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The Lion Stalks 300

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He still doesn’t get it, all the camera lenses focusing on him on media day. Joe Paterno stands in the noonday August sun in Beaver Stadium, arms folded at midfield, striking one what-am-I-doing-here? pose after another.

Men and women with notebooks have traipsed the Alleghenies to pay homage, yet Paterno has put out word that he isn’t interested in homage.

“When I’m dead, it’ll be fine,” he has said.

But the cameramen and reporters don’t go away.

Looking perplexed, Paterno ambles over to one writer in particular.

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“You came all the way out from L.A. to see me?” he says with the slightest suggestion of guilt.

Really, what scant interest might there be in a man who, with a victory over Bowling Green on Saturday in Happy Valley, will become the sixth college football coach to win 300 games?

Why is Paterno so special for having done it all at one school, without having been on NCAA probation, without fanfare, without names on uniforms, without one hatchet-for-every-tackle decal plastered on helmets, without a pair of trousers that ever touched his shoelaces?

What would possess a newspaper to waste ink on a skinny Brooklyn kid headed to Brown Law School in 1950 when the new coach at Pennsylvania State University asked Paterno if he’d like to help out for the summer?

And that the temporary job has stretched to 48 years and counting?

What is so inspiring about an English literature major who has imparted on his players the writings of Robert Browning, “Man’s reach should exceed his grasp,” and Thomas Aquinas, “Anticipation was the greater joy.”?

Who among us would care that Paterno is bet-the-farm assuredly the only college football coach in America who has read most of the novels on Random House’s recent top 100 list, among them No. 4 “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov?

“Some people thought it was a dirty book,” Paterno says. “I thought it was insight to somebody with a problem.”

Or that last spring, while sportswriters were cracking the seal on “Street and Smith’s” Paterno was revisiting Ibsen?

Or that, between novels, Paterno has produced two national championship teams, four other squads that were unbeaten but uncrowned, a 299-77-3 record, 53 first-team All-Americans, 20 academic All-Americans and 23 first-round NFL draft choices?

Or that he has won more bowl games, 18, than any coach living or dead?

Or that, among major college coaches, only Bear Bryant with 323, Pop Warner with 319, and Amos Alonzo Stagg with 314, have won more games?

Or that Paterno, who turns 72 in December, is almost a lock to pass all three because, he says, he’s going to coach at least four more seasons?

“I feel good and healthy,” he says. “I don’t think it will be a question that I don’t want to coach, it’ll be a question of whether I physically could do it.”

What does Florida State Coach Bobby Bowden know when he says of Paterno:

“I really believe that when Joe hangs ‘em up, he might go down as tops. I’m talking, we can go back to Rockne, we can back to my idol, Bear Bryant, go back to Bob Neyland, go back to all the greats.

“Joe might be the guy everybody looks to because, to me, Joe has done everything right. He graduates his players, he’s articulate and his character is impeccable, in my opinion.”

What did the NFL know by drafting all those Paterno-produced linebackers--Jack Ham, Matt Millen, Shane Conlan?

What solitary soul in L.A. might care that Paterno could have been counting down to No. 300 as the coach at USC had former Penn State coach Rip Engle accepted the Trojans’ coaching offer in the late ‘50s?

Paterno was an assistant on that Penn State staff and encouraged Engle to take the USC job.

What chump would plunk down a quarter to read about a coach who this year donated $3.5 million to his university, a man who has lived in the same house for 30 years, whose wife still irons his shirts, who subsists on “one-tenth of what I make.”?

What possible lessons could be drawn from someone who once turned down a $1.4-million offer to coach the then-Boston Patriots, explaining in his 1973 Penn State commencement address that “money alone will not make you happy. Success without honor is an unseasoned dish.”?

What’s the big deal about staying in one place, with one wife, Sue, whom Paterno met on campus in 1959, and raising five children, all of whom grew up to become Penn State graduates?

What measure of a man’s worth is it that cardboard cutouts of Paterno’s likeness still show up at weddings and birthday parties?

What does John Cappelletti, the 1973 Heisman Trophy winner from Penn State, add to the conversation when he says of Paterno, “What he did for me is, he got me to the point where I became the athlete I could become. He wouldn’t let me settle for less.”?

What case is Jay Paterno trying to make when he says of his dad, “No matter how bad things are going, he never gets discouraged. He doesn’t let things bring him down.”?

What is so intriguing about a coach once described by a sportswriter as “cranky, tyrannical, dictatorial, blunt, scathing, charming, beguiling, entertaining and witty--all in the span of 30 minutes.”?

When asked what Paterno has meant to Penn State, from what perspective is Penn State President Graham Spanier speaking when he says, “You couldn’t put a value on it.”?

What does it suggest, really, that Paterno employs six assistant coaches who have been with him 10 years or longer, one for 28, another for 31?

What municipal code requires us to care what offensive coordinator Fran Ganter, beginning his 29th season as a Nittany Lion assistant, thinks of Paterno’s approaching milestone?

“It’s a really big deal,” Ganter says. “I know he wouldn’t want to hear us say that. And [the coaching staff doesn’t] talk about it. I mean, that has not come up once. Well, he brought it up once and said, ‘I don’t want to hear anything about it.’

“But it’s monumental. It’s really just an amazing, amazing feat, as he always says, ‘just to be in the same store all these years.’ ”

What does it matter that Paterno, like Sinatra, did it his way, that Paterno called his quest for academic and athletic excellence his “Grand Experiment,” that he still designs plays while taking long walks in the woods north of his home?

