditions and environment by which a Flatbush-raised football coach who has spent 23 years in the backland sticks of Pennsylvania can become a potential American paragon.
University Park, Pa. used to be called State College, Pa. and it is at the exact geographical center of Pennsylvania. There is no other reason for its location. The Allegheny range and its foothills lie humped and somber for miles around. They are barely inhabited; lions used to live there. The town is 90 miles from Harrisburg, 140 from Pittsburgh, 190 from Philadelphia. It is difficult to exaggerate the degree to which the former State College, Pa. is isolated from the rest of the world. But, of course, being dead-center in the Pennsylvania wilderness meant that the main campus of Pennsylvania State University was equidistant (and equi-difficult to reach) from anyplace in the state. Such was the wisdom of the founding fathers when they put the college there in 1855: it is now a bustling, sophisticated oasis of 27,000 students hidden like a secret cyclotron amid the mountains and cows and rocky meadows.
For the record, Joe Paterno arrived in 1950, a newly minted English lit graduate from Brown who had also been a brainy quarterback on Rip Engle's teams and now was beginning a temporary stint as a backfield coach with Engle's new Penn State staff. He did not immediately fall in love with the desolate place some call Happy Valley. In 1956, when Rip Engle was offered the head coaching job at USC, a vote was taken among his staff as to whether they would prefer moving to California or staying in State College. The vote was 7-1 for staying put—the lone vote for abandoning Happy Valley was Paterno's.
Since then, he has taken deep root where trees from Brooklyn rarely grow. He has turned down coaching jobs of broad variety and location, among them the Baltimore Colts, the Oakland Raiders, Yale University, Michigan, the Philadelphia Eagles, the Pittsburgh Steelers and, the most famous offer of them all, the head coaching position with the New England Patriots last January. It was this last dazzling bauble which brought a true folk hero's potential to Paterno. He was promised $1,000,000 plus over five years, about the biggest pot of gold ever offered to any mortal for being a mere weak-eyed football coach. And he said no. This not only endeared him to Pennsylvanians and led directly to the standing ovation on the way to the men's room, it also resulted in an almost immediate grassroots asembly of a thousand people for a testimonial dinner and a collection of enough money to pay for a trip to Europe for Joe and his wife Sue (their first) and a new Dodge Charger for the Paternos. To these rewards may be added sacks of adulatory mail and laudatory editorials in such faraway newspapers as the Honolulu Star-Bulletin ("There's more to life than one million dollars") and the Terra Bella, Calif. News ("Money Isn't Everything!").
Now it would be nice to say that Joe Paterno spurned the ugly temptation of taking money from professionals without a thought, that he simply mounted his folk hero's white horse and galloped back to the pristine backwaters of Pennsylvania and amateur sport without so much as a shiver of attention. Such was hardly the case, and no one is quicker to say so than Joe himself. One night this fall in the kitchen of his comfortable modern house in University Park, seated at a large round wooden table laden with bottles of Blatz beer and a cold bottle of Blue Nun wine and a large New England boiled dinner, Paterno spoke with his own normal electric intensity: "What the hell's the matter with a society that offers a football coach a million dollars? It's silly, isn't it? I mean, what had I done to deserve that kind of dough?" He paused, sipped a little more Blue Nun, then said thoughtfully, "Well, however silly it was, you know I accepted the job. I decided to take it and I told Billy Sullivan that I would take it. Well, then after thinking about it one more night, I got to rethinking it all again. Sure, I had pictured myself bringing the Patriots into the Super Bowl in four, five years. I was—I am—convinced it can be done. Sue and I had been making lists all along—one headed 'go,' one called "stay,' and they all kept coming up 'go.' Money, Cape Cod, security, continued rural living for the kids, excitement, a tremendous coaching challenge. We made the lists over and over. 'Stay' finished behind all the time. There was no choice; I said yes."
Joe squinted behind those horn-rimmed storm windows he wears, frowned and said, "I suppose my hindsight now about what changed my mind is a lot clearer than my thinking was then. But that night after I told Billy Sullivan yes, I started wondering what the hell I had done. I began to realize that all I'd prove at New England was that I can coach a good football team both with college kids and with pros. What's that prove? I realized I didn't want my kids to say about their father, 'He was a good football coach, he won a lot of games.' I wanted them to think maybe I tried to do a little more than that.