It is arguable whether Joe Paterno, at 46, is an authentic folk hero. Possibly he is not. As everyone knows, he looks a bit like the third barber down in a hotel barbershop and he talks almost as fast and as much. His inflection is not precisely heroic, either. It is true that 20 years ago he bought a tape recorder and spent a lot of time trying to trap for himself the pear-shaped pronunciations of Rex Harrison, but he gave it up on a friend's advice that he just be himself, so the characteristics of a Brooklyn upbringing remain whenever he speaks. His eyesight is bad, so he wears thick glasses and he is proud of holding the rank of full professor on the Penn State faculty and he likes to listen to Beethoven or Puccini when preparing game plans for the Penn State football team. If the question of his folk-herohood is raised, Joe Paterno leans forward intently, resembling some kind of skinny Italian owl through those spectacles and says, "Look, I'm reluctant for people to read too much into me. I get letters from people who seem to think that if only Joe Paterno can spend 20 minutes with a kid then his troubles will all be over. Nuts! People want to give me too much credit. I'm a football coach who has won a few games—remember? Now what the hell does that mean? If I were an accountant no one would pay that much attention to me, right?"
Of course. Yet there are many people who firmly believe that Joe Paterno already deserves a place in the hallowed neighborhoods of Moses, Mr. Clean, Demosthenes, Joan of Arc, Knute Rockne, Father Flanagan, etc. etc. etc. One night last winter during a basketball game at Penn State, Joe Paterno rose from his seat high in the bleachers and began to make his way to the men's room. Someone saw him and began to applaud. Others joined in. The clapping spread through the gymnasium until 7,000 people were on their feet with an ovation for Paterno, and the game was halted until he managed to get out of the auditorium. It is well known that Paterno was chosen to make the commencement address at Penn State last spring, that he once stood up to the President of the U.S. in defending his team against what he considered an insult and that the state of Pennsylvania bloomed with postcards and bumper stickers saying DON'T GO PRO, JOE when he was debating an offer of more than a million dollars to coach the New England Patriots. Lots of people think Joe Paterno should be governor of Pennsylvania and some of them would not even scoff at the notion of President Paterno.
Well, these are bizarre times. Most of the worship around Paterno the football coach does not arise from the fact that he has the best winning percentage of any major college football coach in America (73-13-1). Nor does it arise from the 12 All-Americas he has produced in the past seven years nor from the 12 Penn State alumni now starting on NFL teams. Nor does it arise entirely from his kinetic personality nor from his quick intelligence. The admiration for Joe Paterno springs mostly from the fact that he is a man who seems to speak truthfully and with candor and who does not believe that money is the root of all the fruits of life. It is that simple. In these days when feet of clay and souls of brass seem to be the identifying marks of so many leaders, the mere fact that Joe Paterno expresses himself with an unforked tongue is apparently enough to warrant standing ovations and hero worship.
The ironies of the situation are not lost on him and he says, "There is something really strange about a society that figures a guy is great just because he speaks his mind. Frankly, I'd like to think that there are people more qualified than a football coach to tell this society how to live. God knows there must be someone more qualified than a football coach to be governor."
November 19, 1973
Nevertheless, that is the way many people think and it is worth examining the conditions and environment by which a Flatbush-raised football coach who has spent 23 years in the backland sticks of Pennsylvania can become a potential American paragon.
University Park, Pa. used to be called State College, Pa. and it is at the exact geographical center of Pennsylvania. There is no other reason for its location. The Allegheny range and its foothills lie humped and somber for miles around. They are barely inhabited; lions used to live there. The town is 90 miles from Harrisburg, 140 from Pittsburgh, 190 from Philadelphia. It is difficult to exaggerate the degree to which the former State College, Pa. is isolated from the rest of the world. But, of course, being dead-center in the Pennsylvania wilderness meant that the main campus of Pennsylvania State University was equidistant (and equi-difficult to reach) from anyplace in the state. Such was the wisdom of the founding fathers when they put the college there in 1855: it is now a bustling, sophisticated oasis of 27,000 students hidden like a secret cyclotron amid the mountains and cows and rocky meadows.
