SI Vault
Rick Reilly
August 21, 2008
More than 20 years after he was named SI's Sportsman, Joe Paterno continues to be a beacon of integrity in the often murky world of college athletics as he proves that a teacher can be a winner too
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August 21, 2008

A Good Joe

More than 20 years after he was named SI's Sportsman, Joe Paterno continues to be a beacon of integrity in the often murky world of college athletics as he proves that a teacher can be a winner too

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A funny thing happens to a Penn State player after four years of Paterno's preaching "us," not "me," and "M.B.A.," not " NFL." They get to sounding like Paterno. The team's famous boring uniforms? "I hated our uniforms at first," says safety Ray Isom. "Now I think they're beautiful." Before last season's Orange Bowl game Paterno brought out the traditional patch (a tiny orange) for affixing to the team's jerseys. "Everybody was quiet while Joe held them up to the jerseys," remembers Isom. "Then everybody started saying, 'Nah, nah. Too flashy. Too gaudy.' " The offending, garish, end-of-civilization-as-we-know-it patches were vetoed. "After all," says defensive tackle Bob White, "it's not what's on the outside that counts; it's what's on the inside."

Nobody knows that better than White. As a three-sport star in high school, he was wooed by a dozen major schools. But when Penn State talked to him, Paterno said something outrageous: that he would give White a scholarship if, over the spring and summer, he would agree to read a dozen novels, assigned by Sue, and file a two-page book report every week.

To White, this was an insane proposal. Nobody else was complaining about his grades. He had a 2.0, which will get you a scholarship and maybe a Firebird almost anywhere else. Why should he hit the books in the summer, for crying out loud, when everyone else was hitting keggers? Why should somebody be so worried about him? So, of course, he agreed. Sue's first assignment was Huckleberry Finn. It became the first book White ever completed. Today, White is a B student in administration of justice, a team leader and a lover of books. "I'm so happy about the way things turned out for me," says White. "There was a time I never really thought I'd get through college." Call it the Paterno Plan.

"The older I get," says 1967-68 All-America tight end Ted Kwalick, "the smarter Joe Paterno gets." It's a working theme: The more messed up college athletics gets, the more sense Paterno makes. Pull up a chair and listen to the professor.

On Division I-A playoffs: "I've never wanted anybody to vote me out of a national championship, and I've never wanted anybody to vote me in. After we won in '82, I think someone should've been able to get a shot at us. I can see an Arizona State kid, undefeated, saying, 'Oh, jeez, just give me one shot at those babies.' And he should have had it.... A lot of bowl people think a playoff would detract from the bowls. Not me. A playoff would add more meaning to the games. Your winner can go on, like in the NFL playoffs. The excitement builds."

On the NCAA: "It's time to start from scratch. Appoint three committees and redefine what recruiting is, what an amateur is, what alumni should be allowed to do.... There are so many rules now that you might be breaking one and not realize it. I think we run a clean program, but I could not positively tell you that we're not breaking a single rule somewhere."

On kids' sports: "I don't think it's fair to 12-, 13- and 14-year-olds to say 'Show us you're a winner right now!' Winning isn't everything. I'll never buy that thing that if a boy loses a football game, he's a loser in life."

On television: "The game is overexposed. It's like kids and candy. It tastes good, but you give them too much and it ruins their teeth."

On firing coaches: "Coaches have got to be given rank within the university so that you can't fire a coach unless you go through an academic committee, just as you would with a professor. If coaches are to have any stability, they need to be treated like an English professor."

On happy-feet coaches: "Guys who jump all over the place deprive themselves of having an impact on their institution. One thing I'm proud of is that I think I've made a mark here."

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