Angelo, look at the way your son's eyes darken now. Look how he balls up his fists and uncrosses his legs, as if he's uncomfortable, as if he suddenly remembered someplace he needs to be. Look how the smile on his face—the smile that punctuates all the stories he tells, like the one about Bear Bryant wanting a lane of traffic cleared for his team (the Pennsylvania governor said no), or the time at a coaches' convention that Dan Devine mentioned an unnamed loudmouth coach at Oklahoma, and Barry Switzer shouted, "Switzer!" and raised his hand—look how that grandfatherly smile twists into a grimace. Madonn'! Someone is asking Joe Paterno about the wins record. Again.
This is an article from the Oct. 26, 2009 issue
The wins record. What the hell can Joe say about the wins record? That he doesn't care about it? That he does? Angelo, that record is like a noose around his neck ... no, it's like the white sweater he wore to the frat party at Brown all those years ago. Remember that sweater? Florence gave it to him with a mother's love, and Joe wore it to the party because he thought that was what young men at Ivy League schools wore to cocktail parties. What did Joe know about the Ivy League—a mouthy Italian kid from Brooklyn trying to fool everyone with street smarts and gritty confidence and soaring ambition?
That white sweater. Oh, Joe walked into that party, and everything stopped. Time stopped. All those rich frat boys with their olives swimming in dry martinis, they all froze, and they looked at him, only they didn't see him. They saw that sweater. That's all he was to them, a poor Italian kid's white sweater in a rich man's world.
And now? They still don't see him. They see that wins record. That's how so many people define your son, Angelo. After beating Minnesota 20--0 last Saturday, he has 389 victories, five more than Bobby Bowden (at least for now; the NCAA wants to take away 14 of Bowden's wins, but Florida State's appealing) and more than any other Division I coach ever. People act as if that's what it's been about. As if that's why he still coaches. "What am I gonna tell you?" Joe asks. "I try not to pay attention to it. But it's there. I don't want the record. I say that, and I know people say, 'Oh, who are you kidding, Paterno, with that humble pie?' But humble pie's got nothing to do with it. What am I gonna do with that record?"
You wanted him to be a lawyer, Angelo. He was accepted at law school. Then he called you, back in 1950, and said, "Pops, I think I'm gonna coach football awhile, make some money before I go to law school."
And you, the wise father, said, "You do what you want to do."
A couple of years later Joe called again and said, "Pops, I think I'm gonna be a coach."
"You are already a coach," you said.
"No, Pops, I mean, I think this is what I want to do permanently."
And you, the wise father, said, "What the hell did I send you to college for?"
That's the punch line to Joe Paterno's story, but it's not the moral. Not long after, Angelo, you asked Joe, "Are you making an impact?" Joe did not know what to say to that. Impact? He was an assistant football coach in a cow town in Pennsylvania. What kind of impact could he make?
"I'm trying, Pops," Joe said.
You died a year or two after that.
Joe ain't quitting. You raised an obstinate son, Angelo. Cocciuto come un mulo. Stubborn as a mule. He's 82 years old, will turn 83 four days before Christmas, and he's coaching Penn State football for the 60th consecutive season.
How can anyone wrap his arms around that much time? You know Don Shula? He won more professional games than any other coach. He retired 14 years ago. Joe is older than Don Shula.
Gordie Howe, Mr. Hockey, played his first season in the NHL in 1946. Joe is older than Mr. Hockey. Arnold Palmer won his first Masters more than 50 years ago, back when the whole idea of golf on television seemed ludicrous. Joe is older than Arnold Palmer. Here's another one: David Bell played 12 years in the major leagues and retired in 2006. His father, Buddy Bell, played in the bigs 18 seasons. His father, Gus Bell, played in the majors for 15 seasons and retired 45 years ago. Joe was born before Gus Bell.
Joe was born before Shirley Temple, before Andy Warhol, before James Dean, before Buddy Holly, before Mikhail Gorbachev. People celebrate Neil Armstrong's walk on the moon 40 years ago; Joe is older than Neil Armstrong. People commemorate Martin Luther King Day; Joe was born before Martin Luther King Jr. Elvis impersonators still haunt the Vegas strip; Joe was born before the King of Rock and Roll.
