Commentary

Joe Paterno's Penn State legacy

Originally Published: November 9, 2011
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

Joe Paterno devoted his entire career to a belief in the power of athletics, but only when coupled with the power of academics. His will and his enthusiasm provided a public face for the transformation of Pennsylvania State University from a regional agricultural school to one of the most important public universities in the nation.

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AP Photo/Pat LittlePaterno announced his decision to retire at the end of the 2011 season Wednesday.

Paterno was fired Wednesday evening, hours after he announced his intentions to retire at the end of the 2011 season, in the wake of allegations of child sexual abuse against former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky. The scandal has engulfed Paterno and his beloved school in controversy and shame and will leave an indelible stain on an otherwise exemplary record.

In 46 seasons at Penn State, Paterno has won 409 games, more than any other coach in the history of college football, and two national championships, in 1982 and 1986. Given that he coached five teams to undefeated, untied seasons, it's no wonder that he became an early proponent of a college football playoff. Paterno the philosopher appreciated the irony in finishing No. 1 with an 11-1 record in 1982 after not winning it all with spotless records in 1968, 1969, 1973 and 1994.

The rise of Penn State as an athletic and academic power would be the biggest change that occurred during Paterno's tenure at Penn State, which is saying a lot. Think of everything else that happened in college football from the time that Paterno arrived at Penn State as an assistant coach in 1950. The sport went from one platoon to two, from lily-white to integrated, from six bowl games to 35.

Through it all, there was JoePa, with his trademark thick glasses, rolled-up pants cuffs (to save on dry cleaning), gleaming white socks and that probing, needling, Brooklyn whine of a voice.

Paterno coached 78 first-team All-Americans, including winners of virtually every major individual award. At the two positions for which his Nittany Lions became most famous, running back John Cappelletti won the 1973 Heisman Trophy and linebackers LaVar Arrington and Paul Posluszny won the Butkus Award in 1999 and 2005, respectively.

Paterno produced more than 350 players who went on to play in the NFL, 33 of whom were selected in the first round of the draft. He also took pride in the 16 Penn State players named Scholar-Athletes by the National Football Foundation.

[+] EnlargeJoe Paterno
AP Photo/Gene PuskarJoe Paterno has coached thousands of players during his six-decade tenure at Penn State.

In fact, from the time Paterno became head coach in 1966, he demanded that academic success be as important to his players as their success on the football field. Many coaches of Paterno's era paid little more than lip service to education. They put football first because they understood that, no matter the language of their contracts, without winning games the grade-point averages of their players meant little.

Even Paterno, acknowledging the dreamy-eyed idealism inherent in his belief, called it the "Grand Experiment." He used that name in describing it to Bill Conlin of the Philadelphia Daily News in 1967. Paterno wanted his team to "play good football in the best league possible, with people who belong in college, and who kept things in perspective."

He believed that academics and athletics could be mixed without emitting toxic fumes.

Over the next four-plus decades, Paterno and his university -- and the two became interchangeable in the minds of the nation -- made the Grand Experiment a success. As late as 2007, the NCAA reported that Penn State football players graduated at a rate of 74 percent, 19 points above the national average.


When Paterno took over as head coach, fans and writers outside of the Northeast still confused Penn State with Penn, the Ivy League school in Philadelphia. The Nittany Lions played a regional schedule dominated by rivals Pittsburgh, Syracuse and West Virginia.

By 1989, the Big Ten Conference had invited Penn State to become the league's 11th member, in part a commentary on the prestige that Paterno had brought the athletic program. The invitation also verified the academic improvement that the university made. The Big Ten, which counts among its members prestigious public universities such as Michigan and Wisconsin, does not issue invitations to schools just because they win football games.

Paterno had a hand in the rise of Penn State's academic standing as well. Not only did he become a tireless fundraiser for Penn State, he put his wallet where his mouth was. The university named a new library for Joe and Sue Paterno in 2000. The couple also supported an interfaith spiritual center on campus, and endowed scholarships and faculty chairs as well.

His love of learning stemmed from childhood. Paterno never strayed far from the Jesuitical teachings he learned at Brooklyn Prep during World War II. He took nothing for granted, whether in a game plan or in the game itself. As the sport grew in popularity and grandiosity, he wondered aloud whether college football would spiral out of control.