For the record, Joe Paterno arrived in 1950, a newly minted English lit graduate from Brown who had also been a brainy quarterback on Rip Engle's teams and now was beginning a temporary stint as a backfield coach with Engle's new Penn State staff. He did not immediately fall in love with the desolate place some call Happy Valley. In 1956, when Rip Engle was offered the head coaching job at USC, a vote was taken among his staff as to whether they would prefer moving to California or staying in State College. The vote was 7-1 for staying put—the lone vote for abandoning Happy Valley was Paterno's.
Since then, he has taken deep root where trees from Brooklyn rarely grow. He has turned down coaching jobs of broad variety and location, among them the Baltimore Colts, the Oakland Raiders, Yale University, Michigan, the Philadelphia Eagles, the Pittsburgh Steelers and, the most famous offer of them all, the head coaching position with the New England Patriots last January. It was this last dazzling bauble which brought a true folk hero's potential to Paterno. He was promised $1,000,000 plus over five years, about the biggest pot of gold ever offered to any mortal for being a mere weak-eyed football coach. And he said no. This not only endeared him to Pennsylvanians and led directly to the standing ovation on the way to the men's room, it also resulted in an almost immediate grassroots asembly of a thousand people for a testimonial dinner and a collection of enough money to pay for a trip to Europe for Joe and his wife Sue (their first) and a new Dodge Charger for the Paternos. To these rewards may be added sacks of adulatory mail and laudatory editorials in such faraway newspapers as the Honolulu Star-Bulletin ("There's more to life than one million dollars") and the Terra Bella, Calif. News ("Money Isn't Everything!").
Now it would be nice to say that Joe Paterno spurned the ugly temptation of taking money from professionals without a thought, that he simply mounted his folk hero's white horse and galloped back to the pristine backwaters of Pennsylvania and amateur sport without so much as a shiver of attention. Such was hardly the case, and no one is quicker to say so than Joe himself. One night this fall in the kitchen of his comfortable modern house in University Park, seated at a large round wooden table laden with bottles of Blatz beer and a cold bottle of Blue Nun wine and a large New England boiled dinner, Paterno spoke with his own normal electric intensity: "What the hell's the matter with a society that offers a football coach a million dollars? It's silly, isn't it? I mean, what had I done to deserve that kind of dough?" He paused, sipped a little more Blue Nun, then said thoughtfully, "Well, however silly it was, you know I accepted the job. I decided to take it and I told Billy Sullivan that I would take it. Well, then after thinking about it one more night, I got to rethinking it all again. Sure, I had pictured myself bringing the Patriots into the Super Bowl in four, five years. I was—I am—convinced it can be done. Sue and I had been making lists all along—one headed 'go,' one called "stay,' and they all kept coming up 'go.' Money, Cape Cod, security, continued rural living for the kids, excitement, a tremendous coaching challenge. We made the lists over and over. 'Stay' finished behind all the time. There was no choice; I said yes."
Joe squinted behind those horn-rimmed storm windows he wears, frowned and said, "I suppose my hindsight now about what changed my mind is a lot clearer than my thinking was then. But that night after I told Billy Sullivan yes, I started wondering what the hell I had done. I began to realize that all I'd prove at New England was that I can coach a good football team both with college kids and with pros. What's that prove? I realized I didn't want my kids to say about their father, 'He was a good football coach, he won a lot of games.' I wanted them to think maybe I tried to do a little more than that.
"I think of myself as a teacher. In the pros you get the same guys for 10 or 12 years. Listen, I know that Paterno the Teacher doesn't have so much to say that guys want to hear him for 12 years. At Penn State the kids don't want to hear Paterno anymore after two, three years. By then they've either bought what I'm teaching or they haven't. By the time I finally dissected my decision to go to New England, I realized that the only real reason I accepted the job—the only one—was the money. There was no other. I WAS flattered by the dough. Period.
