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A Good Joe Over 29 years, coach Joe Paterno has proven that a teacher can be a winner, too

Jan. 18, 1995
Jan. 18, 1995

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Jan. 18, 1995

A Good Joe Over 29 years, coach Joe Paterno has proven that a teacher can be a winner, too

In 1986, Sports Illustrated selected Joe Paterno as its Sportsman
of the Year. Two weeks after that his team won the national
championship; since then, his teams have won 70 games, and he has
continued to display the integrity that made him our choice eight
years ago. So we present this story, slightly abridged, from the
December 22-29, 1986, issue as a reminder that Paterno is a sportsman
for any year.

This is an article from the Jan. 18, 1995 issue

As this year's Sportsman of the Year, we choose a tenured
professor who wears glasses thicker than storm windows, a jacket and
tie, white socks and pants legs that indicate continual fear of flash
floods. He goes about 5 ft. 10", 165 and looks less like a football
coach than a CPA for an olive oil firm. On most mornings he leaves a
red Ford Tempo in the modest driveway of the modest house he has
owned since 1969 and walks to the office. He has worked at the same
place for 37 years. For excitement, he likes to sit in his La-Z-Boy
and doodle on a yellow sketch pad. Such a glitzy celebrity is our
honoree that his number is in the book.
But legends have a confounding habit of showing up in strange
shapes. And a funny thing happens when this one starts to say
something. Two-hundred-eighty- pound linemen, college presidents,
NCAA honchos, network biggies and even your basic U.S. vice
presidents cross-body-block one another to get near him. Good thing,
too, because Joe Paterno, the football coach at Penn State
University, can teach you some of the damnedest things.
From whom else but Paterno did we learn that you can have
20-20,000 vision and still see more clearly than almost everybody
else, that you can look like Bartleby but coach like Bryant, that you
can have your kids hit holes like 'Bama's and books like Brown's,
that the words ''college'' and ''football'' don't have to be mutually
exclusive. ''We try to remember,'' Paterno once told The Reader's
Digest, ''football is part of life -- not life itself.''
Maybe for that wisdom alone, we choose Paterno as Sportsman of the
Year. But that's not exactly right. Because what he has done in 1986
is not much different from what he has done for 21 years. He went
undefeated for the regular season. He has done that six times, a feat
equaled only by Bear Bryant and Frank Leahy. In two weeks Penn State
will play for the national championship. It has done that four times
in the last nine years, more than any other school. Over the past two
years, his team has been 22-1. But he has done better than that. From
1967 to '70 he had a 31-game unbeaten streak. This year 100% of his
seniors are expected to graduate. Next year Paterno will * become the
first Division I-A coach to achieve this trifecta: 200 victories, a
winning percentage of more than .800 and an 80% graduation rate by
his players. Not bad for a kid from Flatbush.
No, this is one for the ''stayers'' of the world, one of those
Irving G. Thalberg ''lifetime achievement'' awards. This is for the
guy who keeps churning out good stuff, always kicks in when the
birthday hat comes around and never punches out before seven.
In an era of college football in which it seems everybody's hand
is either in the till or balled up in a fist, Paterno sticks out like
a clean thumb. His standard of excellence is so season-in, season-out
consistent it borders on the monotonous: win 10, 11 games; send off
another bunch of future doctors, lawyers and accountants. In the
heyday of the Bosworth Ethic, when talking trash is hot and shaking
hands before the coin toss is not; when the Texas coach gets fired
for winning just 75% of his games, the Maryland coach runs a 9.9 100
to chat with a referee, and the Cal coach lets his Fruit of the Looms
do his talking; when it takes a paralegal just to make out the sports
page, we need the guy in the Photogray trifocals more than ever.
Over the last three decades, nobody has stayed truer to the game
and truer to himself than Joseph Vincent Paterno, Joe Pa to Penn
State worshipers -- a man so patently stubborn that he refuses to
give up on the notion that if you hack away at enough windmills, a
few of the suckers will fall. Maybe we choose Paterno because he is a
great football coach.