A museum piece, Angelo. That's how some see him. Sure, some want him to quit. Some say he's lost touch. Some say he's going to dull his legacy. What does he care? It's like George, your younger son, used to say: "Don't ever tell Joe he can't do something ... because he'll work harder than ever to make sure he does it."
People have been telling Joe to quit for more than 40 years, going back to the time in '67 when he went for it on fourth down in the Gator Bowl against Florida State. The Nittany Lions didn't get the first down, the game ended in a tie, and on the plane ride home a joker on that team, Jack Curry, walked back to the coach, who was sitting with his head in his hands.
"Coach, don't worry about it," Curry said. "There's good that comes out of everything."
Joe looked up to see his player's face. Curry said, "When you started the game, people didn't even care who the coach was at Penn State. But after you went for it on fourth-and-one, the whole country went, 'Who the hell is the coach at Penn State?'"
So, what, Joe's going to start listening to critics now? No. Joe ain't quitting. He's thriving. His players graduate. The Paterno Library, which Joe and his wife, Sue, helped build, overflows with books. The Paterno Family Humanities Reading Room is huge and beautiful. The Pasquerilla Spiritual Center—Paterno family, major donors, of course—has offices for all the world's major religions side by side by side. The football stadium now seats 107,000-plus. And, yes, the football team went 40--11 from 2005 through 2008, and at 6--1 so far this season, Joe Paterno is holding out hope for another national championship.
"I'm not going to embarrass this university," he says, not angrily but with an edge in his voice, as if he could not imagine how anyone could miss the point: He still has something left to teach these kids. Times have not changed that much. "I think kids today, they are confused," Joe says. "They long for some kind of discipline. They want something bigger than themselves, something bigger to be a part of. We can still offer that here."
As for being out of touch ... Joe relentlessly pleads guilty. He will tell you (and tell you and tell you) he doesn't have a cellphone, and he doesn't have a computer, and he doesn't know anything about all the social networking. ("What's that thing called, Facemask?" he asks.)
He says, "My secretary, Sandi—administrative aide now, that's what they are now, administrative aides—my administrative aide gets a call from the president's office five or six years ago: 'Sandi, the president would like Joe to start answering some of his e-mail.' So Sandi says, 'Well, uh, I'll talk to him about it.'
"So Sandi comes in here and says, 'You know how to get on e-mail?' I said, 'What the heck is e-mail?' I didn't have the slightest idea. I don't need that. If I want some advice, I'll call."
Angelo, methinks the coach doth protest too much. That's the Brooklyn in him. That's the you in him. Let them underestimate Joe. Let them think the world has passed him by. Let them think the old man has gone soft. Nobody needs to know that during the off-season Joe called all his coaches together for their usual meeting.
And, first thing, he said, "Gentlemen, we need to start Twittering."
Maybe he did lose faith for a while, Angelo. Friends saw something flicker in him a few years ago. For more than 30 years, nothing had changed at Penn State. Teams won. Players graduated. Joe taught football and life. Every so often there would be an undefeated season (five in all) or a national championship controversy (once Richard Nixon himself jobbed Penn State by crowning Texas) or a brief burst of complaining ("Joe's too conservative!"), just to give variety to the seasons. But mostly, Joe made sure things stayed the same. Routines. Values. Goals. Same.
Even the Penn State uniforms and helmets stayed the same—as white and clean and plain as Pennsylvania snow. Joe unknowingly picked those uniforms as a young man, back in 1943, before coaching was even on his mind, when his old high school coach, Zev Graham, took him to a World Series game between the Cardinals and the Yankees. Graham pointed out that the Cardinals' shoes were scuffed, their uniforms untucked, their pantlegs all different lengths. The Yankees, of course, were pin-striped and immaculate. "Now," Zev said, "guess who is going to win the World Series?" The Yankees won, and Joe would forever believe in the power of looking businesslike. If Zev had taken him to the 1942 World Series, when the unkempt Cardinals pounded the Yankees in five games, there's no telling what Penn State uniforms would look like.
