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Oct 26, 2009

He’s 82. Has the career-wins record. Isn’t it time to quit? Bite your tongue. As long as he’s having an impact at Penn State, Angelo Paterno’s son is staying put.

By Joe Posnanski of Sports Illustrated


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. Someone is asking Joe Paterno about the wins record.

Again.

 

“They want something bigger than themselves.”

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.

A museum piece, Angelo. That’s how some see him. People have been telling Joe to quit for 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 football stadium now seats 107,000-plus. And, yes, the football team went 40–11 from 2005 through 2008, and stands 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. “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.”

Jay Paterno—your grandson, Angelo, an assistant coach for Joe—has never forgotten walking home with his father one day after a football game. 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.”

“Let the power of the idea fight for itself."

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. 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.’”

Adam’s Fall

Lots of things can get Joe down, but nothing threatened his winning spirit like the career-ending spinal-cord injury of Adam Taliaferro, in the fifth game of his college career. Paterno is infamous for red-shirting freshmen, and Taliaferro was one of the few whom Paterno had ever allowed to play…Hear the rest of this section in FLYP’s short documentary video.

“I’m going to do what I believe.”

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 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. 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.

Joe says that kids have changed since your time, Angelo, 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.”

When he cries, when he fights

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 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.”

Coach Paterno

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.

“Yes, sir.”

“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.

This story originally appeared in Sports Illustrated on October 26, 2009.


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