IN THE WORLD OF COLLEGE ATHLETICS . . . : HE’S NOT AN AVERAGE JOE : Paterno Wants to Win--and Usually Does--but What Sets Him Apart From Many Football Coaches Is That He Won’t Put Game Ahead of Academics, Integrity
Joe Paterno shifts uncomfortably on the couch of his office at Penn State University and makes a confession about his holier-than-thou image.
“It scares the heck out of me,” booms the hallowed football coach. “Because I know I’m not that clean. Nobody is that clean.”
“I don’t want to appear to be any more than I am,” says Paterno, now speaking in a near whisper. “And that’s a good, hard-working coach who is a decent guy, a family guy, who doesn’t want to cheat.”
“I lose my temper sometimes. I’m not an easy-going guy when it comes to getting a football team ready. I’m tough on the kids. I’m tough on my staff.”
At 60, Joseph Vincent Paterno, self-described everyman, is widely perceived to be the saint in black cleats of the often seamy world of college sports.
With a big nose, a Brooklyn accent and glasses as thick as a Coca-Cola bottle, the Ivy League-educated Paterno is also one of the most revered college coaches since Notre Dame’s fabled Knute Rockne.
This fall, Paterno will become the first major college coach to post 200 career victories, with a lifetime winning percentage of more than 80 percent. More important to the reputation of the game, he will also boast a graduation rate by his players of more than 80 percent.
Finding a Paterno critic can be as tough as spotting a hole in Penn State’s defense. But there are a few -- some disgruntled ex-players, rival coaches, a doubting educator.
They say that although Paterno preaches balancing academics and athletics, he is basically no different than most big-time college coaches -- an egotistical zealot with a whistle, dedicated to winning games and packing stadiums.
Paterno, now getting ready for his 22nd season as Penn State’s head football coach, says he’s no saint, but insists he’s no phony, either.
“We are trying to win football games ... but I tell the kids ‘enjoy yourself. There is much besides football.’ I want them to learn art, literature and music and all the other things college has to offer.”
While stories pop up about ex-jocks who can’t read more than a comic book, Paterno’s commandos move on to become teachers, doctors, lawyers, corporate chiefs. Ninety-nine have become pro football players.
Four years ago, Paterno helped head a national campaign to increase academic standards for college athletes, and now wants them raised again. “We’re just kidding ourselves if we think we can bring kids in with minimal credentials and have them play football or basketball and get a meaningful education,” Paterno says.
He speaks out against exploitation of student-athletes, enjoys opera, scolds players who cuss and exhorts fellow faculty members to make their academic departments “No. 1.”
Mounted in Paterno’s office is a quote from poet Robert Browning: “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp.”
Paterno gets involved with his community, Penn State, a school with 33,000 students. Last year, he personally donated $100,000 to a library fund and another $50,000 to a minority-student scholarship fund.
The coach is compassionate. But he can be riled.
In 1969, he left word for President Richard Nixon -- after Nixon proclaimed Texas to be national champs and then offered a “special” plaque to Penn State for having a 21-game winning streak -- to “shove it.”
In January, Paterno was named “Sportsman of the Year” by Sports Illustrated, which wrote: “Joe Paterno is a beacon of integrity -- and he knows how to win.”
A week later, Paterno orchestrated a 14-10 upset of No. 1-ranked Miami in the Fiesta Bowl for his second national championship, as decreed by the nation’s wire services. He won the title once before, in 1982.
“To win a national championship is fine,” says Paterno. “That’s what you strive for. But striving is what’s fun -- the planning, the preparation, the excitement, the tension of getting ready and playing.”
“After it’s over, it’s over,” he shrugs. “You won. So you won.”
“I go back to (Thomas) Aquinas. ‘Anticipation is the greater joy.”’
Make no mistake about it, though. Joe Paterno doesn’t like to lose.
At one point in 1984, when his team sputtered to 6-5, Paterno called his players “a bunch of babies.” The next season, Penn State was within one victory of a national title when they fell to Oklahoma, 25-10, in the Orange Bowl.
Says Paterno, “That really wasn’t a tough loss to take because that squad did as well as it could.”
Along with being one of the most popular people in Pennsylvania, Paterno is also one of the best paid. He’s estimated to earn well upwards of $100,000 a year, including salary, endorsements and speaking fees. He also holds tenure on the faculty, a rarity in any big-time college sport.
“I make good money -- and I think I should,” Paterno says.
Yet, he leads a relatively austere life. He drives a red Ford Tempo and, with his wife of 26 years, Sue, a homemaker, in a modest house three blocks off the Penn State campus.
“I’d be embarrassed to drive a Cadillac,” says Paterno. “My wife would be, too. We wouldn’t be comfortable having a maid. We just don’t need a lot of things.”