"Frankly, I had always thought of myself as being a little above all that kind of thing. So I've got more humility about myself now because I accepted that job. In retrospect, I was disappointed with myself for doing it and I was surprised. I mean, now I know that it's possible to buy me for a million bucks."
It is common for people who know Joe Paterno well to say that he has mellowed, that he has developed patience, lost some (not all) of the abrasive cock sureness that used to irritate even his close friends on occasion. His wife Sue, a graduate of Penn State and mother of the five Paterno children, married Joe 11 years ago. She said, "He didn't use to be able to handle losing. He'd shut the door and not come out. He was a real s.o.b. But he's matured now, he's not so tough. After his first year as head coach in 1966 the team was 5-5 and he was despondent. He spent the whole summer planning a new defense—oh, that was rough, keeping the kids out of his hair and all. He said that if he didn't have a winning season the second year he would quit and go back to assistant coaching. He said it wasn't fair to the kids to be coached by a loser."
A close friend of Paterno's at Penn State is Jim Tarman, associate athletic director, who has been at the university since 1958. Tarman is a wry, low-key, witty fellow whose specialty is public relations. He said of Joe, "He really feels qualified to talk about any subject that comes up. He's not a phony with himself, he knows he's right about a lot of things—and he is. But he isn't as abrasive as he once was. He probably doesn't have the sense of living on Mount Olympus that he used to have. He was terribly intense in his desire to win. I think there was a time when he probably would have done almost anything to win."
But no longer. Paterno grows ever more concerned with the moral conflict that coaches face. "I have never seen so many recruiting violations and dirty tricks as there are going on in college football now," said Paterno. "And a helluva lot of people blame the coaches for what's happening. Well, I don't. These guys are victims. Look at how it works. Here's a new head coach, maybe 37 years old and he's got this big job, his first break. The only thing he knows how to do is to coach football. He's got a young family, not much dough saved, hell, maybe he's making $30,000 now [which Paterno says is slightly less than his own salary]. And the only demand made of him when he takes the job is that he's got to win. The alumni tell him that. They don't want good students, they want winners. So he's young, his family's young, he doesn't want to take a step backward. It takes a lot of guts to do that. He's not going to deliberately destroy his career, so he does what he has to do to win—he buys kids for his team."
Paterno sighed and gestured in futility. "Look, I've been damn lucky. I'm a full professor here. I'm not at the mercy of alumni, they can't interfere with me. I've never had the dilemma of whether I should have to cheat to save my career. So I'm reluctant to criticize the coaches who have had to break rules. The people to blame for recruiting violations are college faculties, administrations and—yes—the NCAA. The NCAA has to take the responsibility. If the NCAA had 12, 15 guys on the road digging up violations, things would be different. Now the only way violators are caught is if someone blows the whistle on them.
"Listen, I have a beer with steelworkers or other guys off in the mountains sometimes when I'm traveling. They all assume every football player's given a car, that they go play for the school with the highest payroll. They assume that's the system. We ought to be able to build a good team without having everyone say, 'Oh, hell, they bought those kids.' The NCAA should be policing this so tough that we don't have to go hand around the stigma—the public assumes that if we're winning we're probably cheating. It's demeaning."
It is now 23 years since Joe Paterno came to Penn State, and the marriage seems made of the stuff of a lifetime. At least Joe's lifetime as a coach. His Nittany Lion teams roll on and on, endlessly powerful, though endlessly still seeking the No. 1 ranking that Paterno set as a "symbolic" goal when he first became head coach. "Maybe people have mistaken my talk about being No. 1," he said pensively not long ago. "At first, I meant that Penn State should have the attitude that we can be No. 1—not so much the real demand for it. It was symbolic in the sense that I thought we needed the psychological boost to consider ourselves as good as anyone else in the country in athletics. Some people think—and I'm afraid some of the kids might think—that we've failed because we've never been No. 1. I never meant that we had to achieve it to succeed—just that we had to think we could achieve it."