"I've got very serious doubts whether big-time football is worth it," he told author Ken Denlinger in his 1994 book, "For the Glory." "It was a lot better when we didn't have weight rooms, and the other stuff, when the Mike Reids would walk away when the season was over and you might not see 'em for weeks. Now we've got winter workouts, and you've got to do it to compete."

Reid, a defensive tackle who won the 1969 Outland Trophy, became a successful musical producer and songwriter in Nashville. It is hard to imagine that he would have blossomed that way had he played for any other coach.


Joseph Vincent Paterno came into the streets of his native Brooklyn on Dec. 21, 1926, and is the oldest of four children of Angelo and Florence Paterno.

His father, who attended night school to earn a law degree, instilled in Joe a love of education. Angelo Paterno took an extra job to pay the tuition for Joe and his younger brother George to be taught by the Jesuits at Brooklyn Prep.

From Florence Paterno came the drive to succeed that pushed Joe all his life.

[+] EnlargeJoe Paterno
AP Photo/Paul VathisJoe Paterno posed in 1966 with his 1-year-old daughter Mary Kathryn on his lap and his wife Suzanne, with 2-year-old daughter Diana Lynne, at their home in University Park, Pa.

"If she couldn't be at the head of the pack, she wouldn't go," Paterno wrote of his mother in his 1989 autobiography, "Paterno: By the Book," with Bernard Asbell. "So, as the first son, in anything I did I had to be at the top."

There is something else at work in that desire. Paterno is the classic American of the 20th century, an outsider who outworks the insiders, a have-not who broke through the societal limitations imposed by the haves, men who planted their family trees in American soil only a generation or two earlier.

Paterno, as a freshman football player at Brown University, got invited to a fraternity party. The Italian-American, not dressed in the blazer or tweed that frat boys wore, heard someone say, "How did that dago get invited?"

"I was always determined to prove to those kids in class that I was smarter than a lot of them," Paterno wrote.

Paterno made his name on the football field. As a senior quarterback at Brown, Paterno led the Bears to an 8-1 record. As a two-player, he also intercepted six passes on defense. His career total of 14 picks set a record at the school that he shares to this day.

That Paterno even set foot on the Brown campus amounted to something of an upset. The parish priests in Brooklyn admonished parents who didn't send their children to Catholic universities. But Paterno had been offered a scholarship to Brown and had been impressed by the head coach, Charles "Rip" Engle. Their relationship would change not only the lives of the two men but the course of the sport.

In the spring of 1950, Penn State hired Engle away from Brown. He intercepted his quarterback, en route to Boston University Law School, and brought Paterno with him as an assistant coach.

Penn State, by Paterno's own description, was a "cow college." He was a city boy. It took him a few years to fall in love with State College.

As a young assistant coach at Penn State, Paterno attended a coaching clinic in St. Louis, where he shared an elevator with Bud Wilkinson of Oklahoma, Frank Leahy of Notre Dame, and Wally Butts of Georgia. The thrill stayed with Paterno late in life. Those three coaching legends, destined for the College Football Hall of Fame, combined to win 392 games. Paterno, who joined them in the Hall in 2006, passed that total in 2009, when his Nittany Lions went 11-2.

Paterno rose to become Engle's top assistant but not without stepping on toes on his way up. He challenged every coach's assumptions, questioning decisions made by his fellow assistants and by Engle himself. In the 1998 biography "No Ordinary Joe," author Michael O'Brien wrote, "He had an opinion on everything -- politics, football, religion, Shakespeare, music. … 'He was a brazen young man,' said fellow assistant Frank Patrick, whom Joe initially offended. 'He knew it all.'"

What came off as arrogance stemmed in part from immaturity but also from his impatience to succeed. Paterno never lost the humility and respect for others drilled into children of the pre-war era. He came from the Chip Hilton era of athletics. Bragging and preening might be the most recognizable traits of athletes of the modern day, traits for which Paterno had no use. The Depression baby who became a millionaire bought his suits at an outlet store. He lived in a small house near campus for almost his entire career at Penn State.

That humility extended to his players' uniforms: simple dark blue jerseys with white pants and white helmets. They became a trademark of Penn State, so much so that when the university agreed to put the Nike swoosh on the jersey front in 1995, it set off a debate that lasted for weeks.

It all spoke to Paterno's single-minded focus. As a young coach, he spent little time on anything or anyone that wouldn't help him win a football game. Not until 1961, at the age of 34, did his coaching head get turned by a woman.