In 1973, the New England Patriots offered Paterno $1.3 million to coach their National Football League team. Penn State students, alumni and fans mailed Paterno postcards that read: “Joe, Don’t Go Pro.” Neighborhood children stood outside his house and chanted the same plea.
“Here, I have an opportunity to affect the lives of a lot of young people -- and not just on my football team,” he said. “I’m kidding myself that that would be true at the professional level.”
At Penn State, the fit, 5-foot-10, 165-pound Paterno, a name that means “fatherly” in Italian, is the Big Man on Campus. He is affectionately known as “Jo Pa.”
He walks to work, goes to church on Sunday and at least once a year likes to hold a “bull session” in a campus dormitory on any topic -- football, politics, life.
One of the most popular items in campus book stores is a life-sized cardboard likeness of Paterno. It sells for $24.95. The money goes to a Penn State library fund -- named for Paterno.
Paterno was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., four days before Christmas in 1926, as the first of four children of Angelo and Florence Paterno, an Italian-American couple of modest means who demanded that their youngsters hit the books.
Angelo Paterno worked his way through law school during the Depression and became a clerk in an appeals court, where young Joe spent many days watching lawyers match wits and judges preside.
Joe Paterno planned to become an attorney, but after he graduated from Brown University in 1950, where he majored in English literature and played quarterback, he switched to football. He became an assistant coach at Penn State.
“My father loved the law, but he never leaned on me. He wanted me to do whatever I wanted to do. My mother said, ‘Why did you go to college? After all those years, you’re just going to coach.’ But after my name started to appear in the papers she thought it was all right.”
Paterno, the father of five children -- two girls, three boys -- says: “I have no regrets.”
Still, he retains a breadth of cultural interests. “I like music. I have a lousy ear and I can’t sing. But I really like classical music. I like opera. In fact, ‘Carmen’ was on last night, on educational TV,” he said, and he watched it.
“I like to read just about anything,” Paterno continued. “I always liked classics. Now, I’m going back to (the Roman poet) Virgil (and) I just finished a book on Napoleon.”
Dennis Booher, as a Penn State graduate student in 1985, profiled Paterno for his doctoral degree in physical education. It took him two years and 100 interviews. He wrote:
“Joe Paterno is much like a corporate executive operating a large business. He makes decisions based on what’s best for the business, not necessarily the individual. He ... demands total accountability in academics and athletics.... There is no room for the lazy or the weak.”
Booher found most ex-players overwhelmingly supportive of Paterno, hailing him as a supreme motivator. He also noted, though, that some scorn their old coach as a ranting ogre.
“He’s a disciplinarian, a driver, a pusher, he yells at players,” Booher says. “But I believe Joe Paterno is what he says he is. He wants his players to do as well as they can. That’s his thesis on life.”
Booher, now athletic director at the Penn State campus in Schuylkill, Pa., says Paterno’s pious image was developed by the media and the university. “Paterno says he objects. But I doubt he objects that much. He’s human.”
Paterno has been a crusader, championing reforms to correct problems ranging from uneducated “student-athletes” to recruiting scandals -- like the one recently made public at Southern Methodist University, where boosters, with the approval of top school officials, made under-the-table payments to players.
Paterno has plenty to say on a variety of topics.
--SMU: “It’s unbelievable to think that kind of corruption came right from the top of the power structure. The NCAA did what it had to do” in canceling SMU’s 1988 football season.
--Drug testing: “I’m for drug testing, even though we’re violating some of the rights (against self-incrimination) that we are all entitled to. But if I’m going to be consistent with doing what I think is best for young people, I should know if they’re horsing around with any kind of drug.”
--Paying players: “I think part of their scholarship should be some spending money, $50 to $60 a month. If the NCAA is going to prohibit them from holding a job during the school year, let’s give them some money so they can be part of the mainstream -- so they can buy a new shirt, a cup of coffee.”
--Boosters: “You’ve got to control them. I tell them, ‘I want your money, but I don’t want your two cents. Keep your nose out of this program .... If I find out you’re horsing around, you won’t get a ticket into the stadium.”’
--NCAA rules: “Rewrite the rulebook. Let’s define a student-athlete, let’s say what we want in recruiting. The rulebook was written 40 years ago. A lot of them don’t make any sense. There are so many little rules that no one knows them all.”
“I know if somebody came up here and went right through our program with a fine-tooth comb they are going to probably find something that’s not right. I was going to throw a party for seniors and their fathers. But I couldn’t. It would have been extra benefits.”
--Little league baseball: “I think it’s foolish. You sit in the stands and you hear somebody say, ‘Hey, this kid is a winner. Hey, this kid is a loser.’ Hey, this kid is an 11- or 12-year-old kid. Let kids be kids.”
