But one man's discipline is another's harassment. Several years ago the style was for Penn State students to wear no socks. Paterno insisted on socks. The players flouted the rule, but only when they were certain they wouldn't encounter Paterno. But Joe is not generally considered to be rigid. "If anything, I'm flexible," he says. "Sometimes I even change just for the sake of changing, which drives my staff nuts."
Another cause of the difficulties, in Paterno's mind, is that he ended up with too many players who wanted to be professionals. He detests the idea that he runs a farm team for the NFL, though, of course, in a sense he does. Penn State has acquired the unwanted nickname Linebacker U. Thirty-one former Penn Staters are active pros, nine of them linebackers. Paterno has burnished his reputation by turning down lucrative offers to coach in the NFL, and he wishes his players, like him, were less entranced by the prospect of pro careers. He knows, however, that that is unrealistic. "My high school gave me an award for something, and it was a Don Quixote statue," Paterno says. "The Romantic period is my period, O.K.?"
O.K., and that in part explains why it is that when Paterno talks of the pros (he could have been the New England Patriots' head coach some years ago, the Giants' in 1978, and serious feelers from NFL teams arrive in State College almost every year) one has the impression he would like to wash his hands and rinse his mouth out. In the middle of last season's woes, with the Baltimore Colts hot on his trail, Paterno once again mulled over the idea of going to the pros, "but I came to the conclusion I wouldn't be happy if I wasn't coaching in State College."
Although he is committed to staying on—seven to 10 more years as coach, he vows—he is increasingly concerned about the character of his recruits. "Values have changed," he says. "They are a little bit more selfish. They have to understand that giving themselves to a group means getting more in return. Also, young people today are reluctant to get involved in someone else's life. But we can't win with everybody just going his own way.
"I think we mistakenly recruited some athletes who didn't understand that I meant what I said. Somehow they felt that 'Paterno talks a good fight but....' We have got to reevaluate our recruits. Do they have the ability to pass up a good time? The real problem is the permissiveness they grow up under now. And once they come to the campus, I have to be a whole lot better at understanding their problems and what they want. I was inconsistent. I jumped on people very quickly. Too quickly. The point is, it's their team, not my team. I didn't get that point across."
Paterno continues, "I hate the freshman-eligible rule, but, see, if I had enough guts I'd say that, regardless, freshmen aren't going to play here. But that's how I'm hypocritical. I don't say that, because it would hurt our recruiting and our football team."
Time was when Paterno spent 20 minutes or so in the home of a recruit, telling a few jokes and gauging his man, and then left—a style befitting a legend. These days he sometimes spends an entire afternoon sizing up a prospect.
Sever (Tor) Toretti, a former recruiter for Penn State, now a fund-raiser, says, "It's remarkable we didn't have these things in the past. After all, Joe wants to give a player a chance to manage his own life and to grow. He says, 'Don't do anything that will embarrass yourself, the team or the university.' Unfortunately, we had players who embarrassed all three."
"After they had embarrassed themselves," Paterno says, "they needed support, but they felt I wasn't there." That became apparent to him in a series of meetings with the players he had in December to find out what went wrong and to determine what should be done. They told him that they couldn't come to him because he always seemed too busy. That's a valid point, and Paterno may have compounded the difficulty last January by accepting the additional responsibility of being athletic director. In some quarters there was criticism that Paterno, who already had considerable power at Penn State, now had even more.
In those December meetings the players also told Paterno that when they did see him, he was too abrupt, abrasive, unsympathetic; that he had temper tantrums; that his assistants also had lost contact with individual players. Said one player plaintively, "We're not as bad as you think we are. We're good kids." That statement made an impact on Paterno. Today he says, "I probably didn't like them for a while and it showed. It was embarrassing and disappointing. I admit I got to thinking of that bunch as a group of jackasses."