Suzanne Pohland of Latrobe, Pa., dated one of Paterno's players. Paterno asked her to keep an eye on the player's academics. The player transferred; the relationship between Joe and Sue blossomed. They married on May 12, 1962. On their way to a five-day honeymoon in Virginia Beach, Joe stopped off to see a recruit. Sue waited in the car.

Joe and Sue Paterno would have five children -- Diana, Mary Kathryn, David, Jay (an assistant on his father's staff since 1995) and Scott -- and 17 grandchildren.

After the 1964 season, Yale tried to hire Paterno away as head coach. Paterno decided to remain at Penn State, and the university rewarded him a year later when Engle retired. Paterno accepted the job with a handshake agreement for a $20,000 salary.

The Nittany Lions went 5-5 in 1966, and Paterno responded not only by designing a new defense, but by shifting his best talent to that side of the ball. In the third game of the 1967 season, Penn State almost upset No. 3 UCLA, losing 17-15. The Nittany Lions fell to 1-2. However, they didn't lose another game until 1970.

Penn State won the last seven games of the 1967 season, tied Florida State, 17-17, in the Gator Bowl, and went 11-0 in each of the next two seasons. In 1968, Penn State finished second to undefeated, untied Ohio State. In 1969, the Nittany Lions finished the regular season ranked third behind No. 1 Texas and No. 2 Arkansas, who played on Dec. 6. President Richard Nixon not only attended the game, but after the Longhorns won, 15-14, with a dramatic late-game touchdown, he declared them national champion.

[+] EnlargeJoe Paterno, George Bush
Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty ImagesPaterno was a favorite of Republican politicians like George W. Bush.

In his career at Penn State, Paterno, a Republican, befriended almost every Republican president. He gave a nominating speech for George H.W. Bush at the 1988 Republican Convention at the Louisiana Superdome, the same building where Penn State had won Paterno's first national championship six seasons earlier. The Penn State media guide included photos of Paterno with Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

But after the 1969 season Paterno had little regard for Nixon. Paterno's most famous line regarding a president came in his commencement address at Penn State in 1973, as the public had begun to realize that the Watergate scandal had reached the Oval Office.

"How could Nixon know so little about Watergate and so much about football?" Paterno asked. A year later, Nixon resigned from the presidency.

In 1973, the Nittany Lions went 12-0 but finished only fifth in the nation. Disgusted with the polls, Paterno declared that "the Paterno Poll" had named Penn State No. 1 and had national championship rings made for his players.

Paterno seriously considered leaving Penn State only once. In January 1973, after seven seasons at Penn State, Paterno agreed to become coach, general manager and part owner (5 percent) of the Boston Patriots. Not just the name of the Patriots has changed; so have the economics. The four-year contract included $1.4 million in salary and benefits.

For a guy raising five children on a salary of $35,000, how could Paterno say no?

After a sleepless night, that's how. At 5:30 a.m. on the day that he would fly to Boston to make it official, Paterno said to his wife, "You went to bed with a millionaire but you woke up with me. I'm not going."

Finally, in 1978, Paterno's team got the chance to play for the national championship. Penn State, ranked No. 1 in the nation with an 11-0 record, met No. 2 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. The Crimson Tide, 10-1, led 14-7 before the Nittany Lions recovered a fumbled punt at the Alabama 19 late in the game.

Penn State moved to the Alabama 1 with two downs to score. Paterno called for a burst into the line. As the officials unpiled the players and marked the ball short of the goal line, Alabama defensive end Marty Lyons, standing next to Penn State quarterback Chuck Fusina, said, "You'd better pass."

Paterno sent fullback Mike Guman into the middle of the line again. Guman leapt, and Alabama linebacker Barry Krauss met him in midair. The collision popped the rivets on Krauss' helmet but Guman did not cross the goal line. Penn State fell short of the national championship again.

Paterno wrote in his autobiography that his instinct had been to pass but he didn't trust it.

"I beat up on myself not only immediately but for months afterward, halfway into the next season," Paterno said. "It hammered at my ego. When I stood toe to toe with Bear Bryant, he outcoached me."

It would be no coincidence that the 1979 team, fifth in the preseason poll, finished 8-4 and tied for 20th.