--Women’s sports: “When Title IX first came in (in 1972, pressuring schools to provide equal sports opportunities for women) I was a little leery. I wondered, ‘Was this just some sort of fad.’
“When I became (Penn State) athletic director (1980 to 1982), I realized how much the women want to play. I supported them.”
“One woman coach who I hired came in and said, ‘I’m entitled to this under Title IX. Unless I get it, I’m going to bring up some action.”’
“I said, ‘Do me a favor. Go back outside. Forget you ever heard of Title IX. Then come back in and tell me what you need. She went outside, came back in and said, ‘This is what I need.’ I said, ‘You’re going to get it. Not because of Title IX ... but because you deserve it, your kids deserve it.”
--State of college sports: “We’ve gone through a very tough 12, 15, 18 years. We had academic scandals on the West Coast. We had kids not going to class. The integrity of institutions was literally bruised.
“But then all of a sudden we did some soul searching. We raised academic standards, university presidents said ‘enough is enough.’ We’ve made great strides.”
“I’d have given us a ‘D’ 15 years ago and probably a ‘C-minus’ seven years ago. Now, we’re probably up to a ‘B’ or a ‘B-minus.’ If the President’s Commission (of the NCAA) stays active (in reforms) we can get up to an ‘A.”’
When Joe Paterno speaks, people react.
In 1983, Paterno spearheaded a campaign to set minimum academic standards that high school students must meet to be eligible for an athletic scholarship.
The measure, then opposed as racist by some blacks, proposed that students be required to have at least a 2.0 average -- out of a possible 4.0 -- and get a combined Scholastic Aptitude Test score of at least 700 out of a possible 1,600.
At an NCAA convention in San Diego, Paterno rose in support of the measure.
“I hope you will bear with me a little bit while I talk to you,” Paterno began. “I go back to a time when they asked (Knute) Rockne which was the best team. He said, ‘I don’t know ... I will find out ... when I find out how many doctors, lawyers and good husbands and good citizens have come off every one of them.’
“I am really surprised that so many black leaders have gotten up here and kind of sold their young people down the river.... If it takes 700 in the SAT to compete, and we give them time to be prepared, they will be prepared.”
“We have raped a generation-and-a-half of young black athletes. We have taken kids and sold them on bouncing a ball and running with the football and that being able to do certain things athletically was going to be an end in itself.
“We cannot afford to do that to another generation.”
The delegates approved the measure, which took effect last fall.
On Jan. 30, 1983, a few weeks after Penn State won its first national football championship, Paterno went before the university’s board of trustees and urged them to make the well-respected institution No. 1 scholastically.
“We have some excellent departments .... We also have some departments that are absolutely lousy and we have lazy profs who are only concerned with tenure and only concerned with getting tenure for some of their mediocre colleagues.”
The words bruised egos -- and contributed to efforts to better Penn State.
Last February, a month after Penn State won its second championship, President Reagan invited Paterno and his team to the White House.
“I think he’s one of the great coaches ever in college sports,” Reagan said. “... he’s never forgotten that, first and foremost, he’s a teacher who’s preparing his students not just for the season, but for life.”
Such comments make John Swinton, an instructor in Penn State’s department of hotel and restaurant management, cringe.
“Mr. Paterno’s main goal is to operate a business,” charges Swinton, a critic of all intercollegiate athletics. “I believe that big-time football is incompatible with a university mission.”
Swinton contends that Penn State players, despite statements to the contrary by the university, are exploited on the field and given favorable treatment in the classroom.
Swinton could not name another public critic of Paterno on campus. But that doesn’t deter him. One of his biggest gripes is that the football program, he says, uses bloated figures in claiming a graduation rate of 84 percent.
The College Football Association said that if all schools calculated graduation rates the way Penn State does, counting only those players who complete four years of athletic eligibility, the average graduation rate for all schools would still be only about 70 percent.
Penn State says its other difference in the classroom is that players aren’t fed easy “gut” courses. All but two of the 30 seniors on the roster last fall are expected to get degrees by this spring.
Over the years, players have had plenty to say about Paterno.
In Roy Blount Jr.’s 1973 book on the 1973 Pittsburgh Steelers, “About Three Bricks Shy of a Load,” Jack Ham, a 1970 All-America linebacker, says, “All of us disliked Paterno. It made us closer. He was very cold to his players, very impersonal.”
“I’d like to see him say that to Mr. Paterno’s face,” said Bruce Bannon, a 1973 All-America at Penn State who played two years with the Miami Dolphins.
“Joe Paterno’s first job is to win games, but I think he does his best to help players,” Bannon said. “He really does emphasize academics. There’s not many coaches who do.”
