Joe Paterno is seated in the kitchen of his home. Outside, snow is falling. The 1979 football season, Paterno's 14th as head coach of Penn State, is over. It was not a triumph for Paterno and he knows his own shortcomings must be blamed in part. But he rankles at being labeled a sham. "There is hypocrisy in me. And a little of the con man and actor, too. Look, I'm not trying to fool anybody. But I want things to be difficult. It's more fun to win with handicaps. If you have the best players and no problems and you win, that doesn't intrigue me."
Paterno, therefore, should be about as intrigued as he can be these days at Penn State, a school with one of the classiest football reputations in the land. He doesn't have the best players (which is nothing new), he is trying to emerge from beneath an avalanche of problems (which is), and he is getting considerable flak for his 1979 record of 8-4—estimable numbers at many a school but of unthinkable mediocrity in State College, Pa.
Last fall's season was most un-Penn-State-like, and was all the more aggravating coming as it did immediately after the undefeated Nittany Lions had played Alabama in the Sugar Bowl for the national championship—and lost. In 1979 Penn State football players flunked out of school, were arrested and disobeyed Paterno's orders. One even had a bullet whizzing by him. Signs of the time, you might say. But this was no University of New Mexico. This was Penn State, holier-than-thou Pennsylvania State University, where Billy Budd would have to prove himself before being issued shoulder pads. A Penn State assistant professor and all-out Paterno admirer, Milton J. Bergstein, says, "We are a victim of our own image. Nothing ever goes wrong here. Suddenly, we're falling apart. Well, I guess we were due for a little bad luck."
And a little crowing from a few of Paterno's earthier colleagues. Yes, sir, that pious Joe Paterno and his goody-goody football program are getting their lumps at last.
March 17, 1980
Every coach in the country would deny deriving any pleasure from Penn State's problems. But as one privately admits, "Let's tell the truth. Every coach hates every other coach."
If that be true, they must be finding inordinate satisfaction in Penn State's miseries. Paterno not only has the best winning percentage (.817) of all coaches with 10 years' service or more, but he also has made a big deal over the years of preaching that college football should be played by kids who are honest-to-God students first and athletes second. In a speech a few years ago to Penn State's graduating class Paterno said, "We play with enthusiasm and recklessness. We aren't afraid to lose. If we win, great, wonderful—and the alumni are happy for another week. But, win or lose, it is the competition that gives us pleasure." Says another rival coach, "It's enough to make us all throw up."
Paterno calls his method of coaching—with the emphasis on books first, football second—the Grand Experiment. Such a title seems to imply that other coaches traffic in something considerably less grand. Today Paterno says, "The Grand Experiment is kind of in disrepute."
The glee over Paterno's discomfiture is in proportion to the adoring press he had heretofore received. The uncritical nature of that acclaim, attributable in part to the fact that State College is situated somewhere south of oblivion and thus is not under the daily scrutiny of big-city reporters, was widely resented. The more so, perhaps, because Paterno's reputation for integrity and coaching skill was entirely warranted.
When the usually tough 60 Minutes team tackled Paterno in 1978, the resulting segment could have been used as a Penn State recruiting film. Conceded one CBS staffer, "We only do shows like that on guys who die."
But that was yesterday. Now the Penn State football community is learning that what goes up comes down, and nobody is more candid about that physical law than Paterno. "The players were disappointed last year in Joe Paterno," he says. "I understand. I was disappointed in myself."
The trouble began last summer when a former Penn State football player, Todd Hodne, was arrested on a series of rape charges. Then, on the first day of fall practice, Paterno announced that three starting defensive players were academically ineligible—All-America Safety Pete Harris (brother of Steeler Running Back Franco, a 1972 Penn State graduate), who in 1978 led the nation in interceptions with 10, Cornerback Karl McCoy and Middle Guard Frank Case. Harris was a stunning loss, but Paterno was his usual blunt self, saying, "He was a goof-off in high school and he was a goof-off here. What could I do about it? I don't care whose brother he is."
Then Defensive Tackle Matt Millen, one of the nation's best linemen and a co-captain, quit in the middle of an early-fall running drill, saying he couldn't do it. Paterno took away his captaincy. Yet Millen and Paterno have remained close, and Matt now says, "I was at fault for not pushing myself. I was wrong. Dead wrong. Totally wrong. Personally, I think it set the tone for the team last year and, psychologically, it hurt the team. It was awful. Every time something would start to go good, something bad would happen. We would start up the ladder and somebody would knock out the bottom rung."
