Whatever problems the census takers in State College, Pa., might
have, they don't come from the Penn State coaching staff. Joe
Paterno, who turns 73 on Dec. 21, is in his 50th year at the
university, the last 34 as head coach, and he still runs gassers
with the linemen at practice. Five of Paterno's assistants
(including his son, Jay) played under him in Happy Valley, four
have been on his staff for more than 20 seasons, and two turned
down major head coaching jobs to stay in State College. So when
someone from the fold takes his leave, it is big news. When that
someone is Jerry Sandusky, four years a Penn State player, 32
years a Penn State assistant and 23 years the defensive
coordinator at Linebacker U, it is worth a standing ovation.
That's what Sandusky, 55, received from 96,480 fans before the
Michigan game on Nov. 13, when he ran onto the Beaver Stadium
sod for the last time as a Nittany Lions coach. Among the
players who embraced him at midfield was his son Jon, a reserve
defensive back. Among those cheering from the sidelines was
another son, Matt, a Penn State manager.
Matt Sandusky, 20, used to have a different last name. He was a
troubled kid from a town near State College. When he was eight,
he got involved with a program called the Second Mile that
Sandusky had started in 1981 to help kids like Matt. But it
wasn't enough to keep him on the straight and narrow. When Matt
was 15 he ran afoul of the law--"I'd rather not say for what,"
he says--and was put on probation. Jerry and Dottie Sandusky
took him in as a foster child and adopted him two years later.
Result? Matt is now a junior at Penn State and expects to
graduate next year with a degree in guidance.
"My life changed when I came to live here," says Matt. "There
were rules, there was discipline, there was caring. Dad put me
on a workout program. He gave me someone to talk to, a father
figure I never had. I have no idea where I'd be without him and
Mom. I don't even want to think about it. And they've helped so
many kids besides me."
December 20, 1999
Around central Pennsylvania, Jerry's Kids has nothing to do with
a Labor Day telethon. With the proceeds from his book,
Developing Linebackers the Penn State Way, and a lot of hope,
Sandusky started the Second Mile, which began as a group foster
home. Today the organization has 20 full-time employees,
hundreds of volunteers and a fund-raising machine that rustles
up about $1 million per year; through a network of school- and
community-based programs it reaches about 100,000 at-risk
youngsters. Jerry and Dottie have done more than their share of
personal reaching, too. All told the Sanduskys have six
children, all adopted, three as infants, three after having had
them in foster care. Besides Matt and Jon, 22, the Sandusky
lineup consists of Ray, 36, a businessman in Nashville; E.J.,
30, who played center for the Nittany Lions and is the football
coach at Albright College; Kara, 27, a Penn State grad who is
married and works at the university; and Jeff, 24, a Marine who
is stationed in North Carolina. "Who knows how any of us
would've ended up if we hadn't become Sanduskys," says E.J.
Who knows how countless others would've ended up had Sandusky's
organization not gotten involved. Partly because of his Second
Mile responsibilities, Sandusky turned down a prime head
coaching opportunity, at Maryland in 1991, and his decision to
retire at the end of this season (his last game will be the Dec.
28 Alamo Bowl against Texas A&M) was partly based on his wanting
to get more involved in fund-raising and program development for
the organization. "Jerry has always been our heart and soul,"
says Hank Lesch, Second Mile's vice president of development.
If Sandusky did not have such a human side, there would be a
temptation around Happy Valley to canonize him: Saint Sandusky,
leader of linebackers, molder of men. Fortunately, it's easier
to conjure up an image of Sandusky as a fuming, fussing
fire-breather on the sideline, flashing signals like a crazed
third base coach, copies of his defensive alignments dangling
from his belt like elongated key chains. LaVar Arrington, the
ninth All-America linebacker to play under Sandusky, remembers
with glee a moment from the Nittany Lions' Sept. 18 game against
Miami in the Orange Bowl when Arrington was taunting the crowd
from the sideline. Sandusky lit out after him but tripped on a
wire and went sprawling over the bench. "He gets caught up in
the moment sometimes," says Arrington.
Because Sandusky is so respected, as a man and as the dean of
Linebacker U, there's the impression that it's just fine with
him that he has never been a head coach. It's not. "I wouldn't
call it devastating," says Sandusky, choosing his words
carefully, "but I would call it a little disappointing. That was
definitely a goal of mine when I started. If I hadn't had the
other part of my life--my family and the Second Mile--I would've
been a head coach."
Sandusky had already turned down Marshall and Temple before
Maryland came knocking. He says that his three reasons for
saying no to the Terrapins were, in order, family, Second Mile
commitments and the chance he would get Paterno's job. But as
the '90s wore on, Paterno never wore down. Joe Pa says he wants
to remain the head man "at least until I'm 75," and only a fool
would bet that he won't last a year or two beyond that. On July
1, when Sandusky announced his intention to retire, one of the
first calls he received was from Matt Millen, a Penn State
All-America in 1978, who greeted him with, "It figures that the
guy who has been there for 30 years would get out before the guy
who has been there for 50." Sandusky says he doesn't
second-guess himself about the Maryland decision but allows that
even if he had gotten the chance to succeed Paterno, it would
not have been an ideal situation. "It would've been like
inheriting Papa's business," says Sandusky. (Tom Bradley, a
former Nittany Lions player who is in his 21st year as a Paterno
assistant, is more colorful in describing what it's like to
follow a legend: "Next guy in always gets whacked.")
Working under Paterno takes something out of a man, too.
Sandusky was asked last week if he'll miss Joe Pa. "Well, not
exactly," he said. "You have to understand that so much of our
time was spent under stress, figuring out how to win. That takes
a toll. We've had our battles. I've quit. I've been fired. I've
walked around the building to cool off." Paterno says, "I'm not
the easiest guy to work with." Millen puts it another way:
"Figuratively speaking, that Paterno nose is everywhere."
That nose has not been in Sandusky's defensive business nearly
as much as it has been in the offensive business conducted by
coordinator Fran Gantner. "I bug Jerry," says Paterno, "but I
drive Fran absolutely nuts." Sandusky concedes that he could not
have worked under the same conditions as Gantner, who turned
down the head job at Michigan State in '94 to continue sharing
the headphones with Joe Pa. "I'm in a zone during a game," says
Sandusky. "I wouldn't want Joe in that zone with me."
Still, Paterno is the boss--Sandusky doesn't expect Paterno to
solicit his opinion about who should follow him as
coordinator--and no doubt part of Sandusky's reason for retiring
is that he's tired of being second banana. He's not even coy
about his desire still to run a program, any program, perhaps a
Division III team or, don't laugh, a midget league basketball
team. Sandusky's parents, Art and Evie, ran a recreation center
in Washington, Pa., and at heart, E.J. says, Sandusky is "a
frustrated playground director." E.J. remembers the kickball
games his father organized in the backyard. "Dad would get every
single kid involved," says E.J. "We had the largest kickball
games in the United States, kickball games with 40 kids."
Says Millen, "A lot of people were surprised when Jerry said he
was retiring. Me? I was surprised he stayed that long. Jerry has
so many passions and so many gifts besides coaching football--a
gift for teaching, a gift for helping, a gift for guiding kids.
This is a man with a lot to do."
Here's the best thing you can say about Jerry Sandusky: He's the
main reason that Penn State is Linebacker U...and linebackers
aren't even his enduring legacy.
"My life changed when I came here," says adopted son Matt.
"There were rules, there was discipline, there was caring."