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The Wins That Really Count

Nov. 13, 2000
Nov. 13, 2000

Table of Contents
Nov. 13, 2000

The Wins That Really Count

In his 51st season, in his 74th year, on the doorstep of
becoming the winningest major college football coach who ever
lived, everything went straight to hell for Joe Paterno.

This is an article from the Nov. 13, 2000 issue Original Layout

He couldn't sleep. Sportswriters who had praised him for decades
were frying him. His Penn State team was 1-4. His starting
quarterback had been charged with aggravated assault, and critics
wanted Paterno's neck for playing him. His prized freshman
defensive back lay paralyzed in a hospital, maybe looking at a
lifetime of puffing through mechanical straws.

"I really wondered if somebody upstairs wasn't trying to tell me
something," admits the little man in the thick glasses. "Like,
Get out of this business."

This isn't supposed to happen to your average college football
god. He's supposed to go out waving from the porch of a caboose,
not tied to the cow-catcher. By now Paterno was supposed to have
gotten seven wins this season and passed Bear Bryant as the
winningest Division I-A coach ever to wet his whistle. Instead,
people were hoping he'd choke on it. "Everything that could've
gone wrong did," says Joe's son Jay, Penn State's quarterbacks
coach. "In my lifetime I've never seen him lower."

The quarterback, Rashard Casey, and a former high school teammate
stood accused of beating a cop outside a Hoboken, N.J., nightclub
last May. "Coach, I never laid a hand on him," Casey told
Paterno. He decided to stick by the kid. "A great kid you've
known for years doesn't just turn into a vicious thug overnight,"
Paterno says.

Columnists, letter writers, radio hosts howled, Hypocrite!
Suspend him, or you're just another win-at-all-costs phony. In
other words, Casey was guilty until proven innocent. They howled
even louder when Casey led the Nittany Lions right into the
dumper. A loss to Southern Cal, a loss to Toledo, a loss to
Pitt. For the first time since anybody could remember, Paterno
and his team were booed as they came off the field--at home.

Then, during a 45-6 thumping at Ohio State, fearless cornerback
Adam Taliaferro lay motionless after a hit. Paterno ran onto the
field and stared into the kid's eyes. "There was this look of
pure fear," Paterno says. "He knew he was in real trouble. I'll
see that look till the day I die." In 1977, Paterno's son David
had fallen off a trampoline, gone into a coma and nearly died at
age 12. "All that came flooding back to him," says Joe's wife,
Sue.

At the hospital that night, the doctors told Adam's father,
Andre, to prepare for quadriplegia. Paterno took Andre into a
little room, just the two of them, and grabbed both his hands.
"We've got to ask for a miracle." And they hugged and prayed and
cried together. Paterno flew home with the team but returned to
Columbus the next day. Had to stick by the kid. When Paterno
spoke to the Nittany Lions about Adam's condition, he wept
openly. "You see this man on television," Andre says, "but you
don't know him. I know him now. His caring isn't an act."

Paterno held the team together. "Everywhere you looked, people
were panicking," says Jay, "but not Joe."

It wasn't that Paterno didn't want to panic; it was that he
couldn't. "Every time I'd get to thinking, Man, this isn't worth
it, I realized how important it was, coaching kids like this," he
says. "I knew they needed me--and I needed them."

He rolled those pant legs up just a little more, dug in a little
deeper. "He started showing more fire than anybody," Jay recalls.
An upset of Purdue. A homecoming win over Illinois. A thriller
over Indiana. Then, last week, out of nowhere, miracles started
dropping into those pant cuffs.

Tuesday brought stunning word that Casey would not be indicted.
But Paterno tsk-tsked nobody. "I can be a pompous guy," he
admits. "I can see where you'd like to get your shots in at me."
All he allowed himself was one moment, over pasta, with Sue. "Now
there's justice," he said.

Wednesday brought an even more stunning announcement. Taliaferro,
who had suffered a bruised spinal cord and undergone spinal
fusion surgery, had feeling in his toes, was shrugging his
shoulders, moving his hips. The doctors thought he'd walk again.
"It looked like two concrete blocks had been lifted off Joe's
shoulders," says Sue.

It doesn't matter that there'll be no bowl game this year for
Penn State. It doesn't matter that, at 4-6, the best the little
man can do this season is tie the great Bear at 323 wins, with
four years to go on his contract. What matters is, when you find
a man this good, you stick by him.

COLOR PHOTO: DANA FINEMAN/SYGMA
"You see this man on television," Andre Taliaferro says, "but you
don't know him. I know him now. His caring isn't an act."