He has won more games than any active Division I-A coach but Bo
Schembechler. Eighteen times he has finished in the Top 20, 15 times
in the Top 10. Do you realize Paterno had three unbeaten teams that
were voted out of national championships before he was voted into
one, in 1982? What's more, he missed an undefeated season in 1978 by
one touchdown to Alabama and another in 1977 by four points to
Kentucky.
Then again, maybe we pick Paterno because he aspires to be more
than a coach. Indeed, he was bred for more. Paterno's aunt was in
charge of foreign languages for a Long Island school district, his
cousin became president of Chrysler, his father never read the
newspaper without a dictionary next to him. ''At the dinner table, we
were allowed to argue about anything,'' recalls Paterno. ''And we
did. You name it, we'd argue about it. Kids from the neighborhood
would walk into our kitchen, unannounced, and sit in, just to
listen.''
To Paterno, an education was a weapon, a reward. His father went
to night school until he was 40 to get his law degree. Joey may have
grown up in the same neighborhood as Vince Lombardi, but he aspired
to be Clarence Darrow. In fact, when Paterno accepted Rip Engle's
offer right out of Brown to take an assistant coaching job at Penn
State in 1950, he promised his father he did it only to earn extra
money for law school. Thirty-seven years later, it looks as though
Joey will never become a lawyer. He seems to have spent a lifetime
making up for it.
This year he gave $100,000 to the school library and $50,000 to a
minority- student fund. When he won the national championship in
1982, he marched into a meeting of the university's board of trustees
and, in effect, scolded them. He urged the board to raise entrance
requirements and to spend more money on the library. To professors
across the land, that may look like a misprint. The football coach
wants to make the entrance requirements tougher? Quick, drug tests
all around. It may go down as the only time in history that a coach
yearned for a school its football team could be proud of. Out of that
meeting with the trustees came a five-year, $200 million fund-raising
campaign, of which a certain Mr. Paterno, J., is vice chairman.
''Joe's different from the rest of us,'' Oklahoma coach Barry
Switzer once said, and he's right. How many coaches draw up game
plans while listening to opera? How many quote Browning (''A man's
reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?'') to their
teams? How many write opinion pieces for The New York Times and throw
in words like ''sophistry,'' ''proselytizing'' and ''mendacious''?
How many even read The New York Times? How many gave their seniors
the spring off this year so they could get their degrees by December?
How many let their best lineman (Mike Reid, 1967) take a year off to
star in a theater production? Let their kicker (Chris Bahr, 1973)
stay home from a road game at Air Force to play for the soccer team?
Make their players buy their own sweats?
It doesn't say Penn State on Paterno's jacket just because he
draws his paychecks there. Paterno immerses himself in the
university. He attends the monthly meetings of the X Club, the
school's oldest faculty club, where the lecture might be on anything
from zoology to Zen. Paterno once addressed the club on the
relationship between coaching and The Aeneid. Just a little something
that came up at the last coaches' convention.
Paterno wouldn't give up academia for a million bucks. Make that
about $1.3 million, which is what he turned down from the New England
Patriots in 1973 to stay at Penn State, which was paying him about
$1.25 million less. What Paterno said that day in declining the offer
ought to be nailed to the door of every college coaching office in
the country, like fire instructions on a motel door.

So in a couple of years, maybe we'd have gone to the Super Bowl.
So what? Here, I have an opportunity to affect the lives of a lot of
young people -- and not just on my football team. I'm not kidding
myself that that would be true at the professional level.

Paterno is one of those men who come along once a decade with an
overwhelming feeling of responsibility for everyone and his roommate.