Nothing changed. In 1973 Joe was offered an unholy amount of money to go coach the New England Patriots, and he accepted—he remembered how much you struggled, Angelo, to support the family. Then, he says, Sue cried in bed. "We've lived such a good life here," she said. And Joe tried to guess what you would think, Angelo, if he went off to coach professionals. What impact could he make on professionals? So he called back, turned it down. Other offers came; he turned those down too. Impact. He had to make an impact.
Jay Paterno—your grandson, Angelo, an assistant coach for Joe—has never forgotten walking home with his father one day after a football game. That was the day he understood just what all this football coaching meant to Joe. Usually their talks revolved around certain plays, certain football decisions, but on this day Joe said, "Jay, you don't have any kids yet, but you will, and then I'll have my revenge." He smiled that smile. And then he said this: "You'll understand, once you have kids, that life changes. You'll find that your happiness is defined by your least happy child. You'll understand. Every player we have, someone—maybe a parent, a grandparent, someone—poured their life and soul into that young man. They are handing that young man off to us. They are giving us their treasure, and it's our job to make sure we give them back that young man intact and ready to face the world."
In 2000, something changed. In the fifth game of that season—a struggle of a season for Penn State—a gifted freshman cornerback named Adam Taliaferro dived headfirst to make a tackle against Ohio State. He broke his neck and bruised his spinal cord. He was paralyzed. Doctors said he had almost no chance of walking again.
Joe was heartbroken. He realized that in many ways he had lived a charmed life: A loving wife. Five healthy children. A job that did not feel like a job. And, feeling charmed, he drove his players, pushed them, demanded more from them on the field. Hit harder! Ignore pain! Be tougher! "The first time I ever saw my father cry was when his mother died," Jay Paterno says. "Then there was the time Adam got hurt."
Penn State had losing records in 2000 and 2001. Even so, things seemed to be chugging along, same as always. Adam walked again, he even led the team onto the field. The Nittany Lions won nine games in '02, and all four of their losses were by a touchdown or less (two in overtime). But people close to the program thought that maybe Joe was fading. He was not quite as insistent in his recruiting, not quite as sharp on the practice field, not quite as relentless. It seemed that after Adam, Joe no longer felt charmed. He shrugs. "What are you going to do about the past?" he asks. "It's over."
A friend says, "I think after Adam got hurt, Joe had a crisis of faith. I think he wondered in a small way if [coaching] was worth it."
In 2002 his brother died. They were so close, Angelo. Opposites attracting. George was a lifelong bachelor, a free spirit, a New York City cop, a football coach at the high school and college levels—who would spend much of his later years second-guessing Joe as a broadcaster on Penn State radio. The brothers were called the Gold Dust Twins when they were young, and they would get into the loudest arguments you ever heard. But you know, Angelo, arguing is just another form of love. When Joe worried about something, he would ask George to walk with him in the chill of morning. When George died, a piece of Joe died too.
Then came the awful seasons, 2003 and 2004, when the team could not win (seven victories in 23 games). There were off-the-field incidents before, during and after those two seasons. A player pulling a knife. A fight at an apartment. A marijuana charge. And so on. Joe's critics came out galvanized. Even Joe loyalists openly wondered if the time for retirement had come. The complaints hit a shriek pitch, and the school president had the wise idea to ask Joe to answer his e-mails.
"It was so tough for me," Adam Taliaferro says. "I was still in the program. I was at practice every day. I felt like even after all the years, these people still didn't know the man. It's like they still did not know what he was about. So we didn't win as many games. We were still graduating players. We were still having players go on to lead successful lives. Coach Paterno was still helping me, inspiring me. It's like nobody would see it."
Toward the end of the '04 season, before Penn State played Indiana after a six-game losing streak, Joe canceled practice and held a team meeting. He said, "We're so close. We're going to win our last two games, and then we're going to win the national championship next year." His players looked at him, stunned, unsure if they were listening to a prophet or a madman. And then Joe quoted the most famous soliloquy from Hamlet. "To be or not to be: that is the question: Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles...."
