Joe Paterno, who died on Sunday at the age of 85, was the greatest coach I’ve ever been around. He was a really good human being too, a man who loved his wife, his kids, his 17 grandchildren, more than anything in the world, including his job as head football coach at Penn State.
The first time I ever met Joe, back in my reporting days at The Daily Collegian (Penn State’s student newspaper), he called me into his office after we had published an article he found somewhat damaging to the school’s reputation.
“You know what I did with this newspaper after I read this story?” he asked me. I sat there wide-eyed as Paterno threw the offending piece of pulp on the floor and jumped on it.
“Aren’t you proud to be a Penn Stater?” he said. “Why would you want to publish an article like this?”
Strange thing is, the article was written about a great La Salle University basketball player named Kenny Durrett, a Pittsburgh native who said, “I didn’t go to Penn State because it’s a football school.”
The article wasn’t even about Paterno’s football program. To his credit, Joe always tried to defend the school’s beleaguered hoops program, even if his own team totally overshadowed every other sports endeavor at Penn State.
As bright as Paterno was, his question about loyalty to the alma mater struck at the core of the problem he had with the local media. He expected the local guys, especially Penn State alums, to write good stuff about his football team, and ignore the bad stuff.
Back in the 1970s, when I covered his team for nearly 10 years, there was a good give-and-take between Paterno and the scribes. This was before the coach became a legend. You could call Joe up at home to talk about the next game and he would gladly give you 10 minutes of his time. His number was listed in the phone book. Anybody in town could call Joe. Those were simpler times, indeed.
Sports Illustrated fawned over Joe in the early years, promoting his “Grand Experiment” philosophy that was a little unusual at big-time football schools. Paterno wanted his players to attend classes and graduate within four or five years.
It was an admirable idea. Joe didn’t invent the concept, but his friends in the New York media played it to the hilt, which angered many of Paterno’s peers. Coaches like Pitt’s Johnny Majors, Temple’s Wayne Hardin and especially the “Old School” Syracuse boss, Ben Schwartzwalder, took offense to the positive media spotlight shined on Paterno.
If you worked for the local media, you got occasional insights into Paterno that the national media rarely glimpsed on their infrequent visits to Penn State. Joe could be incredibly open at times … if he felt comfortable with the people around him.
One time, Paterno was holding court for two or three scribes after an August preseason practice inside Beaver Stadium had ended. As we were talking in the parking lot, a slick middle-aged man pulled his Corvette over, jumped out and started telling Joe how he was working on some recruiting in New Jersey.
The guy had no connection to Penn State football, other than his own loyalty as an alumnus who had made enough money to buy a fancy car. Joe shooed him away, then turned to us and said: “How can I control a guy like that? How do I know what he is talking to these kids about?”
The implied message was that the program was getting too big for one man to rule. Paterno needed good people around him to cover all the angles. In those days, the administrators above Joe had seniority over him, and knew the coach when he was a younger man, full of talk and ambition, itching to take over as head coach from the aging Rip Engle, who had brought Paterno with him from Brown University way back in 1950.
These older administrators still held control over their head football coach, at least until they retired and Paterno took over for a spell as Athletic Director. Suddenly, there were no checks and balances on Joe, nobody to warn him about the dangers inherent in running a corporation, which is what his football program had become by the late 1980s.
Rip Engle was still a gentle presence at Penn State in the early 1970s. Paterno had replaced Rip in 1966. The silver-haired Engle stayed around, eating lunch almost every day at the Corner Room restaurant down on College Avenue.
You could sit down next to Rip at the counter, order your food, and talk football with the genial old guy. Rip was enjoying his retirement, living life as a normal person, even as his memory faded.
Paterno never learned the lesson of how to retire from his old mentor. He took his cue from legendary Alabama coach Bear Bryant, who died one month after retiring back in 1983. Bryant was the only coach, Paterno said a decade earlier, that he held in awe.
“I don’t know what I would do if I retired,” Paterno told more than one interviewer after Bryant died. This man of so many varied interests had never learned how to get away from his football program. Joe’s idea of a vacation back in the 1970s was one week in June on the beach in New Jersey with his wife and young family. His job took him and Sue all over the country, to all the big cities. That was all the traveling he needed.
As he got older and more protective of his football program, Joe developed an “us against the world” philosophy. This would prove to be his downfall, leading to the blind spot that allowed him to look away when his top defensive coach, Jerry Sandusky, allegedly turned into a serial pedophile during the 1990s.
Paterno wasn’t the only watchdog who failed to sniff out Sandusky’s dark side. The State College police force, campus police, Centre County District Attorney and his staff, the local newspaper … all could have headed off this problem by doing their jobs. But in the end, when all the gruesome details came out, it was Paterno who took the biggest fall, fired from his cherished job in disgrace, over the phone, late in the evening on Nov. 9.
Many of his former players, most notably Franco Harris, have defended Paterno over the past two months. Those who criticize Harris do not appreciate the bond that exists between players and their coach. The bond is not unlike that of soldiers who go to war together. You develop a blind loyalty to your comrades that will never be broken.
My own brand of loyalty to Paterno goes back to the 1970s, when he was a young head football coach and me a young scribe, trying to learn something from everyone. I learned a lot from Joe, good and bad. I’m not blind to his foibles, just appreciative of having known the man.