Joe Paterno wipes
his feet for old Penn State: clop-clop, scrape-scrape, treadmilling on the
WELCOME mat. Can't track mud across a football mother's rug—promising young
halfbacks and tight ends have been lost for less than that. A good recruiter is
a good house guest. You might not want to live with him, but he's a great guy
for visits. Watch Joe jump to his feet and shake hands when an aunt or a cousin
or a neighbor drops in to meet Coach Paterno himself; High Church ceremonies
aren't more rigorous. And the paraphernalia of worship is always on hand. We
travel from home to home as primitive Christians once did. In each house there
is a sanctuary set aside for the god Sport. Trophies are grail-shaped; plaques,
like icons, repanel every paneled game room. They'd burn incense, but you're
not supposed to smoke when you're in training.
the story. Paterno, call him Joe, with right arm high up, around the shoulders
of parent or athlete or high school principal. Get bursitis in that arm and
he'll have to retire. Mr. Defensive Tackle Sr. snaps a quickie—smile, hold
it—of Joe and Mrs. Defensive Tackle Sr. in the sanctuary. "You're
beautiful," Joe tells her, "but I don't like the company you keep."
Sure enough, there's a whole stack of Polaroids: Mrs. D.T. with Woody Hayes,
with Bo Schembechler, with Johnny Majors.
Even so, Mr. and
Mrs. both want their son at Penn State. Joe recruits families, not just men.
He'd recruit a boy's entire neighborhood if there was time. On the phone you
hear him say, "I'll be up Monday night. Dinner? I don't want to impose.
Sure, tell your mother to make some of that good Italian food and I'll bring an
opera record. Just show me the wooden spoon, I'll help her with the sauce."
Paterno had about 35 high school prospects this year. Out of that total he will
win over 22 or 23—and about 30 mothers. The mothers may not do a 9.5 hundred,
but they're aggressive, very aggressive.
On the stock
exchange of life it's time to sell. Possibly never again will these good
middle-class folks get such flattering, strong attention. They are
self-important, but shy and excited, like chance witnesses to a murder on the
11 o'clock news. This is their moment; we should all have one. Yet it's odd,
the athletes seem less elated—a blas�, noncommittal crew. They stare at their
stranglers' hands and murmur, "Yuh. Uh-huh. Uh-huh." Each appears
guilty, as though caught perpetrating some crime: bigness perhaps.
friends, doesn't fool around. These are the best—fastest, largest,
meanest—athletes for 500 miles in any direction. Six-foot-five, six-seven,
going up. At rest they burn enough calories to boil water. And the sisters of
these players are a special study. You suspect that this stag line of
recruiters is the last insult in a long, hopeless sibling rivalry. The sisters
hang around; they want recognition. They criticize Penn State or Paterno's
freshman study hall. So Joe recruits them, too, being gentle, attentive. A
stand-up comedian doesn't use hecklers more adroitly. The parents are simply
satisfied to enjoy it all. One mother points at Joe, surprised, for the second
or third time, "See. Just the way he looks on television."
Just. Paterno has
the build of an old G.I. Joe doll, all detachable rickety parts. His feet stand
out, separate and overlarge, the way your feet would look with three pairs of
rubbers on. Each lank shin indecently shows sock to the five-inch line. Paterno
strides bowlegged: right knee and left knee have never been on speaking terms.
This is the walk of a lonely man, a walk for deserted beaches. He appears to be
in midshrug. He might as well be wearing old-fashioned shoulder pads, the kind
Bobby Layne wore. His eyes dart: tropical marine life seen through a
glass-bottomed boat. The horn-rims magnify with such severeness it seems you
could serve up a martini on his cheekbone. And the hair. With that wet-look
pompadour he might be understudying for a small-town production of Grease. It's
an honest face. There's not much else it could be. It has a powerful, decent
homeliness. He reminds you of, well, some paradigmatic brother-in-law. Joe
Paterno looks the way he thinks. That is, unlike your typical head coach.
seems too simple. You'd probably be disappointed. Paterno sells closeness. His
recruiting strategy is parochial: Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York,
Connecticut, a bit of Ohio. Reasonable car distances. Mother and father, girl
back home, high school friends, they can all come. Penn State football sounds
like a four-year tailgate party. The boys have been South to visit North
Carolina and Dallas. They've been to eight bowl games in nine years. Joe knows
that the University Park campus, beautiful as it is, may look unforgiving in
December or January. Once Paterno has recruited them, Penn State will lose very
few football players; maybe that's because they've been snowed in. The athlete
wants to go far away, but Joe has depth on his side; Mom and Dad are playing
second-string behind him. Now, look—right hand holds left pinky—Penn State is a
fine school academically, our won-lost record will speak for the quality of the
football, why travel? Why? Joe's persuasive, low-key, an uncle. The boy grunts,
"Yuh. Uh." But mother says, "True." She's rooting for Joe.
After all, he didn't track mud across her rug.
It's more than
that, of course. We'll pretend. Let Joe Paterno recruit you. Sit back. As you
read this, say "yuh" now and then. Imagine a Brooklyn accent. His voice
is high and soft and nasal. ( Penn State players call Paterno "The Rat."
The voice gets higher, more nasal when he's mad.) Listen carefully, the man
"I hope no
boy selects a school, Penn State or anyplace else, because the head coach comes
into his home—that's just about as bad a way as any to make a selection. When
an athlete comes up to our campus we don't roll out the red carpet. We're not
fancy recruiters. We stick him in a room with one of our players. We don't put
him in a classy motel. We don't give him a car and we don't get him a date. He
just wanders around the campus on his own. We'll set up academic interviews so
a boy can ask questions, see the facilities, learn what opportunities there are
in his field. Recruiting has become an end in itself for some coaches. Too many
Pyrrhic victories are won—you get a kid who ends up not being happy or able to
handle the work.
sometimes even the ones that don't play, are our best recruiters. You'd be
amazed how many times one of our football players will say about a prospect who
has visited the campus, I don't think you want that kid.' They know the kind of
boy who'll fit in. We don't have athletic dorms at Penn State. The kids must
mix. That's why I dislike freshman eligibility. A boy should have a chance to
go to college and be John Doe without all of a sudden being locked into a
football reputation—nobody wants to ask him about history or art or music, they
just want to know about the team. Even though we've taken advantage of the fact
that freshmen are eligible to play, I think it's a lousy rule, an unfair rule.
There's so much besides football. Athletes who come to Penn State shouldn't be
tied down to a football program. These should be the four greatest years of
their lives. I tell them, 'Enjoy yourselves.' I consider football an
extracurricular activity, like debating or the band. It should never be removed
from that context. More than 90% of our players graduate on schedule."