Two days later Millen made the required run easily. Says Paterno, "Matt will be very careful the rest of his life before he says 'I can't.' " The coach adds, "I so miscalculated the role of continuing leadership on the squad."
Then starting Offensive Tackle Bill Dugan and Reserve Tackle Bob Hladun were spotted by a university policeman as they sat on a campus bench drinking beer, a violation of a hoary university rule. "The stupidity of it drives me up the wall," says Paterno. "But as a result we lost our concentration during the week." Both players were suspended from the ensuing Texas A&M game, which the Nittany Lions lost 27-14. Not long afterward, reserve Tailback Leo McClelland, who had the notion that he was a Heisman candidate, quit the team in a huff.
And then one night in midseason, junior Tailback Booker Moore—who that afternoon had had his biggest game ever, 166 yards and three touchdowns against West Virginia—put his car over a curb on campus and was arrested for drunk driving. "So I dropped him for a week," sighs Paterno. "Again we lose our concentration and the next game [to Miami, 26-10]."
That wasn't the end of it. Reserve Fullback Dave Paffenroth got into a fight with another student after he was told he couldn't attend a dormitory party. He sat down for a week. Says Paterno, "We're dealing with aggressive kids; we encourage this aggressiveness and then we get mad when we can't saddle them. Maybe the fault is with us."
Which brings us to Memphis and the Liberty Bowl. Paterno told his players that one major rule at bowl games—which are supposed to be fun, remember—is to be on time for the first team meeting. Two players were late, and Paterno sent them home. Before the game could be played, a reserve tight end, Bill LeBlanc, wandered into a private house. A shot was fired. LeBlanc said he was looking for a place to sleep. Strange, he already had a room at the Hyatt Regency. He was charged with first-degree burglary, and by some accounts was lucky he hadn't been killed. In late January, LeBlanc was put on six months' unsupervised probation and charged with $48.50 in court costs after pleading guilty to a reduced charge of malicious mischief.
"Suddenly it seemed like we were all a bunch of felons down here," says Dave Baker, the Penn State sports information director. And while skeptics have long cried that Penn State can hide its indiscretions because it's out in the boonies, Paterno insists, "We have never covered up things around here. We just didn't have problems." Indeed, he says the last time he could recall a player becoming academically ineligible was 12 years ago. Confirmation comes from Charlie Pittman, a star halfback on State's undefeated teams of 1968 and '69, who says, "We just never got involved in predicaments."
Paterno's brother, George, who teaches physical education at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y., says, "The imperfections of our society caught up to my brother. It's unbelievable that he kept things under control for so long."
And not inconceivable that he will get on top of things again, perhaps as soon as April, when spring practice starts. Paterno has spent many hours in soul-searching and has concluded that there was "a little slipping in discipline. There wasn't that fear—which is a terrible word to use—but there wasn't that fear of Paterno." Pittman echoes that thought from a different perspective, that of a player. He says, "Deep down, all athletes yearn for discipline."
But one man's discipline is another's harassment. Several years ago the style was for Penn State students to wear no socks. Paterno insisted on socks. The players flouted the rule, but only when they were certain they wouldn't encounter Paterno. But Joe is not generally considered to be rigid. "If anything, I'm flexible," he says. "Sometimes I even change just for the sake of changing, which drives my staff nuts."
Another cause of the difficulties, in Paterno's mind, is that he ended up with too many players who wanted to be professionals. He detests the idea that he runs a farm team for the NFL, though, of course, in a sense he does. Penn State has acquired the unwanted nickname Linebacker U. Thirty-one former Penn Staters are active pros, nine of them linebackers. Paterno has burnished his reputation by turning down lucrative offers to coach in the NFL, and he wishes his players, like him, were less entranced by the prospect of pro careers. He knows, however, that that is unrealistic. "My high school gave me an award for something, and it was a Don Quixote statue," Paterno says. "The Romantic period is my period, O.K.?"
O.K., and that in part explains why it is that when Paterno talks of the pros (he could have been the New England Patriots' head coach some years ago, the Giants' in 1978, and serious feelers from NFL teams arrive in State College almost every year) one has the impression he would like to wash his hands and rinse his mouth out. In the middle of last season's woes, with the Baltimore Colts hot on his trail, Paterno once again mulled over the idea of going to the pros, "but I came to the conclusion I wouldn't be happy if I wasn't coaching in State College."
Although he is committed to staying on—seven to 10 more years as coach, he vows—he is increasingly concerned about the character of his recruits. "Values have changed," he says. "They are a little bit more selfish. They have to understand that giving themselves to a group means getting more in return. Also, young people today are reluctant to get involved in someone else's life. But we can't win with everybody just going his own way.
