The trouble began last summer when a former Penn State football player, Todd Hodne, was arrested on a series of rape charges. Then, on the first day of fall practice, Paterno announced that three starting defensive players were academically ineligible—All-America Safety Pete Harris (brother of Steeler Running Back Franco, a 1972 Penn State graduate), who in 1978 led the nation in interceptions with 10, Cornerback Karl McCoy and Middle Guard Frank Case. Harris was a stunning loss, but Paterno was his usual blunt self, saying, "He was a goof-off in high school and he was a goof-off here. What could I do about it? I don't care whose brother he is."
Then Defensive Tackle Matt Millen, one of the nation's best linemen and a co-captain, quit in the middle of an early-fall running drill, saying he couldn't do it. Paterno took away his captaincy. Yet Millen and Paterno have remained close, and Matt now says, "I was at fault for not pushing myself. I was wrong. Dead wrong. Totally wrong. Personally, I think it set the tone for the team last year and, psychologically, it hurt the team. It was awful. Every time something would start to go good, something bad would happen. We would start up the ladder and somebody would knock out the bottom rung."
Two days later Millen made the required run easily. Says Paterno, "Matt will be very careful the rest of his life before he says 'I can't.' " The coach adds, "I so miscalculated the role of continuing leadership on the squad."
Then starting Offensive Tackle Bill Dugan and Reserve Tackle Bob Hladun were spotted by a university policeman as they sat on a campus bench drinking beer, a violation of a hoary university rule. "The stupidity of it drives me up the wall," says Paterno. "But as a result we lost our concentration during the week." Both players were suspended from the ensuing Texas A&M game, which the Nittany Lions lost 27-14. Not long afterward, reserve Tailback Leo McClelland, who had the notion that he was a Heisman candidate, quit the team in a huff.
And then one night in midseason, junior Tailback Booker Moore—who that afternoon had had his biggest game ever, 166 yards and three touchdowns against West Virginia—put his car over a curb on campus and was arrested for drunk driving. "So I dropped him for a week," sighs Paterno. "Again we lose our concentration and the next game [to Miami, 26-10]."
That wasn't the end of it. Reserve Fullback Dave Paffenroth got into a fight with another student after he was told he couldn't attend a dormitory party. He sat down for a week. Says Paterno, "We're dealing with aggressive kids; we encourage this aggressiveness and then we get mad when we can't saddle them. Maybe the fault is with us."
Which brings us to Memphis and the Liberty Bowl. Paterno told his players that one major rule at bowl games—which are supposed to be fun, remember—is to be on time for the first team meeting. Two players were late, and Paterno sent them home. Before the game could be played, a reserve tight end, Bill LeBlanc, wandered into a private house. A shot was fired. LeBlanc said he was looking for a place to sleep. Strange, he already had a room at the Hyatt Regency. He was charged with first-degree burglary, and by some accounts was lucky he hadn't been killed. In late January, LeBlanc was put on six months' unsupervised probation and charged with $48.50 in court costs after pleading guilty to a reduced charge of malicious mischief.
"Suddenly it seemed like we were all a bunch of felons down here," says Dave Baker, the Penn State sports information director. And while skeptics have long cried that Penn State can hide its indiscretions because it's out in the boonies, Paterno insists, "We have never covered up things around here. We just didn't have problems." Indeed, he says the last time he could recall a player becoming academically ineligible was 12 years ago. Confirmation comes from Charlie Pittman, a star halfback on State's undefeated teams of 1968 and '69, who says, "We just never got involved in predicaments."
Paterno's brother, George, who teaches physical education at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y., says, "The imperfections of our society caught up to my brother. It's unbelievable that he kept things under control for so long."
And not inconceivable that he will get on top of things again, perhaps as soon as April, when spring practice starts. Paterno has spent many hours in soul-searching and has concluded that there was "a little slipping in discipline. There wasn't that fear—which is a terrible word to use—but there wasn't that fear of Paterno." Pittman echoes that thought from a different perspective, that of a player. He says, "Deep down, all athletes yearn for discipline."