He looks like an atomic spy. First, there are those thick, dark glasses, the worried look, the aspect of a man who would like to melt into a crowd. You feel like wearing a carnation and walking up to him and saying, "The moon is yellow in the woods this time of year" and see if he will hand you the plans to a new ray gun.
He looks as little like what he is--a big-time college football coach--as a cat does a lion. Football coaches most often are burly specimens who yell a lot and have the vocabulary of a ferryboat captain. He, on the other hand, is a tenured professor, reads Dickens, quotes minor British poets and has an alphabet that includes something besides X's and O's. He turns out graduates as regularly as Green Bay Packers. He sounds as if he has a chronic sore throat or is delivering a ransom note by phone.
He goes 5 feet 10, 165 pounds, he is stoop-shouldered, hollow-chested and doesn't seem to care. Don Knotts gets the part if they make a movie of his life. Clothes don't interest him. The shirt is clean and white, so are the socks. If the tie matches, he doesn't know it. Sports Illustrated's Rick Reilly once wrote that he wore his pant legs in the position of a guy who lived in a continual fear of flash floods.
And yet, Joseph Vincent Paterno is not only a college football coach, he is the best. Now that Bo Schembechler is gone, it's no contest. Only Washington's Don James and Notre Dame's Lou Holtz are on the same ballot.
It's one thing to get 250-pound, cat-quick football players to South Bend. To a football player, that is what the Old Vic is to an actor.
It's another thing to attract high school heroes to the middle of Pennsylvania, where Altoona is the nearest big city but Pine Grove and Spruce Creek are just over the hill. Everyone knows what a Trojan, a Cornhusker, a Wolverine or Fighting Irish stand for. But what is a Nittany Lion? And besides, they wear those funny-looking blah uniforms with the (y-e-e-ech!) white helmets with no pictures of animals or community logos on them and those ugly black shoes, sometimes high cuts, with the white stripe on them.
Paterno wasn't into costuming. But he got players to come to the Nittany Valley on the sheer force of his personality and coaching genius.
Mt. Nittany suited Joe Paterno just fine. Brooklyn-born, Brown University-educated, Paterno was as unprepossessing a figure in football gear as you could find, even for the Ivy League. But he so impressed his coach, Rip Engle, by his heady quarterback play, that Engle took him with him as assistant to Penn State when Engle accepted the head coaching job there.
That was 41 years ago. Paterno threw out the anchor. A Paterno stays till he gets it right. He became head coach in 1966. He was 5-5 his first season, but within two years, he was 11-0. The next season, he went 11-0 again. Two years later, he went 11-1. Two seasons after that, his team went 12-0.
He didn't do it with myopic English Lit students. Crack football players found their way to Paterno (and vice versa), even though, as someone pointed out, Penn State is a half a day's drive from anywhere. "You go to Williamsport and get the noon stage," Rosey Grier once observed.
But if Paterno was having success on the field, he had trouble getting noticed off it. He went 22-0 and won 29 games with one tie in that stretch but never got No. 1 in the polls. When he went 12-0, his team was ranked fifth. Not till 1982--when, oddly enough, he went 11-1--did the team make No. 1. It made it again in '86 when it went 12-0, beat Notre Dame, Alabama, Syracuse, Pitt and a swaggering Miami in the Fiesta Bowl in what was one of the most popular victories of all time.
Joe Paterno has been to 21 bowl games in his 25 seasons, and his record is 231-61-3, the best of any active coach. He has been Coach of the Year four times. He turned down a $1.5-million offer to coach in the pros (the New England Patriots) to remain at Penn State.
But if Joe Paterno has a monument, it will be the fact Penn State was admitted into the high-rent Big Ten Conference beginning in '93. There is little doubt Paterno's considerable personal prestige was a deciding factor. Some years, his athletes have a 90-to-100% graduation rate.
Paterno had high hopes for his squad when it played USC in the Coliseum Saturday night. The Nittany Lions had beaten Georgia Tech, 34-22, in the Kickoff Classic and had scored at will to rout Cincinnati, 81-0. But when a highly charged, recklessly blitzing USC team beat Penn State, 21-10, Paterno was Paterno.
"I thought SC was an awful good football team coming in, and they didn't disappoint me. They were very aggressive, and we found out you can't play a big league team if you put the ball on the ground (fumble). You're supposed to put the ball on the ground in the end zone, not the 30-yard line. We play Brigham Young next. There's a lot of football left."
Does he ever regret not going in the pros? "The money was a lot to give up. But that was the only thing hard about it. And the money has pretty much caught up. No, I'm where I always wanted to be."
Does the prospect of being in the Big Ten excite him? "I'm looking forward to it. It's an honor."
I would say the Big Ten is honored. Even so, if I were the Big Ten, I'd circle the wagons. Before Joe Paterno honors them by going to the Rose Bowl for them.