"I think we mistakenly recruited some athletes who didn't understand that I meant what I said. Somehow they felt that 'Paterno talks a good fight but....' We have got to reevaluate our recruits. Do they have the ability to pass up a good time? The real problem is the permissiveness they grow up under now. And once they come to the campus, I have to be a whole lot better at understanding their problems and what they want. I was inconsistent. I jumped on people very quickly. Too quickly. The point is, it's their team, not my team. I didn't get that point across."
Paterno continues, "I hate the freshman-eligible rule, but, see, if I had enough guts I'd say that, regardless, freshmen aren't going to play here. But that's how I'm hypocritical. I don't say that, because it would hurt our recruiting and our football team."
Time was when Paterno spent 20 minutes or so in the home of a recruit, telling a few jokes and gauging his man, and then left—a style befitting a legend. These days he sometimes spends an entire afternoon sizing up a prospect.
Sever (Tor) Toretti, a former recruiter for Penn State, now a fund-raiser, says, "It's remarkable we didn't have these things in the past. After all, Joe wants to give a player a chance to manage his own life and to grow. He says, 'Don't do anything that will embarrass yourself, the team or the university.' Unfortunately, we had players who embarrassed all three."
"After they had embarrassed themselves," Paterno says, "they needed support, but they felt I wasn't there." That became apparent to him in a series of meetings with the players he had in December to find out what went wrong and to determine what should be done. They told him that they couldn't come to him because he always seemed too busy. That's a valid point, and Paterno may have compounded the difficulty last January by accepting the additional responsibility of being athletic director. In some quarters there was criticism that Paterno, who already had considerable power at Penn State, now had even more.
In those December meetings the players also told Paterno that when they did see him, he was too abrupt, abrasive, unsympathetic; that he had temper tantrums; that his assistants also had lost contact with individual players. Said one player plaintively, "We're not as bad as you think we are. We're good kids." That statement made an impact on Paterno. Today he says, "I probably didn't like them for a while and it showed. It was embarrassing and disappointing. I admit I got to thinking of that bunch as a group of jackasses."
Which, of course, is how players often view a coach. Lydell Mitchell, a 1972 Penn State graduate now a San Diego Charger running back, says, "I enjoyed playing for him much more after I was through playing for him." Says Pittman, "There is not any like or love for Joe by the players. But he gets you on top of your game. If a coach wants love, he also gets losing. What Joe wants is your best effort, that's all." Denny Onkotz, a linebacker in the late '60s, says, "Like any coach, Joe has to make decisions for the good of the team, and that means bad things for the individual." But Middle Guard Bruce Clark, who won the Lombardi Award as outstanding lineman or linebacker in 1978, says of Paterno, "He is everything he is supposed to be." Basically, the players are right. If a guy wants friends, he can go bowling; if he wants to win in big-time competition, sacrifices must be made.
It would appear that Paterno had lost his own enthusiasm for the game last season, and that could be damaging to his program nowadays when the top schools are so nearly even in talent.
Paterno and most everyone else at Penn State were terribly depressed by the Sugar Bowl defeat of Jan. 1, 1979. The game was so close, with the Grand Experiment on the verge of proving its worth, yea, its sanctity. Then, by a score of 14-7, it was gone. "Frankly," says Paterno, "I didn't get over the loss until the middle of last season and that was only when my wife chided me, 'Joe, the Alabama game is over. It's just another game you lost.' "
During the 1979 season the Penn State secondary was vulnerable to any team with a modicum of passing ability; the Lions had neither speed nor quickness; there were quarterback troubles, nobody stepping forward to take command. Richie Lucas, an All-America quarterback for Penn State in the late '50s, says, "There's such a thing as a good 8-4 and a poor 8-4. We had a poor 8-4."
But hear Oklahoma's Barry Switzer. "If there are fans up there who can't handle 8-4, they ought to go watch soccer," he says. "I mean, it's ridiculous. If people are getting unhappy with Joe Paterno. they've lost all perspective. This profession has peaks and valleys, but 8-4 isn't a valley. Besides, Joe is a different breed from most of us. He's intelligent and articulate."
John Majors, the former Pitt coach who is now at Tennessee, lauds Paterno. "To recruit against him, you have to reach to a higher level for yourself," he says. Syracuse Coach Frank Maloney praises the "classy program" at Penn State. He says there is "nothing in this world I'd rather do than beat Joe Paterno. But you have to remember that nobody is a god in this business. And a little adversity never hurt anybody. I think every coach should experience both the joy and sadness in this profession—even Joe." Jimmy Johnson, head man at Oklahoma State and a former assistant at Pittsburgh, admits to the frustration of trying to recruit against Paterno. "Sometimes Pitt people wonder if Joe is for real," he says.