That week Penn State beat Indiana on a remarkable goal line stand. The next week the Nittany Lions won big at home over Michigan State. The next year they won all their games but one: a two-point loss at Michigan in front of 111,000 people. And Penn State football is once again predictably successful.
"Nobody else believed," Adam says. "Nobody. Not even people in the program. Only Coach Paterno believed. And then ... everybody believed."
He's like you, Angelo. Everybody says so. You went back to high school after getting out of the service. Then you went to night school for college. Then you went back for law school. One of Joe's strongest memories is of you studying at three in the morning to pass the bar. Will. Joe has always had plenty of your will.
Another memory, though, a more bountiful one, is of the beautiful arguments that raged in the house, arguments about everything from politics to religion to literature to music. No one argument stands out in his mind. He remembers only a house filled with sound and you, Angelo, in the middle, shouting, "No, how can you believe that? What are you talking about? How can you say something like that?"
Yes, he is like you. Joe has ridden the wave of arguments. They energize him. They give his program life. Even if he agrees with an assistant coach's idea, he often attacks it with a frightening flurry of questions and doubts just to see if the coach's idea will withstand the challenge. Then, every so often, Joe tosses out an idea he doesn't believe in, just to see if his coaches will speak their minds.
"Why can't we talk without calling each other names?" Joe asks. "I mean in the world. Everyone around, they scream at each other about politics or what's happening. Why can't someone just stand up and say, 'Why? How? When? What does it matter?' Let the power of the idea fight for itself."
The power of ideas. This is what moves him at 82, same as when he was 22. He doesn't golf, hasn't golfed since he was a young assistant coach. ("He claims he was once close to a scratch golfer," Jay says, "and I remind him that everyone he played with is dead, and he can say whatever he wants.") He doesn't fish; he took his children fishing once, in a fully stocked river where fish were practically jumping into the ice bucket, and in an hour and a half they caught nothing. ("I don't have the patience for it," he says.) He gets antsy on vacations, isn't about to start gardening, hasn't gone to even five baseball games since the Dodgers left Brooklyn.
No, he reads: the classics, history, novels, biographies of Winston Churchill and Alexander the Great. Through happy tears, he tells the story of his courtship with Sue. She was a student at Penn State, he was a young assistant coach. She was dating a player, he told her the guy was cutting classes. ("You like that guy?" Joe asked her. "'Cause he's not gonna be here long." He wasn't.) After they had seen each other for a while, he bought her a copy of Albert Camus's The Stranger. He asked her to write a paper about it. He also read the novel and wrote a paper about it. Then they compared the papers—and he saw their worlds were aligned.
Not long after, he asked her to marry him. They've been married for 47 years.
"I'm not a deeply religious guy," Joe says, "but I go to bed at night and I say, 'I don't know why, God, but you've been good to me.'"
Funny thing, Angelo, Joe has always provoked extreme reactions. He awakens deep emotions. Nobody sees the middle ground with Joe Paterno—he is Saint Joe or Plaster Saint Joe. He is all that is right about college football or he is that sanctimonious coach who has allowed too many off-the-field incidents in recent years. He is sincerity personified or an old man who can't walk away from the stage.
He seems embarrassed by the conflict that has long raged around him—as embarrassed by those who think him perfect as by those who think him sinister—but he remains unbowed. Of course he's not perfect, nowhere near that. He will tell you himself that he can be overbearing and manipulative and pigheaded, and it sometimes frightens his rational side just how much he wants to win.
Stuff happens. All the time. When the phone rings, especially at night, Penn State officials shudder. It's that way all over the country, and it's that way in State College too. On the same day that Joe talks about his own imperfections, the lead story in the student newspaper, the Daily Collegian, is about a backup player who was arrested for driving under the influence.
Angelo, Joe says that kids have changed but not that much. They have always gotten in trouble. Maybe it was quieter in the old days. Whatever, people long ago learned it's pointless to ask Paterno what he will do when players get in trouble. He will do what he will do. "I know people think the old man has gone soft," Joe says, "but you know what? If anything, I think I'm too tough on these kids. There is so much scrutiny of them. They are so much in the public eye.
