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Joe Paterno is seated in the kitchen of his home. Outside, snow is falling. The 1979 football season, Paterno's 14th as head coach of Penn State, is over. It was not a triumph for Paterno and he knows his own shortcomings must be blamed in part. But he rankles at being labeled a sham. "There is hypocrisy in me. And a little of the con man and actor, too. Look, I'm not trying to fool anybody. But I want things to be difficult. It's more fun to win with handicaps. If you have the best players and no problems and you win, that doesn't intrigue me."
Paterno, therefore, should be about as intrigued as he can be these days at Penn State, a school with one of the classiest football reputations in the land. He doesn't have the best players (which is nothing new), he is trying to emerge from beneath an avalanche of problems (which is), and he is getting considerable flak for his 1979 record of 8-4—estimable numbers at many a school but of unthinkable mediocrity in State College, Pa.
Last fall's season was most un-Penn-State-like, and was all the more aggravating coming as it did immediately after the undefeated Nittany Lions had played Alabama in the Sugar Bowl for the national championship—and lost. In 1979 Penn State football players flunked out of school, were arrested and disobeyed Paterno's orders. One even had a bullet whizzing by him. Signs of the time, you might say. But this was no University of New Mexico. This was Penn State, holier-than-thou Pennsylvania State University, where Billy Budd would have to prove himself before being issued shoulder pads. A Penn State assistant professor and all-out Paterno admirer, Milton J. Bergstein, says, "We are a victim of our own image. Nothing ever goes wrong here. Suddenly, we're falling apart. Well, I guess we were due for a little bad luck."
And a little crowing from a few of Paterno's earthier colleagues. Yes, sir, that pious Joe Paterno and his goody-goody football program are getting their lumps at last.
Every coach in the country would deny deriving any pleasure from Penn State's problems. But as one privately admits, "Let's tell the truth. Every coach hates every other coach."
If that be true, they must be finding inordinate satisfaction in Penn State's miseries. Paterno not only has the best winning percentage (.817) of all coaches with 10 years' service or more, but he also has made a big deal over the years of preaching that college football should be played by kids who are honest-to-God students first and athletes second. In a speech a few years ago to Penn State's graduating class Paterno said, "We play with enthusiasm and recklessness. We aren't afraid to lose. If we win, great, wonderful—and the alumni are happy for another week. But, win or lose, it is the competition that gives us pleasure." Says another rival coach, "It's enough to make us all throw up."
Paterno calls his method of coaching—with the emphasis on books first, football second—the Grand Experiment. Such a title seems to imply that other coaches traffic in something considerably less grand. Today Paterno says, "The Grand Experiment is kind of in disrepute."
The glee over Paterno's discomfiture is in proportion to the adoring press he had heretofore received. The uncritical nature of that acclaim, attributable in part to the fact that State College is situated somewhere south of oblivion and thus is not under the daily scrutiny of big-city reporters, was widely resented. The more so, perhaps, because Paterno's reputation for integrity and coaching skill was entirely warranted.
When the usually tough 60 Minutes team tackled Paterno in 1978, the resulting segment could have been used as a Penn State recruiting film. Conceded one CBS staffer, "We only do shows like that on guys who die."
But that was yesterday. Now the Penn State football community is learning that what goes up comes down, and nobody is more candid about that physical law than Paterno. "The players were disappointed last year in Joe Paterno," he says. "I understand. I was disappointed in myself."