''My sister and I kid him,'' says his brother, George, a professor of
physical education at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. ''We have a
picture of us as kids -- he was about six, I guess, the oldest -- and
he looks dead serious. He always looked that way. I told him, 'Joe, I
think you were born with a frown on your face.' ''
Paterno means fatherly in Italian, and Paterno is eternally
paternal. He worries. He doesn't sleep much, so weighed down is he
with the problems of young people today. Maybe he's like that in part
because his son, David, now 20, was given last rites as a child after
a trampoline accident. But Paterno is a born brooder, a fanatic about
detail, a hopeless notemaker. His bed is a precarious place of
lurking pencils. He is in it by 11:30, out of it at 5 -- and
rummaging about his den ''God knows how often'' in between, says Sue,
his wife of 25 years.
''I worry about kids today,'' says Paterno. ''I remember when I
was a kid, you never heard about a kid committing suicide. The
choices just weren't that hard. You had it all laid out in front of
you. Your church told you what to do, and your parents told you what
to do, and you knew what was right and wrong. But now, kids have so
many choices to make, so many people to listen to, no direction. Now
you hear of kids committing suicide every day. It's very frustrating
for me.''
He wants parents to stop thinking about money and BMWs and start
thinking about their kids. He wants kids to stop thinking about money
and BMWs and start thinking about serving others. Paterno himself
lives in a home far below what he can afford. He takes no salary for
his weekly TV show. When the Paternos give one of their regular
dinner parties for 40 or so, there's no catering.
For two days, Sue cooks manicotti and lasagna and freezes it all.
''Joe and I think if you're going to have someone to your home, it
should be your home,'' she says.
Paterno wouldn't know chichi if it bit him in his Sansabelts. And
if he did, he wouldn't admit it. Year after year, Penn State players
complained about seeing lavish visiting locker rooms around the
country and then coming home to their spare quarters. ''Yeah, but
we're different,'' Paterno always told them. ''We're tougher, we're
more spartan. It is more of a challenge.''
A funny thing happens to a Penn State player after four years of
Paterno's preaching ''us not me'' and ''M.B.A. not NFL.'' They get to
sounding like Paterno. The team's famous boring uniforms? ''I hated
our uniforms at first,'' says safety Ray Isom. ''Now I think they're
beautiful.'' Before last season's Orange Bowl game, Paterno brought
out the traditional patch (a tiny orange) to affix to the team's
jerseys. ''Everybody was quiet while Joe held them up to the
jerseys,'' remembers Isom. ''Then everybody started saying, 'Nah,
nah. Too flashy. Too gaudy.' '' The offending, garish,
end-of-civilization-as-we-know- it patches were vetoed. ''After
all,'' says defensive tackle Bob White, ''it's not what's on the
outside that counts; it's what's on the inside.''
Nobody knows that better than White. As a three-sport star in high
school, he was wooed by a dozen major schools. But when Penn State
talked to him, Paterno said something outrageous: that he would give
White a scholarship if, over the spring and summer, he would agree to
read a dozen novels, assigned by Sue, and file a two-page book report
every week.
To White, this was an insane proposal. Nobody else was complaining
about his grades. He had a 2.0, which will get you a scholarship and
maybe a Firebird most anywhere else. Why should he hit the books in
the summer, for crying out loud, when everyone else was hitting
keggers? Why should somebody be so worried about him? So, of course,
he agreed. Sue's first assignment was Huckleberry Finn. It became the
first book White ever completed. Today, White is a B student in
administration of justice, a team leader and a lover of books. ''I'm
so happy about the way things turned out,'' says White. ''There was a
time I never really thought I'd get through college.'' Call it the
Paterno Plan, and it has worked dozens of times.
''The older I get,'' says 1967-68 All-America tight end Ted
Kwalik, ''the smarter Joe Paterno gets.'' It's a working theme: The
more messed up college athletics gets, the more sense Paterno makes.
Pull up a chair and listen to the professor:
-- On Division I-A playoffs: ''I've never wanted anybody to vote
me out of a national championship, and I've never wanted anybody to
vote me in. After we won in '82, I think someone should've been able
to get a shot at us. A lot of bowl people think a playoff would
detract from the bowls. Not me. A playoff would add more meaning to
the games. Your winner can go on, like in the NFL playoffs. The
excitement builds.''
