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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On Bylaw 5-1-(j), which requires minimum standardized test scores and grade point averages for freshman athletes: "A 2.0 grade average and a 700 SAT is a great start.... We've lost a generation and a half of people who were potential lawyers, doctors, teachers and what-have-you, because they were all caught up in bouncing a basketball and running with a football.... We were supposed to be educating those kids. Instead, we conned them for 15 years and then, when they were through playing pro football or pro basketball, they knew they'd been had."

On paying players: "I'm for giving them something like $65 a month.... A kid has got to have some dignity. There's dignity in a kid going out with his friends and saying, 'Hey, this pizza is on me.' Kids need to be able to fit into the mainstream of student life."

If one misconception exists about Paterno, it's that he spends all his time being a conscience for the game and none being a coach. Paterno carries on so much about education you figure he cuts practice an hour short every day so some of the boys can get to debate club on time. Uh-uh. "Joe's the most intensely competitive man I've ever known," says his brother, George.

The man hasn't been Coach of the Year three times ( Bryant and Darrell Royal are the only others who have been named three times) because he thought it was only a game. The Professor can hang with the X's and O's boys. You may think of him as a strategic dinosaur, but his 1982 team was the first national champion to gain more yards passing than running. He won 22 straight games in the late '60s with Chuck Burkhart at quarterback, and Burkhart wasn't even taken in the NFL draft. He's 22-1 over the past two years with senior quarterback John Shaffer, who has a bright future as a financial analyst.

Maybe we choose Paterno for his resilience after disappointment. In 1968 Penn State went undefeated in the regular season and beat Kansas in the Orange Bowl, yet finished second in the polls. That hacked off Paterno considerably, but the next year, when the Nittany Lions beat Missouri in the Orange Bowl in their 30th straight game without a loss and then watched President Nixon present Texas his mythical "national championship plaque" ( Nixon had earlier deemed that whoever won the Texas-Arkansas game would be No. 1), Paterno became forever pro-playoff. Later, during a 1973 Penn State commencement address, Paterno wondered, "How could Nixon know so little about Watergate and so much about football?" And in '73, after learning that the polls had shunned him an infuriating third time, despite a 12-0 season and an Orange Bowl win over LSU, Paterno walked up to reporters on New Year's night with a solution. "I had my own poll," he said. "The Paterno Poll. And the vote was unanimous. Penn State is No. 1." To make if official, Paterno gave his team national championship rings.

Imagine how history would treat Paterno if there had been playoffs. Among coaches who have appeared in at least a dozen bowl games, Paterno's 11-5-1 record is the best in history after Bobby Dodd's, who was 9-4 with Georgia Tech, and that includes Bryant, Royal, Tom Osborne, Woody Hayes, Vince Dooley and Shug Jordan. Is there any reason to believe Paterno wouldn't have won a national playoff?

Of course, the kind of success Penn State has enjoyed doesn't come in vending machines. Paterno is not coaching Swarthmore. "I tell the kids," says Paterno, " 'I'm not sure it's worth it.'... Jack Ham [the great Penn State and Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker] was here this summer, and I showed him our new weight room. He said, 'Jeez, we never lifted weights, Joe.' And I told him, 'It's not like the old days. It's a year-round thing now. The competition is at such a level that you've got to lift weights and run a conditioning program all year round. I just don't know if it's worth it.' "

If a player decides that, what the heck, it's worth it, one day or another, at least temporarily, he will live to regret his decision. Paterno is not a buddy-buddy coach. On the practice field he is a screaming, insatiable, unforgiving loudspeaker. "When he's yelling at you," says receiver Darrell Giles, "it seems like he's actually inside your helmet." And Paterno isn't much for apologizing. He's on your case sunup to sundown, which grates on the best of players. For instance, All-America Matt Millen, who's now with the L.A. Raiders, made more dramatic exits from the Penn State practice field than Jean Harlow did from bedrooms. But as much as Millen disdained Paterno's fieldside manner, he was the first to call Paterno after the '83 Sugar Bowl. "I don't care if my players like me," says Paterno. "I want them to like me when it's important they like me, when they're out in the world, raising families, using their degrees. I want them to like me when it hits them what I've been trying to say all these years."

Some people never come around to liking him. His critics deplore the secrecy of his program—closed practices, names of recruits not being released, freshmen not listed in the press guide. It's hard to get inside the program. In fact, it's hard to get to State College, period. Paterno has a personal Camelot that's a three-hour drive from anywhere.

Further, he doesn't exactly face a caldron of media heat. No wonder they call it Happy Valley. Paterno once got a standing O at a basketball game just for getting up and going to the bathroom. How would the NCAA look investigating Penn State? Paterno could suddenly decide to turn Penn State into State Pen and nobody would notice for four or five years.

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