In athletic/academic philosophy, Notre Dame is the school closest to Penn State. Coach Dan Devine says, "Any good program has a family feeling. Joe reacted to his troubles like all of us do with our own kids, whom we love very dearly. It hurts and it makes you mad." Though Penn State and Notre Dame seek many of the same athletes, Devine says, "The main thing about recruiting against Joe is you know he won't break the rules. It's like playing golf with a guy who doesn't kick the ball out of the rough. It's more fun and everybody feels better afterward."
Still, not all published comment has been sympathetic. After last season it finally got to Pitt Coach Jackie Sherrill, who suffers over being cooped up in the same commonwealth as Paterno. Following a cocktail-party conversation in which several reporters took part, Sherrill was quoted in The New York Times as saying of Paterno, "He's told too many people too long how to run their programs. Now look. Penn State plays great football and always will under Joe. I just hope now they will stop criticizing all of us for being human, too." Today Sherrill says he can't recall whether he said those things or not. So what does he think of Paterno? "I have nothing but good things to say."
In truth, Sherrill's outburst was prompted by Paterno. Always a friend—yes, the darling—of the media, Joe ritually gathered press people he trusted each Friday night before a game, often in his own hotel suite. There he discussed strategy, injuries, things to watch for—all in absolute candor. One rule: it was off the record. But at a session last fall somebody asked him about running for political office. He harrumphed that was not in his game plan because he wouldn't want to leave college coaching "to the Switzers and Sherrills." That crack made quick time to Pittsburgh and Norman. Because of the furor that resulted, Paterno says he no longer will have his Friday night gatherings. "Fool me once, shame on you," he says. "Fool me twice, shame on me." Paterno has never been accused of being anybody's fool.
Nor Penn State of being less than battle-ready, until 1979. The season soured, suggests Bruce Clark, because "it got so we were wondering who was going to be in trouble this week. Man, that's just not like us." Lydell Mitchell says, "This was all very uncharacteristic of Penn State. But life goes on. I think the lesson learned is that problems are prevented by winning."
Another thing that is prevented by winning is criticism of the coach. Now, for the first time, there is active sniping at Paterno in State College. And, heaven forbid, even boos. Yup, they were booing Joe Paterno in College Station last fall.
They booed because they didn't like his quarterback, Dayle Tate; they booed because after 14 years they had become tired of watching Penn State run off tackle; they booed because they don't like losing—even four games. Even George Paterno concedes, "Joe's going to have to open up the offense. They've got to be less predictable."
The fact is, Penn State could use an imaginative offensive coordinator rather than have Paterno continue in that role. Paterno adopted a conservative mode of offense because for years Penn State played soft schedules, with only an occasional biggie. His brother says, "When you have the best players, all you have to do is block the same play five different ways."
Now tougher schedules are in the offing. This fall the Nittany Lions play Texas A&M, Nebraska and Missouri on consecutive Saturdays. In 1981 Penn State takes on Nebraska, Missouri, Alabama, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and North Carolina State. "It's no fun," says Joe, "unless you beat the big guys. We're not going to win all our games. That's stupid to even think about. But we're going to have fun playing." See, there's that pious Paterno again.
The fun had better include a few good victories. Beaver Stadium, built 20 years ago, will expand from 76,600 to 86,000 seats this autumn and could soon be enlarged to seat 92,000. Losing won't fill those seats. Football revenues at Penn State in 1979 totaled $4.8 million. Fun to a bottom-liner is seeing revenues grow.
Fun to Penn State partisans, apart from winning, is analyzing Paterno's every move. Those who do not assert that he is perfect have a list of quibbles: he sticks too long with his seniors, out of loyalty, when there are better underclassmen on the team; he is slow to admit he needs help; he sees too much good in every person. Grumps brother George, who calls himself Joe's biggest critic, "I know people who are real bastards, and we'll get to talking about one of them and Joe will say, 'He's a nice guy.' "
But the biggest single criticism of Paterno is his air of righteousness. Says George, "Is he too pious? Absolutely. If you don't wear a backward collar, it's hard to get away with piety." Says Joe, "I don't like to put myself up as a do-gooder, but I am. We have an obligation to try to make these athletes better people. If a kid goes through here and can't read and write but can knock people down, is that good? We've got more of an obligation than that."