Paterno, as a young head coach, spoke to the media with a frankness not heard from most coaches. He held cocktail parties the night before home games where he spoke freely on the condition that his comments be off the record. The media, happy for the access (and, in all likelihood, the cocktails) agreed.

In 1979, a writer at one Friday night gathering, perhaps unfamiliar with the ground rules, reported that Paterno said he would not leave college football because he didn't want "to turn over the game to the Switzers and the Sherrills." That would be Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer and the coach of Penn State's archrival at the time, Pittsburgh"s Jackie Sherrill.

Most readers interpreted the remark as Paterno calling them cheaters. Paterno denied that and said he meant their attitude that winning trumped all else.

Paterno apologized to Switzer, and in 1990 wrote the foreword to Switzer's best-selling autobiography, "Bootlegger's Boy." He didn't apologize to Sherrill, for whom he had little respect.

After Sherrill retired from coaching in 2003, however, the two reconciled. Sherrill once came to State College as part of a radio team broadcasting a game. After the game, he went to Paterno's home, where the coach's extended family and friends would gather. As he and his wife sat in the basement, watching a football game, one of Jay Paterno's children climbed into Sherrill's lap.

When Joe heard, he laughed and said, "This I gotta see." He climbed down the stairs and peeked.

Sherrill would be one of the few "media" members who spent time with the older Paterno. In the last decade of his career, he rarely gave interviews beyond the regular news conferences.

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AP Photo/Bill FeigPaterno won his first national championship against Georgia in the 1983 Sugar Bowl.

By 1982, Paterno and Penn State rebounded, going 10-1, (the only loss, again, came at the hands of Bryant and Alabama. Paterno finished 0-4 in his career against the Bear). In the Sugar Bowl, Penn State upset No. 1, unbeaten Georgia, 27-23, and claimed Paterno's first national championship. Herschel Walker, the Bulldogs' Heisman-winning tailback, gained only 103 yards, his longest gain 12 yards.

In 1985, the Nittany Lions went undefeated again, only to lose the national championship in the Orange Bowl to Oklahoma, 25-10. The loss girded Penn State for the season to come, the season that would cement Paterno's place in the sport forever.

In the 100th season of football at Penn State, the Nittany Lions once again sailed through the regular season undefeated. They reached No. 2 in the rankings and agreed to play No. 1 Miami for the national championship. In an era when conferences sent their champions to specific bowls, No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchups rarely happened in bowls. However, since neither Penn State nor Miami belonged to a conference, they accepted invitations to the Fiesta Bowl.

Miami was everything that Penn State was not. The Hurricanes wore their egos on their sleeves. They beat teams with their speed and quickness, and they bragged about it, on the field and off. Miami featured quarterback Vinny Testaverde, the Heisman winner, and two All-Americans on defense, safety Bennie Blades and tackle Jerome Brown.

NBC moved the telecast to Jan. 2 to capitalize on the national interest. In the days leading up to the game, Sports Illustrated named Paterno its Sportsman of the Year. The game embodied the good vs. evil of the Saturday serials that were a staple of the movies in Paterno's youth.

The Miami players arrived at the Phoenix airport wearing military fatigues. A few days before the game, the Hurricanes walked out of a steak fry held for both teams. At the coin toss, the Miami captains declined to shake hands with the Penn State captains. After all the histrionics, though, the game still had to be played.

Penn State focused on making Testaverde and his receivers beat them. Sandusky, a senior on Paterno's first Nittany Lions team in 1966, mixed up coverages and made sure the Nittany Lions hit the Hurricanes' receivers hard. Testaverde threw 50 passes that night. His receivers dropped seven of them. Penn State defenders intercepted five, the last, on a fourth-and-8 from the Penn State 13 with 18 seconds to play. Penn State won, 14-10, and Paterno had won his second national championship.


Paterno turned 60 a few days before the Nittany Lions won that second national championship. In the late 1980s, he began to face talk of his age and his imminent retirement on the recruiting trail. He faced it for the next quarter-century.

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AP Photo/Jim GerberichMiami had swagger, but it was no match for Paterno's Nittany Lions.

That championship, which came at the midway point of his long career, became a milepost of sorts. From 1966-86, Paterno had a record of 199-44-2 (.816). Since 1987, the next 25 seasons, Paterno went 210-92-1 (.695). The discrepancy reflected the Nittany Lions' entry into the Big Ten in 1993. In 19 years in the league, Penn State has won three championships and is contending for a fourth. The Nittany Lions have had two losing seasons, and have spent most of remaining time in the middle of the pack.