-- On the NCAA: ''It's time to start from scratch. Appoint three
committees and redefine what recruiting is, what an amateur is, what
alumni should be allowed to do. . . . There are so many rules now
that you might be breaking one and not realize it. I think we run a
clean program, but I could not positively tell you that we're not
breaking a single rule somewhere.''
-- On freshman eligibility: ''When a kid plays football games
before he attends a class, something is wrong.''
-- On kids' sports: ''I don't think it's fair to 12-, 13- and
14-year-olds to say, 'Show us you're a winner right now!' Winning
isn't everything. I'll never buy that thing that if a boy loses a
football game, he's a loser in life.''
-- On firing coaches: ''Coaches have got to be given rank within
the university so that you can't fire a coach unless you go through
an academic committee, just as you would with a professor. If coaches
are to have any stability and security, they need to be treated like
an English professor.''
-- On happy-feet coaches: ''Guys who jump all over the place
deprive themselves of having an impact on their institution. One
thing I'm proud of is that. I think I've made a mark here.''
If one misconception exists about Paterno it's that he spends all
his time being a conscience for the game and none being a coach.
Paterno carries on so much about education you figure he cuts
practice an hour short every day so some of the boys can get to
debate club on time. Uh-uh. ''Joe's the most intensely competitive
man I've ever known,'' says his brother, George.
The man hasn't been Coach of the Year three times (Bryant and
Darrell Royal are the only others who have been named three times)
because he thought it was only a game. The Professor can hang with
the X's and O's boys. You may think + of him as a strategic dinosaur,
but his '82 team was the first national champion to gain more yards
passing than running. He won 22 straight games in the late '60s with
Chuck Burkhart at quarterback, and Burkhart wasn't even taken in the
NFL draft. He's 22-1 over the past two years with senior quarterback
John Shaffer, who has a bright future as a financial analyst.
Maybe we choose Paterno for his resilience after disappointment.
In 1968 Penn State went undefeated in the regular season and beat
Kansas in the Orange Bowl yet finished second in the polls. That
hacked off Paterno considerably, but the next year, when the Nittany
Lions beat Missouri in the Orange Bowl in their 30th straight game
without a loss and then watched President Nixon present Texas his
mythical ''national-championship plaque'' (Nixon had earlier deemed
that whoever won the Texas-Arkansas game would be No. 1), Paterno
became forever pro-playoff. Later, during a 1973 Penn State
commencement address, Paterno wondered, ''How could Nixon know so
little about Watergate and so much about football?'' And in '73,
anticipating that the polls would shun him an infuriating third time,
despite a 12-0 season and an Orange Bowl win over LSU, Paterno walked
up to reporters on New Year's Night with a solution. ''I had my own
poll,'' he said. ''The Paterno Poll. And the vote was unanimous. Penn
State is Number 1. I took the vote a few minutes ago.'' To make it
official, Paterno gave his team national-championship rings.
Imagine how history would treat Paterno if there had been
playoffs. Among the records of coaches who have appeared in at least
a dozen bowl games, Paterno's 11-5-1 is the best in history after
Bobby Dodd's, who was 9-4 with Georgia Tech, and that includes
Bryant, Royal, Tom Osborne, Woody Hayes, Vince Dooley and Shug
Jordan. Is there any reason to believe Paterno wouldn't have won a
national playoff?
Of course, the kind of success Penn State has enjoyed doesn't come
in vending machines. Paterno is not coaching Swarthmore. ''I tell the
kids,'' says Paterno, '' 'I'm not sure it's worth it. . . .' Jack Ham
(the great Penn State and Pittsburgh Steeler linebacker) was here
this summer, and I showed him our new weight room. He said, 'Geez, we
never lifted weights, Joe.' And I told him, 'It's not like the old
days. It's a year-around thing now. The competition is at such a
level that you've got to lift weights and run a conditioning program
all year round. I just don't know if it's worth it.' ''
If a player decides that, what the heck, it's worth it, one day or
another he will regret his decision. Paterno is not a buddy-buddy
coach. On the practice field he is a screaming, insatiable,
unforgiving loudspeaker. ''When he's yelling at you,'' says receiver
Darrell Giles, ''it seems like he's actually inside your helmet.''
