The old man is running out of chances, and he knows it. There was
a time when Joe Paterno didn't die a little death with every
loss. "It's just one football game," he'd remind himself in the
shower before heading home, where 40 or 50 people, Penn State
donors and would-be donors, would assemble for Saturday night
dinner. Once there was always a next week, always a next season.
Now the legend is 75. He has coached football for 53 years. You
have to figure he's somewhere in the fourth quarter of his
This is an article from the Oct. 28, 2002 issue
It's not as if he's shambling through his final years on the
sideline, as did the great Eddie Robinson of Grambling, the
alltime leader in career wins. Paterno is still wildly robust,
faster than some of his offensive linemen, with better hair than
most TV weathermen. He's funny. You remind him that nobody lives
forever, and he says, "You only say that because nobody's ever
done it." But the deep truth is that he knows the time is coming
when he'll coach his final game, and now the losses sting more
than they used to. "As I get older, I'm more patient with the
kids and less patient with other things," he says. He has less
patience for stupid questions, ridiculous NCAA rules, bad
In Paterno's ledger his Nittany Lions are 4-0 in Big Ten play and
not what your newspaper shows them to be, which is 2-2 in the
conference after overwhelming Northwestern last Saturday,
homecoming day, in State College, Pa. Poor officiating, Paterno
believes, helped seal the two Big Ten losses.
Penn State, 5-2 overall, won its first three games this year,
then lost its conference opener at home to Iowa on Sept. 28,
42-35, in overtime. It was after that game that Paterno, jogging
off the field with his players and coaches, saw head referee Dick
Honig out of the corner of his glasses, went sprinting after him,
grabbed the back of Honig's shirt to get his attention and told
him in one choice sentence what he thought of the officiating
crew's work. We hadn't seen Joe Paterno do that before. It
brought to mind Woody Hayes of Ohio State, back in the day.
The following Saturday the Nittany Lions eked out a Big Ten win
at Wisconsin. Seven days later Penn State, on the road again,
endured another overtime conference loss, this time to Michigan,
27-24. Paterno believes that game was decided by a blown call
with 40 seconds left in the fourth quarter, when a long Nittany
Lions pass play to the Wolverines' 23-yard line was ruled
out-of-bounds. A slow-motion video replay showed that Penn State
receiver Tony Johnson was in bounds by at least a foot. Whether
Johnson had possession of the ball is another question. In any
event the Lions didn't have a chance to break the 21-21 tie with
a countdown field goal.
For years, for decades, Paterno would have gone into
coachspeak--You get some calls, you don't get others. We had our
chances. Nah, they don't need instant replay, 'cause cameras,
they can be wrong too. This time JoePa didn't do that. In the
days after the Michigan game he had Penn State athletic director
Tim Curley write a letter to Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney,
calling for a top-to-bottom review of conference officiating.
Paterno also suspended his automatic dismissal of the idea of
video replay for disputed calls. He questioned why three
officials who live in Michigan were allowed to work the Michigan
game. You would've thought you were listening to Oliver Stone,
the director-conspiracy theorist. "The problem is, you've got a
bunch of kids who are busting their butts to win a football
game, working like dogs," Paterno said, "and I think you owe it
to them to make sure the game is won by the players."
By last Friday, the day before his team faced Northwestern,
Paterno was sounding contrite. "In 50 years I've never been in
the situation I'm in now, in a controversy over whether a guy is
a good official or a lousy official and who is appointing them,"
Paterno said. "Running down the field after the Iowa game, I
don't regret that. All I wanted was to talk to the guy. Running
my mouth about the officiating, I'm not sure I should have done
That's because, as Paterno and every student of the Paterno Way
know, only losers complain about officiating. In 1966 Paul Levine
was a sophomore sportswriter on the Penn State newspaper, The
Daily Collegian, when Paterno was in his rookie year as the
Lions' coach. Today Levine is a novelist and screenwriter in Los
Angeles, with a life-sized cardboard cutout of Paterno gazing
over his shoulder as he types. For 36 years Paterno has been
Levine's ideal as a moral leader. "For Joe to complain publicly
like that, he must have thought a real injustice had been done,"
It's unsettling, for Levine and countless others, to see Paterno
do something out of character. "The whole point of the Penn State
homecoming is that the world can be unraveling and you come back
to State College and everything's the same," Levine says. "The
Nittany Lion Inn is still serving its seafood buffet on Friday
night; the trees and the buildings and the walkways are where
they've always been; Joe Paterno is coaching the football
team--and Joe Paterno does not change."