One year that No. 1 was a very real possibility was 1969 when Penn State was unbeaten. That was the season President Nixon made his locker-room declaration after the Texas-Arkansas game that the Longhorns now rated No. 1. Paterno snapped back then at Nixon for ignoring Penn State, and in his commencement address last spring one of the early lines was, "I'd like to know, how could the President know so little about Watergate in 1973 and so much about college football in 1969?"
This season Paterno says that his team is "possibly the most interesting we've had here." Penn State is rocketing along unbeaten, having outscored its opponents 349-97 in its first nine victories. John Cappelletti, a magnificent power runner, has about as good a chance as anyone at winning the Heisman Trophy, and Defensive Tackle Randy Crowder and Linebacker Ed O'Neil are surely two of the finest linemen in the country. Another major bowl offer is a certainty, with still another financial windfall for the university included. In the seven years since he became head coach, Paterno's teams have gone to five bowls and have brought home more than $1,500,000 for the school. Most of that money can now be seen on the Penn State campus in the form of tennis courts, intramural fields, a golf course, a skating rink, etc. etc.
Penn State has achieved this kind of football success despite Paterno's almost unprecedented acceptance of scholastic accomplishment and—God forbid!—minor sports as part of a student's college life. Players are not only allowed but urged to attend Saturday morning classes on the day of home games, and Paterno likes to emphasize the fact that over 90% of his football players over the years have graduated on schedule. Perhaps even more impressive: during the week of the Air Force game this year, Paterno's top placekicker, Chris Bahr, chose not to make the trip to Colorado with the football team but rather to compete with the Penn State soccer team. Paterno was asked about this on a local television show a couple of days later and he replied for all the world to hear: "That's what Chris decided to do and that's what he should have done. He's an All-America soccer player and it was his choice whether to play football or soccer that Saturday. He was right. We want to see our soccer team win, too. We want to see all our teams win at Penn State."
Politics and Paterno have always been close—at least symbolically. "My father did a lot of legwork for the Democrats in Brooklyn when I was a kid; God, he'd roll over in his grave if he knew I was a registered Republican. I've always been fascinated by politics and if I hadn't come down here with Rip from Brown I' might've gone into that game. There's a similarity between good politics and good football—you can't do either one without a lot of early work, preparation. But I'm not going to get involved in politics for a while—if I ever do. I want to coach for another four or five years. Then maybe take a year or so off to study. Yeah, maybe I'll study political science. But, look, I'm not fooling myself about politics any more than I fooled myself about football.
"Getting elected to office is only the beginning. So people know Paterno, so maybe they'd vote for Paterno because they heard of him, because he's popular. But then what? I don't want all kinds of obligations to vested interests. I don't want to be a party man. I want to run for office by saying, 'Look, I believe this and this and this and I'm not going to compromise.'
"Well, I'm not so naive as to think that can be done these days. I have no private money. I can't finance my own idea of integrity in politics."
Of course, Joe Paterno is not all that much of a pragmatist. Having disclaimed politics on the basis of realities, he quite naturally returned to the idealism of it all. "Someday there might be a time when I'd like to get involved in politics. I'd like to show my kids that it can be done—that it should be done. I'd maybe do it behind the scenes. I don't know. There have to be a lot of qualified people coming up now. There are kids coming out of the rebellions of the '60s who will be terrific leaders. Some of the black militants showed great courage, .great imagination then and they'll be ready to lead. I'm not discouraged about the future. Not at all...."
He paused, then said sharply, "Look, there have to be people better qualified than a football coach to run for the kind of high offices I'd want."
Possibly. But how about a football coach who also turned out to be an authentic folk hero in a society desperately hungry for integrity?