Funny thing, Angelo, Joe has always provoked extreme reactions. He awakens deep emotions. Nobody sees the middle ground with Joe Paterno—he is Saint Joe or Plaster Saint Joe. He is all that is right about college football or he is that sanctimonious coach who has allowed too many off-the-field incidents in recent years. He is sincerity personified or an old man who can't walk away from the stage.
He seems embarrassed by the conflict that has long raged around him—as embarrassed by those who think him perfect as by those who think him sinister—but he remains unbowed. Of course he's not perfect, nowhere near that. He will tell you himself that he can be overbearing and manipulative and pigheaded, and it sometimes frightens his rational side just how much he wants to win.
Stuff happens. All the time. When the phone rings, especially at night, Penn State officials shudder. It's that way all over the country, and it's that way in State College too. On the same day that Joe talks about his own imperfections, the lead story in the student newspaper, the Daily Collegian, is about a backup player who was arrested for driving under the influence.
Angelo, Joe says that kids have changed but not that much. They have always gotten in trouble. Maybe it was quieter in the old days. Whatever, people long ago learned it's pointless to ask Paterno what he will do when players get in trouble. He will do what he will do. "I know people think the old man has gone soft," Joe says, "but you know what? If anything, I think I'm too tough on these kids. There is so much scrutiny of them. They are so much in the public eye.
"I know people have opinions about what I should do. And don't get me wrong: I'm glad that we have such a loyal and interested fan base. That's a good thing. But I can't listen to all that. I know a lot more than they know. I'm going to do what I believe is in the kid's best interest. That's what this whole thing is about."
Those are the sorts of statements that fans have embraced and cynics have latched onto. But what's Joe going to do about that? For 60 years he has made his players go to class, challenged them to be better than they believed, taught them that life is best lived by the doers. Every year he has a Penn State groundskeeper paint a blue line on the practice field. And he tells the players, "When you cross that blue line, you are mine. Problems with your girlfriends, classes, family, friends—all of that is gone. Across the blue line, it's all football."
Lots of football coaches might say that. But Joe Paterno adds this: "And what you need to do in your life is paint blue lines everywhere. Paint a blue line around your classes, so when you go in there, you are not thinking about football. Paint a blue line around your relationships, so you are giving your all to the person you are with."
"He's not Phil Jackson," Jay says, "and so he would never say, 'Live in the moment.' But that's exactly what he means."
Joe Paterno doesn't reflect much. Oh, every so often these days (a concession to age) he might take a moment to talk about certain people and how much they mean to him. He often calls Taliaferro, and he sounds like a proud father when he tells you that Adam passed the bar exam and is a Philadelphia lawyer now. "I wouldn't have made it here without Coach Paterno," Adam says plainly. "He did so much for me. And he still says to me, 'Is there anything I can do for you?'"
Paterno cried when presenting the Distinguished Alumnus award to star quarterback turned broadcaster Todd Blackledge in June. ("If any of you wonder why I still coach," he said, "it's to be around young men like Todd.") He cried when thanking his seniors last year for sticking with him when the program seemed to be falling. ("He puts loyalty above almost anything," Jay says.) "A man my age," Joe says, "will get emotional from time to time."