Legendary coach Joe Paterno (Joe Pa) died this weekend. Much will be written about him and his years as head football coach at Penn State, and I hesitate to add my few comments. However, I did my graduate studies at Penn State, and I have fond memories of this man. I attended many home football games at Penn State, both while I was a student there and afterwards with season tickets. I was fortunate enough to have met coach Paterno a number of times, and to have been at the Sugar Bowl to watch him coach his team to their first national championship.
Joe Pa was respected and admired by everyone. He was truly an unusual man. What other coach have you heard of who majored in English Literature while at college? Not just any college, but Brown University, where he played football both as a quarterback and as a defensive end. He led his college team against other teams that were coached by the great names in college football, including Bear Bryant and Woody Hayes. But he was different, both off and on the field: he insisted that his athletes take their academic studies seriously. Year after year, his teams had some of the highest graduation rates in all of college football.
When you watched a Penn State football game you always saw the coach pacing the sidelines, wearing a blue jacket and a blue Penn State tie. You saw his players wearing the uniforms which he insisted on: the bland, “generic” all-white or blue and white. You also saw they were very different from most other colleges’ uniforms. He never allowed his players to wear their names on the uniforms because he always felt that the team was more important than any individual player, no matter how talented.
You saw what many criticized as dull, predictable football. Joe Pa firmly believed in having a strong defense, and an offence which controlled possession of the ball. This usually meant a steady ground attack, with very few of the exciting passes that characterized other football teams. You could almost predict what the next play would be. It often was something like “Suhey up the middle” (Matt Suhey was a Running Back at Penn State from 1976 – 1979).
When his team was winning, he didn’t believe in humiliating the opposing team. Often he’d pull the first string team out of the game in the 3rd quarter so the younger players could play and get some valuable experience. The only time I recollect him pouring on the points was when John Capaletti was his quarterback. John’s younger brother, Joey, was dying of leukemia, and looked forward to watching his older brother lead the team to victory. It was when Joey asked if John could have 4 (or 5, or 6) touchdowns in the next game that Joe Pa let him do it (if you haven’t seen the made-for-television movie “Something for Joey”, it’s well worth watching).
Like all Penn Staters, I was devastated by the news of the sex scandal involving Jerry Sandusky. I’m sorry that the school’s Board of Trustees fired Paterno so unceremoniously, and without due process. I’m sorry that Joe won’t be able to testify to his side of the story when the case finally goes to court. I have to believe that Joe Pa lived by the words of Penn State’s school song:
May no act of ours bring shame
To one heart that loves thy name.
May our lives but swell thy fame
Dear old State, dear old State.
The area around State College, Pennsylvania is known as Happy Valley. It’s miles and miles from the nearest big cities, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. When I was there, some people called State College “Dead Center, PA”. It’s a great little town, full of friendly people. The campus is safe and is right at the center of town. Joe Paterno was a big part of Happy Valley. He lived in a modest house; his home phone number was in the phone book; he turned down several offers to coach for professional football teams, preferring to spend his time with his wife, Sue, and his 5 children. Now after many years, he has left Happy Valley and has met St. Peter at the gates to the happiest valley. Joseph Vincent Paterno will be missed by us mere mortals.