A Beethoven symphony swirls through the mind of a defensive tackle. A linebacker earnestly dashes to physics class on the morning of a game. Test tubes intrigue a cornerback, math fascinates a center, engineering problems make a safety swoon. And while the youthful keeper of all these characters, 41-year-old Penn State Coach Joe Paterno, should be fretting about his team's possible climb toward No. 1 or an Orange Bowl bid, he stares at the boutique-colored leaves of the pastoral Alleghenies, thinks about romantic poets and longs to drive his kids over to Waddle or Martha Furnace or Tusseyville so they can sit down and talk to a cow. Is this the atmosphere that has produced the best college football team the East has seen in years? You can bust everybody in Potters Mills if it isn't.
Penn State has become an unusual place in a lot of ways. It has more or less evolved into a big Ivy League type of campus on one end and a small Big Ten type on the other, with only a touch of SDS in the middle. It is a splendidly hidden center of learning isolated away in the heart of Pennsylvania. Football followers have long thought of it as an obscure athletic factory that sent Lenny Moores, Rosey Griers, Dave Robinsons and Milt Plums by pack train, raft and jalopy to more vital points of interest, but that viewpoint now must be changed, especially since Paterno took over in 1966. What happens is, you take a guy out of Brooklyn, put him through an Ivy League school—Brown, at that—and you'll get yourself a different kind of football coach. He will look like a New York detective and talk like a social worker. More than that, he will like the idea of having players on his team who can read, he will insist that they call him by his first name instead of Mister, Sir, Coach or Your Holiness, and he will mix them up into just about the most unpredictable group since the Harper Valley PTA.
Joe Paterno, as is well remembered, is the coach who ordered his team to go for a first down on fourth-and-one in the Gator Bowl at his own 15-yard line last year when he held a 17-0 lead over Florida State. Penn State failed, and Florida State got 17 sudden points to earn a tie, the only blemish on Penn State's record in its last 14 games. But no one put Paterno's soul in a pickle jar because of it. "We had fun, what the heck," said Paterno. On the plane coming home a player approached Paterno and said, "Joe, the guys wanted me to tell you something. You blew it."
Last Saturday Penn State stayed in character, almost blowing it all against a tough Army team because it did not put the game out of reach when it had some excellent chances to do so and managing to take advantage of about every break known to civilized coaches to win 28-24 and remain undefeated at 6-0. This is the best record of any major Eastern team this deep into a season since Syracuse won the national championship in 1959 and, for all of its Donald Duck escapades, State is surely the best Eastern team since Roger Staubach was in his Heisman season at Navy in 1963.
November 11, 1968
Nonetheless, Paterno's students could have polished off Army early. The reason they didn't was—ah, well—Joe Paterno. With a 9-0 lead and fourth-and-one on the Army 19, Paterno ordered a deep pass—which failed—instead of trying to ram out a first down. Penn State has a fine ground game featuring a couple of quick, tricky, tough runners named Charlie Pittman and Bob Campbell. They probably could make one yard against the Empire State Building. A little later, on fourth-and-two at the Army 16, Paterno called for a seminaked sweep—which failed—instead of the hammer stuff inside the tackles where the blockers are; or instead of using Campbell on just anything since anything Campbell tried had worked beautifully.
But no matter. As the day wore on, Penn State got those touchdowns back, and in their normally startling ways.
Example: it is 16-10, Penn State, well into the fourth quarter. The Nittany Lions miss a long field goal, but the ball bobbles around short of the end zone, hits an Army player's foot and Penn State recovers on the two. Touchdown.
Example: It is 22-17, Penn State, three minutes to play and Army, which has just scored and is still fighting, tries an onside kick. The ball comes squirting out of a pileup, whereupon All-America End Ted Kwalick picks it up and runs 53 yards unmolested. Touchdown.
One must now rationalize that these things are going to happen for a team like Penn State and for a coach like Paterno. Why not? All he asks of his recruits is that they enjoy the experience of college life while playing the game.
"We're trying to win football games, don't misunderstand that," said Paterno last week. "But I don't want it to ruin our lives if we lose. I don't want us ever to become the kind of place where an 8-2 season is a tragedy. Look at that day outside. It's clear, it's beautiful, the leaves are turning, the land is pretty and it's quiet. If losing a game made me miserable, I couldn't enjoy such a day.
"I tell the kids who come here to play, enjoy yourselves. There's so much besides football. Art, history, literature, politics. The players live all over the campus. I don't want 'em to have a carpeted athletic dorm, or be bunched in together where they can't associate with all types of students. When a kid takes a look around here and says, 'Gee, there's nothing to do,' I tell him I suppose there was nothing for the Romantic poets to do in the lake region of England. As far as getting an effort on the field is concerned, we stress the fact that this is the only time in a kid's life when 50,000 people are gonna cheer him. He can write the greatest novel ever, but 50,000 people aren't going to cheer him at once where he can hear it."
So Penn State players give their best for Paterno and listen for the cheers, and they really don't worry about No. 1.
"You know what happens when you're No. 1?" says Paterno. "Nobody is happy until you're No. 1 again, and that might be never."
But being No. 1, or undefeated, might make Joe Paterno the Coach of the Year. How about that?
"You know what that would mean?" Paterno says. "It would mean I could go to some clinics and make a little money. It would mean I'd have a $14,000 mortgage instead of an $18,000 mortgage. Big deal."
Joe Paterno swears he is happier relishing the truer satisfactions of coaching; knowing, for example, that he has a 6'3", 240-pound tackle from Altoona named Mike Reid who plays the church organ and the piano when he isn't crushing runners like few other interior linemen can. Or he is happier knowing he has a fanatical linebacker named Denny Onkotz from Northampton, Pa. who once jumped out of bed early on the day of a game to take a physics exam. "Let me call the prof and get you off," Paterno had told him. "I want to go," said Onkotz. "I wouldn't sleep anyhow."
Paterno does not hesitate to admit that he has a few team members who think physics is a gym class and Beethoven is a town on the Susquehanna. Kwalick, a 6'4", 230-pound tight end, is no dummy, but Paterno believes that "what God had in mind there was a football player." Kwalick is a phys. ed. major, like Bob Campbell, the halfback who ran for 104 yards and two touchdowns against Army. They will be first-rate pros, and football is their major interest. But overall, Paterno's squad has carried a higher academic mark for 16 straight semesters than the average of the rest of the male student body.
"That is important to me," the coach says. "But just as important is my own association with the kids. You can't con 'em. They're not hypocrites. They're sophisticated. They want to take you on, head to head, intellectually. Why, when I played football you never saw a book. But when our teams these days get on a plane, out come the books. I know that isn't the public's idea of college football, but that's the way it is. Everything is changing, and the kids want to change this world. The thing I most hate to see is an unhappy kid today. That's partly because I always had it good. Things have been easy for me, and I guess I expect good things to happen."
So, apparently, does the Penn State football team. And so far good things have happened. Wouldn't it be something if the best team in the U.S. just happened to turn out to be the most hidden, the most intellectual, the most relaxed—and the one with the coach who was least predictable? But no matter how it turns out, Joe Paterno isn't blowing this game at all.