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He Thinks, Therefore He Wins

Only a few football coaches achieve the status of legend in their lifetimes. Knute Rockne, Howard Jones, Fielding Yost, Amos Alonzo Stagg, Bear Bryant, Vince Lombardi. And, of course, Joe Paterno.

In another era, all of them would doubtless be generals. If they had one thing in common, it was their ability to motivate and inspire the troops, to get them to sublimate their welfare to the good of the cause.

They were all different. Though Norwegian-born, Rockne had the wisecracking presence of the Irish. Yost was cerebral, Bear Bryant a grizzly of a man who rumbled when he talked and convinced his forces it was us-against-the-world. Jones was aloof, seigneurial and made it clear he expected nothing less than your best.

Paterno may be the best of them. He came along in an era when you could no longer simply suit up the graduating class or get your line out of the chem lab and play some other coach similarly circumspect. After all, the “Four Horsemen” produced three coaches and a federal judge. Today’s backfields sometimes seem to produce more defendants than judges.

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On the other hand, Rockne’s Old Gipper was ahead of his time, was more what used to be called a “tramp athlete” available to the highest bidder or the school where he could make the most out of the pool hall. George Gipp was a great football player, but a greater poker player.

Still, Paterno is a throwback. His football players do not star in court cases a decade from their prime. His teams graduate--87% one year (compared to a national average of 54%). In the Big Ten, only Northwestern matches Paterno’s Penn State record of 80% graduation rate.

He looks more like a nuclear spy than a football coach. Paterno gazes at the world through these thick-lensed glasses and the perpetually perplexed look of a guy who’s trying to remember what he did with his keys. He looks lost. He doesn’t look threatening at all. Lombardi could terrify you with a growl, Bryant could make you reach to check your wallet, Rockne could make you cry. Paterno looks like a guy waiting for a bus.

The looks are deceiving. Nobody ever was more sure of where he was going and what he was doing than Joe Paterno. There are few secrets in coaching, but what there are, he has.

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He speaks in a laryngitic rasp that makes you pay close attention to get what he’s saying. But it’s worth it. They call him “Joe Pa” back at University Park, Pa., which if you’re looking for it, first get a dog. And turn right at Altoona.

The only reason football players go there is because Joe Paterno is there. The only reason the Big Ten let a non-Midwestern school in its conference is Joe Paterno.

I tell you all you have to know about Paterno when I tell you the building named after him on campus is a library. Most coaches when they achieve fame get a field house, a stadium, practice field or arena named after them.

He was a literature major, not P.E., at his alma mater, Brown University. He wasn’t going to be a coach but a lawyer. But law schools cost money, and he took a job on the coaching staff at Penn State to raise tuition. That was 48 years ago.

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A Paterno team is, like its coach, a conservative bunch, calm, unhurried, unstoppable and everything you try they’ve been briefed on. Paterno just stands on the sideline blinking and clapping his hands. He takes the field with his pants legs rolled up so high, writer Rick Reilly once snickered he looked as if he were expecting a recurrence of the Johnstown flood any moment. If you didn’t know, you’d think he was the trainer.

His team’s uniforms, like him, are not flashy. Just dark blue with white helmets. It’s like getting beat by the 1908 Frank Merriwell Yales.

Joe Pa was in our midst early this week. Looking for 9.3 sprinters, 300-pound pancake linemen, rubber-armed passers, safeties who can jump seven feet straight up? Naw. Paterno was here to participate in the 1997 GTE Academic All-America Teams program. This honors athletes who led their classes not only on the field but in the classroom.

Paterno presented the award to his former quarterback, Todd Blackledge, who not only led his school to its first national championship in 1982 but made Phi Beta Kappa (as well as the Kansas City Chiefs) along the way.

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In his 32 years as head coach (with 298 victories and 28 bowl games), Paterno has had many chances to go pro, but didn’t, largely because he preferred remaining a pedagogue to being a CEO.

“College coaching today is difficult enough. Before you get down to game plans, you have to call the squad together to meet with agents and lawyers. You have to discuss drugs and alcohol, date rape, sexual harassment, things that have nothing to do with football. Or maybe everything to do.

“Girls are more aggressive today. So are agents. They all see that pot of gold, the professional contract, in the distance.

“It’s hard to keep your feet. You have all these things to get out of the way before you can teach a line about football. I make more money than I should, but it’s the future of the game I worry about. “

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Would he ever join what I call the “Yeah but” coaches, as in “But, coach, he raped four nurses!” “Yeah but he runs the 40 in 4.3!”

Would Joe Pa sign up a known rogue because his skills could lead the team to the Rose Bowl?

Joe Pa shakes his head. “You know it’s going to be trouble down the line. You don’t need that. “

Trouble runs a 4.3 40 too, Joe knows.

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