The first Big Ten championship, 1994, came in a season in which Penn State went 12-0 and again failed to finish No. 1. The Nittany Lions fell short in the final poll to Nebraska.

"We should have two or three more national championships," Paterno said in 2004. "In '68, it was debatable. In '69 and '94, we should have been at least co-champions. In '94, we were as good as anybody."

In 1999, Sandusky, an assistant to Paterno for more than three decades and once considered his heir apparent, retired to work full-time for The Second Mile, a foundation he began to help at-risk children. The university granted him tenure, and Sandusky retained use of the football facilities on campus.

From 2000-04, Paterno enjoyed only one winning season. He admitted that he had done a poor job of delegating responsibility.

"One of the problems that you get," Paterno said in 2004, "is that the longer you're in it, the more friends and kids, and people who count on you [ask for help], and your time away from coaching gets more and more significant. People have funerals, players have kids who need a hand, the whole band of people you're involved with stretches. Every year it stretches a little bit more. That's when you start to get swamped. … You keep thinking, 'It won't hurt here, it won't hurt there.' You wake up one morning and you have a crappy organization."

In 2005, Penn State came within one play of reaching the national championship game. A last-play loss to Michigan spoiled an otherwise spotless regular season, and the Nittany Lions had to settle for playing Florida State in the Orange Bowl. The game matched Paterno with his good friend, Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden. At kickoff, they ranked 1-2 all time in victories among major college football coaches. Bowden had 359 victories and Paterno had 353.

Penn State won the game, 26-23, in triple overtime, capping a 11-1 season that hushed those who believed that the game had passed Paterno by. In May 2004, shortly after he signed a five-year contract, Paterno was asked what he told recruits about his future. He said that he allowed for the possibility that he might get sick.

"I also just happen to mention," Paterno said, "that all these years when everybody was telling kids they're not going to Penn State because Paterno won't be there, about 700 of those guys [coaches] are gone. I just happen to mention that."

To date, the number of Division I-A coaches who had been fired since Penn State hired Paterno in 1966 has neared 900.

Paterno led the Nittany Lions to another Big Ten championship and a berth in the Rose Bowl in 2008, where Penn State fell to USC, 38-24. Paterno has a record of 24-11-1 (.681) in bowl games.

Over the next three seasons Paterno closed the margin between him and Bowden and then surpassed him. He endured despite a deteriorating hip that required replacement the day after the 2008 regular season ended. He kept going despite twice getting knocked down on the sideline, most recently in this preseason. But he dismissed the notion that chasing Bowden for the record compelled him to keep coaching.

"I don't care about the record," Paterno said in the spring of 2008. "I really don't. Honestly. You know when they bury you, you going to look up at your stone and say, 'Hey, I got a record?' You're dead. You're gone. I think there are other things that are more important. I think Bobby would say the same thing."

[+] EnlargeJerry Sandusky, Joe Paterno
AP Photo/Paul VathisOnce thought of as the heir-apparent to Paterno, the accusations against Jerry Sandusky ultimately ended Paterno's coaching career.

Paterno's wisdom struck home in the wake of the shocking revelation Saturday that Sandusky, his former right-hand man, has been charged with 40 crimes pertaining to felony child sexual abuse. The grand jury focused on one incident in 2002, in which a football graduate assistant walked in on Sandusky assaulting a young boy in the showers of the football building.

The graduate assistant, Mike McQueary, told Paterno what he had seen. What exactly McQueary told Paterno is subject to the memory of an elderly man. Paterno insisted to the grand jury that he was told only of "inappropriate behavior" and passed the case to the campus officials who should deal with it.

The grand jury and state attorney general Linda Kelly both pronounced that Paterno fulfilled his legal responsibilities. There remains a gap between that duty and the larger one, to save children who are in harm's way.

Paterno recognized his failing in his statement of resignation.

"It is one of the great sorrows of my life," Paterno said Wednesday. "I wish I had done more."

How long the close of his career will overshadow the preceding 61 years is a question only time will answer. Paterno spoke correctly about one issue. His imprint on the game, on his players and on his university will last long after his victory total is surpassed. Records are made to be broken. Legacies are not so fragile.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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