In truth, Joe Paterno cares about learning—book learning, not just Xs and Os. But, like all coaches, he must grapple with a developing crisis that has resulted in scandal at some schools and the potential for trouble at all. Many athletes aren't making it academically. Many of these never really figured to. Yet the pressures to win are such that coaches and academic administrators take risks with superior athletes who have inadequate educational backgrounds. Too many of them, of course, do a lot more.
McCoy, one of the three starters in the Penn State defensive backfield who were declared academically ineligible, was one of five black football players admitted in 1977 who did not meet Penn State's entrance requirements. However, they easily met the NCAA standard, a 2.0 high school average. McCoy failed, the other four are doing fine. "We are fighting a lily-white look here," says Paterno. "And among that group of five that I asked to have specially admitted, only one was a super high school athlete. As for the other four, we easily could have gotten white players as good or better who were fully qualified." To get them in, Joe went to University President John Oswald and said, "Let's take a chance on some kids who are good bets."
Paterno does concede that "other students don't have somebody going to bat for them to get them admitted, so that's a break for the football player."
And it's true that a football player can gain entrance to the main campus at State College while a non-athlete with identical grades might have to go to a satellite campus to earn the privilege of attending the mother institution. Once at Penn State, athletes get all the tutoring they require. Says Paterno, "I don't think it's anything to be ashamed of that we want to help." Frank Downing, the athletic academic adviser, says, "It all sounds too sweet. Icky. But all we do each day around here is go forth in our war against ignorance. Sometimes we succeed, sometimes we fail, but we go on."
Once enrolled, football players must maintain the same standards and progress as other students. Rumors of undue athletic influence at Penn State have not been backed up with hard fact. But, if anything, Paterno gives up on players too quickly.
Bergstein once told Paterno a player had missed three classes.
"Did you have a talk with him?" asked Paterno.
"Yes, and I will again."
"If he doesn't measure up, flunk him," said Joe.
"Don't you want to know who he is?"
"He might be your star."
"Doesn't matter. If he doesn't measure up, flunk him. He'll infect the whole program."
All schools say their graduation rate for athletes is impressive; that is not always the case. At Penn State evidently it is. Here is what happened to the 26 recruits of 1975: 19 earned degrees; two players now in the pros could get their degrees with a few more credits; two transferred; three quit. The group had a variety of majors. Harry Glenn, a senior and former managing editor of the Daily Collegian, says, "The football players are normal students caught in this abnormal situation of big-time college football." Among the 31 Penn State pro players, 29 have undergraduate degrees. According to the 1979 Player Register, the figure for the NFL as a whole is 1,690 players, 611 degrees.
Still, there is faculty concern that, with the approaching rough-tough football opponents, there will be pressure to keep stars eligible whatever their grades. Should that happen, Penn State's academic prestige would be diminished, they point out.
Not to worry, says Paterno. One of the things he is doing is making sure the players understand the educational requirements. "It's academics, athletics and social," Joe is forever telling recruits and players. "If you do them in the order I just gave 'em to you, it will all work out."
At Penn State it probably will work out. First, there is still a well of blind faith in Paterno. Says Basketball Coach Dick Harter, "He will straighten everything out and we'll be good. Having Joe here is one of the charms of Happy Valley." Second, Paterno now appears to have gotten around the corner of self-doubt (he had been genuinely disillusioned by the booing, genuinely concerned that his old-fashioned ideals could no longer be sold to recruits) and seems to have reached back within himself for another all-out assault on mediocrity and indiscipline. Third, he has put aside any temporary doubt that the Grand Experiment is the way to go in contemporary college athletics.
"After four undefeated regular seasons and everything else," he says, "if the Grand Experiment is not a success, I don't know what is."
Suddenly Paterno is silent. Outside his home snow is falling. He stares into a cup of coffee. Finally he looks up. "O.K.," he says. "In the eyes of a lot of people, we have to win a national championship or else Joe Paterno and the Grand Experiment are both failures."
At his home in Manor Haven, N.Y., brother George speaks up for Joe. "The Grand Experiment doesn't mean you dominate," he says. "If you show courage and get killed, you still showed courage. And all this certainly doesn't mean what he's trying to do is wrong. All it means is one of the rocks in the creek slipped. Some people are born to be crusaders. Joe was. So when you go into battle, there are times you're going to get wounded. The fact that he's trying to win the right way is the most important thing. Joe is not synthetic. I'd be the most shattered person in the world if he turned out to be a phony."
At College Park, Joe Paterno mentions a note he received from another coach who had just read another laudatory article. The note said, "You're not that good." With a chuckle—oh, yes, the man can still laugh—Paterno says, "I'm not that good." Hear ye, then, that Joe Paterno is not a saint. But he'll do till one comes along.