Penn State endured sub-.500 seasons in 2000 and '01, the only
time Paterno has had consecutive losing teams, but there was not
even the hint of a movement for Paterno to step down. There are
three main reasons for that:
1) Paterno has preached for years that football ultimately is not
about winning and losing but about building community, and his
community believes him;
2) Paterno is the most powerful person on campus, and no person
or committee that tried to force him to retire could survive the
wrath of his supporters;
3) Paterno plays a huge role in the economic health of the
university and the town.
And then there is this intangible: He makes the university
Late Friday afternoon, with a cold front pushing over Mount
Nittany, the Penn State marching band was rehearsing for
homecoming, on a practice field of its own. A little crowd had
gathered to watch and listen and shiver. Off on the side the
featured twirler of the Penn State marching band, Bobbie Jo
Sullivan, a senior from Williamsport, Pa., was launching her
baton 50 feet in the air and catching it flawlessly. She's a
world-champion twirler. She grew up on the legend of Joe Paterno.
She was interested in only one school. "Coach Paterno is like a
presence over everything we do," she says. "He has character, he
has fire, he has a good heart. You want to meet his standards."
She's met him once.
Later that night Sullivan twirled her way down College Avenue in
the homecoming parade, past College Pizza, which before locking
its doors at 4 a.m. would sell more than 600 pizzas, close to its
single-day record. "Half the businesses in town wouldn't be here
if it weren't for Joe Paterno," says owner Dick Frasca. He was
recruited by Paterno in 1966, when he was a hotshot quarterback
coming out of nearby Altoona High. His mother served spaghetti to
Paterno in her house, but Frasca wanted to leave his home state
and signed with Kentucky. "Before Paterno they couldn't get city
kids and suburban kids to come here. Look at how he's grown the
place." In 1966 the student enrollment at the State College
campus was 12,192; now it is more than 40,000. In '66 Beaver
Stadium held 50,000 fans; now it holds 108,000.
Paterno and his wife, Sue, have pledged more than $4 million to
the university, and he has raised far more. There's a library
named for him. Early Saturday afternoon, with the Lions' rout of
the Wildcats under way on a dank day, the Paterno Library was
deeply silent, the sounds of turning pages absorbed by the thick
carpeting, low ceilings and endless stacks. All the books by and
about Joe Paterno had been checked out. A few students were
scattered about, studying. A library staffer, Sam Umbriac,
checked on the homecoming game every 10 minutes on the Internet.
Scoreless; 7-0, State; 14-0; 21-0; 28-0.... From a nearby wall
Joe and Sue Paterno gazed in Umbriac's direction from a portrait,
smiling for posterity.
Maybe Paterno will go on forever. His legacy, of course, will. "I
hope I know when it's time to get out. I'm not sure I will," says
Paterno, who can cite names and plays from long-ago games as if
he were doing a live TV broadcast. "It has nothing to do with
whether we're winning or losing. We could win the rest of our
games this year, and I could say I'm getting out. We could lose
the rest of our games this year, and I could say I'm getting
He's saying he doesn't care if Bobby Bowden, the Florida State
coach, passes him in career victories. Through Sunday, Bowden had
328 wins and Paterno 332, the most by a major college coach.
(Robinson is in the stratosphere at 408.) "I'll do what's best
for my family, myself and Penn State. I don't want to go beyond
the point where I'm not making a contribution." He knows what
happened to Alabama's Bear Bryant, who retired in December 1982
and died a month later. "I don't want to do that," Paterno says.
"I don't want to retire and die." He's in the third year of a
five-year contract. He has no hobbies. He's going nowhere. "He is
god," says one longtime fan. "He is eternal."
He is the most old-school of the old-school coaches, yet flexible
and modern and realistic. He doesn't use e-mail. He has no wires
dangling from his head during the game. On game day he still
rolls up his pants legs. He'd be fine with having an openly gay
player on his team "as long as he wasn't aggressive in the locker
room about it." He would like his team to be 100% steroid-free
but cannot promise that it is, he says, because users can mask
their use on urine tests too easily.
In the past year, after beginning the 2001 season with four
consecutive losses, Paterno has taken daring steps to make the
Nittany Lions a contemporary team on the field. For years Penn
State thrived because of its outstanding linebackers and powerful
running backs. The quarterback was the dutiful son who took the
snap and handed off the ball. Midway through last season,
however, Paterno gave the play-calling reins to his offensive
coordinator, Fran Ganter, who in turn let loose freshman Zack
Mills, the unpredictable and dynamic quarterback. He runs! He
scrambles! Sometimes he even takes shotgun snaps! Hard to believe
but true at old Penn State. It's a new day.
The Lions defeated Northwestern 49-0 on Saturday, before 108,853
fans at Beaver Stadium, and on Sunday they moved up to No. 18 in
the AP poll. This week they visit Ohio State. If Paterno had any
complaints about the officiating in Saturday's game, he kept them
beyond the point where I'm not making a contribution."
says Sullivan. "You want to meet his standards."