Bannon graduated with honors in geologic science and says Paterno gave him a break that few coaches would, letting him miss spring practice for a geology field trip. He’s now marketing manager of an aerospace firm in El Cajon, Calif.
Bob White, a linebacker on the football team and a criminal justice major in the classroom, graduated from Penn State in January. He is working as a clerk in a video store and awaiting a likely career in pro football.
Five years ago, Paterno offered White, then a high school student with a “C” average, a scholarship. But only if he would first read a dozen books, assigned by Paterno’s wife, and file a weekly book report. White agreed.
“Joe Paterno is a ‘good guy.’ Not the type to put his arm around you, not the type who joke with you, but the type who helps you, forces you, to develop to your fullest potential,” says White.
A few months after Paul Gabel graduated from Penn State in 1974, he told an interviewer: “What bugged me most about him (Paterno) was being belittled in front of your peers.”
Gabel related a story about when he collapsed from what may have been an asthmatic attack during a summer practice. “When I came to, everybody was around me and I could hear Paterno yelling and screaming, ‘Get up, get up, you’re a baby.”’
Today, Gabel, an assistant warden in the West Virginia State Penitentiary, has softened. “Joe was tough. He would yell at players. But more chances that not, he was right.”
“My attitude toward Joe changed in the past seven or eight years -- after I had my own kids and I began to understand what he was trying to do for us.” As for his collapse on the field, Gabel now says, “Joe probably wasn’t aware of what happened to me.”
Being loved, says Paterno, is not what he’s aiming for.
“I’ve never worried about whether the players like me. You worry about being liked and you’ll get into trouble ... I wasn’t buddy-buddy with my own kids.
“I want to be tough, but I want to have a little compassion, too. I may have been too tough on some kids, but I don’t think I ever put winning a football game ahead of what was best for a kid.”
In recruiting players, Paterno considers athletics, academics and character.
“If I don’t like a kid, I don’t recruit him. We had a kid come up here, a hot shot from another state. All he did was talk about himself, his records. I told the coaches, ‘Forget him. We can’t put up with that nonsense.”’
In the early 1960s, there was a high school player in Beaver Falls, Pa., who became one of the greatest quarterbacks ever. His name was Joe Namath. Paterno didn’t recruit him. “Joe is a bright guy, but he wasn’t what you would call a great high school student,” Paterno says.
Paterno’s players are generally solid students -- and solid citizen-types.
In 1979 there was a major aberration. Some of his players ran into trouble with the law on charges from rape and burglary to drunken driving and fist fights. Three starters were declared academically ineligible.
At a team meeting that December, players complained to Paterno that they could not come to him because he seemed too busy, even unsympathetic.
“I probably did not like them for a while and it showed,” Paterno later said. “It was embarrassing and disappointing. “ Now, Paterno says, “I think those kids did me favor. And I haven’t forgotten it. If I think we have a problem I seek out the kids and we try to handle it. You’ve got to know kids better nowadays.”
Paterno spent much of last winter getting to know potential recruits and delivering nearly a speech a week to fund-raisers. He also gave about a dozen talks for a fee to private firms. On March 28, he focused on football. Twenty-days of spring practice began.
Just before he laced up his cleats, rolled up the cuffs of his slacks and led his team in an afternoon practice session, Paterno stopped to explain his love of his job.
“You are working with young people, you have a chance to influence a lot of lives and you are creating an element of happiness for a lot of people.”
“People come up from all over on Saturday to watch the game. What art does for one person -- dancing or opera -- sport does for other people.”
The Paterno era is drawing to a close. He plans to leave coaching in five years, at age 65. His youngest child will then be in college.
“I don’t want to retire,” he said. “I want to be young enough to change careers.”
Paterno has been mentioned over the years as a possible candidate for statewide office. In 1980, he helped George Bush defeat Ronald Reagan in the Pennsylvania presidential primary.
Paterno, a Republican, says he has no plans to run for office. But says he might be interested in working on the state level for a politician.
It’s nearly noon on a day in early April and Joe Paterno is pacing in his office.
He’s pumped up. He’s talking about a White House dinner he and his wife attended the previous night in honor of French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac.
“The president had me at his own table. I sat there with Julie Nixon Eisenhower, the prime minister’s wife, the president of IT&T.; My wife sat at (White House chief of staff) Howard Baker’s table, with John Wayne’s son.”
He takes a phone call and tells his caller, “I talked to the president.”
He hangs up and laughs.
“You know, I said to Julie Eisenhower, ‘It’s hard for me to believe I’m here, in the White House, sitting under a picture of Abraham Lincoln, having dinner with the president of the United States -- me, a football coach.”
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