"I know people have opinions about what I should do. And don't get me wrong: I'm glad that we have such a loyal and interested fan base. That's a good thing. But I can't listen to all that. I know a lot more than they know. I'm going to do what I believe is in the kid's best interest. That's what this whole thing is about."
Those are the sorts of statements that fans have embraced and cynics have latched onto. But what's Joe going to do about that? For 60 years he has made his players go to class, challenged them to be better than they believed, taught them that life is best lived by the doers. Every year he has a Penn State groundskeeper paint a blue line on the practice field. And he tells the players, "When you cross that blue line, you are mine. Problems with your girlfriends, classes, family, friends—all of that is gone. Across the blue line, it's all football."
Lots of football coaches might say that. But Joe Paterno adds this: "And what you need to do in your life is paint blue lines everywhere. Paint a blue line around your classes, so when you go in there, you are not thinking about football. Paint a blue line around your relationships, so you are giving your all to the person you are with."
"He's not Phil Jackson," Jay says, "and so he would never say, 'Live in the moment.' But that's exactly what he means."
Joe Paterno doesn't reflect much. Oh, every so often these days (a concession to age) he might take a moment to talk about certain people and how much they mean to him. He often calls Taliaferro, and he sounds like a proud father when he tells you that Adam passed the bar exam and is a Philadelphia lawyer now. "I wouldn't have made it here without Coach Paterno," Adam says plainly. "He did so much for me. And he still says to me, 'Is there anything I can do for you?'"
Paterno cried when presenting the Distinguished Alumnus award to star quarterback turned broadcaster Todd Blackledge in June. ("If any of you wonder why I still coach," he said, "it's to be around young men like Todd.") He cried when thanking his seniors last year for sticking with him when the program seemed to be falling. ("He puts loyalty above almost anything," Jay says.) "A man my age," Joe says, "will get emotional from time to time."
But it isn't all wine and roses. No, Joe is still Joe. He still challenges. Still demands. He used to vote in the USA Today coaches' Top 25 poll, but five years ago, when there were three undefeated teams at the end of the regular season, he could not choose between them and sent in a three-way tie for No. 1. He still remembers, with considerable bitterness, his four undefeated teams that were passed over for national championships. (In 1973, after it happened for the third time, he sprang for national championship rings for the whole team.) So when the coaches' poll vote counters tried to get him to pick one No. 1 team, he refused. "They were all undefeated," he said. "They were all Number 1." He says they took his vote away shortly afterward. ("And good for them," Joe says. "I don't want it.")
Yes, the Nittany Lion still roars now and again. Don't worry about that, Angelo. He still acts the boss. Before the season he was talking with one of his best players, and the player said, "You know what your problem is? You don't relate to us."
"Is that right?" Joe answered. "That's not a problem. But you've got a problem. You don't relate to me. And that's a big problem."
"He got what I meant," Joe said. No, Joe has not gone soft yet. People will talk about the wins record, Angelo, and make no mistake, Joe Paterno in little State College, Pa., wants to win every single game. But, even now, he hears your voice over the cheers: Are you making an impact? He is still trying.
"If all my life has been about is winning football games," Joe says, "then my father is rolling around in his grave."
Joe Paterno left his office and found a young man in the football lobby, sitting in a chair, reading a book.
"You waiting to see me?" Joe asked.
"Yes, sir," the young man said.
"Well, it won't do any good," Joe said, "but come on."
The young man hopped up and started to walk toward Joe's office. Joe stopped and turned back.
"This young man is a walk-on," Joe said to a visitor. "He's a good athlete."
"Yes, sir," the young man said.
"He's a good student," Joe said.
"But he doesn't always behave like he should."
"Yes, sir," the young man said quietly. He looked crestfallen. He slowly shuffled into the office with Joe walking a step behind him. Then Joe turned back, smiled and winked. And he closed the door slowly behind them.
Now on SI.com
See where Penn State lands in Andy Staples's Power Rankings at SI.com/bonus