And Paterno isn't much for apologizing. He's on your case sunup to
sundown, which grates on the best of players. For instance,
All-America Matt Millen, who's now with the L.A. Raiders, made more
dramatic exits from the Penn State practice field than Jean Harlow
did from bedrooms. But as much as Millen disdained Paterno's
fieldside manner, he was the first to call Paterno after the '83
Sugar Bowl. ''I don't care if my players like me,'' says Paterno. ''I
want them to like me when it's important they like me, when they're
out in the world, raising families, using their degrees. I want them
to like me when it hits them what I've been trying to say all these
years.''
Some people never come around to liking him. His critics deplore
the secrecy of his programs -- closed practices, names of recruits
not being released, freshmen not listed in the press guide. It's hard
to get inside the program. In fact, it's hard to get to State College
period. Paterno has a personal gridiron Camelot that's a three-hour
drive from anywhere.
Further, he doesn't exactly face a caldron of media heat. No
wonder they call it Happy Valley. Paterno once got a stand ing O at a
basketball game just for getting up and going to the bathroom. How
would the NCAA look investigating Penn State? Paterno could suddenly
decide to turn Penn State into State Pen and nobody would notice for
four or five years.
What makes some people doubt Paterno is his defiance every year of
the notion that, simply, you have to use semipro kids majoring in
profitable handshaking to win big in major college football. That
Paterno can win without cheating is more than a lot of people can
digest. ''I don't think people think it's possible,'' says defensive
tackle White. ''They're dubious of Joe. Think he's a phony. He's not.
It is possible. We're doing it.''
But for how much longer? Apart from his eyes, Paterno seems in
fine fettle. If you were to surprise him in his office, you might
find him doing his daily 60 or 70 pushups and any number of situps.
''I can do situps all day,'' says Paterno. He's 59 but looks 45, and
not by clandestine methods (e.g., Grecian Formula). ''My mother is
91 years old and to this day doesn't have a gray hair on her,'' he
says. He has the occasional brandy or bourbon on the rocks. He walks
a couple of miles a day, sometimes five or six. Walking is his only
physical activity because of seeping veins that cause clotting in his
left eye. The damage is periodically repaired by laser surgery at
Johns Hopkins.
''I don't want to stay too long,'' Paterno says. ''Bear Bryant
maybe stayed too long. I don't want to linger.'' Politics calls. His
stumping for George Bush in 1980 helped Bush carry the Pennsylvania
primary. But Paterno bristles: ''If I'm the best-qualified person for
an elected government position, what does that say about our
country?''
Some jobs do intrigue him. If the NCAA called him about becoming
executive director, ''I'd listen.'' But he says he'll probably stay
right where he is for ''four or five more years,'' which is the same
quote he issued for public record in 1973, '78 and '82. ''He wants
this job to be perfect for the next guy,'' says assistant coach Bob
Phillips. But it's not just that, is it? ''Well,'' says Phillips, ''I
know he believes that one national championship is not enough. He
wants at least one more.''
That's not really it, either. Paterno just isn't ready to give up
swatting at windmills. As Paterno once said, ''Look, we're so cynical
about everything these days. Everybody's a cynic. But what if an
18-year-old kid wants to be an idealist? What if he wants to find
some integrity in college athletics? Where's he going to go?''
For another four or five years at least, he can pack up his copy
of Huck Finn and report to the squatty, near-sighted guy in the white
socks and the nervous pants legs in State College, Pa., just as kids
have been doing with splendid results for three decades. That's why
we choose Joe Paterno as Sportsman of the Year.