Or that he refuses to own a beeper or cellular phone?

That Paterno, in fact, says “someone ought to shoot” the inventors of the fax machine and e-mail because “I hate to answer anything until I can put it on a desk and leave it there for a day and think about it.”?

Why should anyone in accounting be keeping track of the records and the anecdotes of this former undersized quarterback from Brown, such as the time Penn State players fell down laughing as Paterno fished for his Coke-bottle glasses, a la Mr. Magoo, after losing them while demonstrating a blocking technique?

Why was it so important for Paterno to have made public stands on race, to have roomed black players with white, to have changed so dramatically with the times?

Where is the public need to know that the Paterno who inherited the program from Engle on Feb. 19, 1966, is not the Paterno of today?

That Ganter says Paterno’s ability to adapt has allowed him to survive the cultural sieges of rock, disco, punk, new wave and rap?

Or that Paterno rode out these sieges in his den while listening to the work of his musical heroes--Verdi, Puccini and Beethoven?

“The players are much closer to him than we ever were,” says Ganter, a fullback for Paterno in the late 1960s before joining the staff. “We would get to the other side of the street, seeing him coming the other way. These kids will cross the street and give him a hug.”

Is it really necessary to know that, in the old days, it was Joe’s way or the Pennsylvania turnpike? That he could be brutally frank and intimidating?

That he is a man about whom Cappelletti says, “I was a co-captain but I never remember approaching Joe one time to have a conversation with him. I never wanted to be the one who goes in and says, ‘Hey, Coach, I think we should be allowed to have beards.’ That just wasn’t me. He was a little unapproachable.”?

What writ requires that anyone know that Paterno, the son of a lawyer, was a control freak, a football mastermind who micro-managed the program down to the sheets of toilet tissue?

Or that his wife used to joke about getting lead poisoning from the bedsheets because Joe fell asleep jotting notes on his pad with a No. 2 pencil?

“For a while, he did it all,” Ganter says. “He was the academic advisor, the offensive coordinator, the defensive coordinator and called every play and every defense. I don’t know that people know that. From probably ’67 through the mid-'70s, he called every play on offense and defense. He devised both game plans. He had the defensive game plan on Monday and then came in with the offensive plan on Tuesday.”

Would it not bore men to tears to learn that Paterno thought he had lost touch with his players after the 1992 season, when a 5-0 Penn State start turned disastrous, his Nittany Lions losing five of their last seven games and being embarrassed, 24-3, by Bill Walsh’s Stanford in the Blockbuster Bowl?

And that, instead of calling it quits, Paterno looked himself in the mirror and decided he was the problem and began conducting weekly “breakfast club” chat sessions with players that continue to this day?

Or that, only two seasons after 1992, Penn State went 12-0, won the Rose Bowl and might have won a third national championship if not for the vagaries of the college polling system?

What person with a life would dog-ear a single page of a book about a man who has no intention of slowing down without a fight?

About a man who says, “I don’t have anything else I really want to do. I don’t want to play golf or fish. I don’t hunt. I wouldn’t want to hang ‘em up, go down to Florida and wait for the cocktail parties.”?

About a man who acts insulted when you ask if he counts as one of his goals breaking Bryant’s Division I record of 323 coaching victories?

“What do I want to break Bryant’s record for?” Paterno says. “That really is not important.”

Was there not something better to do on a hot August day than to wait out a media photo shoot only to learn that, yes, Paterno does want to be remembered for something?

“I know that I do want to make an impact,” Paterno says. “I’d hate to walk away from this after 50 years or so and look back and say, ‘He had a couple of good football teams.’

“I’d hope that apart from having some good football teams here, some people have benefited by being in the program, and were better people for having been a part of it. I hope that’s some kind of legacy I would leave.”

Really, would who come all the way from L.A. to learn any of that?

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Winnngest Coaches

*--*

Name W L T Pct. Eddie Robinson 408 165 15 .707 John Gagliardi 342 104 11 .760 Bear Bryant 323 85 17 .780 Pop Warner 319 106 32 .733 Amos Alonzo Stag 314 99 35 .605 Joe Paterno 299 77 3 .793

*--*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

No Ordinary Joe

By-the-numbers look at Penn State Coach Joe Paterno, who goes for his 300th win Saturday against Bowling Green:

* Years as head coach: 33 (1966-1998).

* Record: 299-77-3 (.793 winning percentage).

* Bowl record: 18-9-1 (.661 winning percentage).

* National championships: 1982, 1986.

* Undefeated seasons: 1968 (11-0), 1969 (11-0), 1973 (12-0), 1986 (12-0), 1994 (12-0).

* Longest unbeaten streak: 31 games (30-0-1 1967-70).

* Lifetime records against Division I-A’s winningest teams: Michigan (3-2), Notre Dame (8-5), Nebraska (2-3), Alabama (4-8), Texas (3-2), Ohio State (4-5) Tennessee (2-2), USC (4-2).

* Win No. 100: Nov. 6, 1976, 41-20 over North Carolina State.

* Win No. 200: Sept. 5, 1987, 45-19 over Bowling Green.

* First-team All-Americans: 53.

* Players’ four-year graduation rate: 80%.

* Overall Penn State record, including 16 years as assistant coach: 403-125-7 (.753 winning percentage).


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