Paterno's impact spanned generations

January 24, 2012

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Joe Paterno, the Hall of Fame head coach who led the Penn State football program for 45 years, died Sunday, Jan. 22, at the age of 85, after a battle with lung cancer.

In Paterno's last game as head coach on Oct. 29, 2011, Penn State defeated Illinois, 10-7, to give the Hall of Fame coach 409 career wins, the most in Division I history.

"We are saddened by the loss of a monumental figure in the history of Penn State and the nation," said Penn State President Rodney Erickson. "Joe Paterno was a man of great ability, dedication and fierce determination who inspired generations of students, alumni and college football fans around the world."

The list of Paterno accomplishments is vast. His Hall-of-Fame head-coaching career began in 1966 and spanned nine presidential administrations and nearly 900 Division I coaching changes. He won more games (409) and bowl games than any other coach in Division I history. He brought Penn State five undefeated seasons, three Big Ten championships and two national championships. His teams finished 23 seasons in the top 10 and 35 in the top 25.

He coached 78 first-team All-Americans, 16 National Football Foundation National Scholar-Athletes, more than 300 future NFL players and eight College Football Hall of Famers.

With an Ivy League degree, a sharp wit and a willful determination to create a plan and see it through, the kid from Brooklyn could have followed innumerable paths.

Law school was in his future, and then who knows what. Simultaneously down-to-earth and intellectual, senator or governor could have been possible. When he decided to take his considerable abilities into coaching football, an NFL head coaching position eventually seemed inevitable.

But Joe Paterno made a life of defying expectations.

His career never was simply about wins, banners and trophies. An altar boy and Boy Scout as a child who served in the Army before attending Brown University, Paterno used his considerable on-field success to espouse a philosophy that college athletics and academics should go hand-in-hand.

He emphasized team over individual, famously declaring, "It's the name on the front of the jersey that matters most, not the one on the back." Throughout his career, his players were regularly among the best in graduation rates and academic success, and his players have never had their names emblazoned on their team uniforms.

The Grand Experiment, as it came to be known, was Paterno's idea to combine athletics and academics, to use each to the other's benefit and develop young players into men who valued their education. In the process, he helped build a university.

He wanted academic success not only for his players, but also for every student who came through Penn State. With his wife, Sue, a Penn State graduate and Latrobe, Pa. native whom he met in Pattee Library while an assistant coach, Paterno donated more than $4 million of his own money to the University for a broad range of endeavors. They have included support for library construction, acquisitions and faculty; multiple scholarship, fellowship and faculty position endowments; the interfaith Pasquerilla Spiritual Center; and the All-Sports Museum. In 2009, the Paternos donated $1 million to aid the expansion of Mount Nittany Medical Center in State College.

The Paternos also have been responsible for likely millions of dollars more in fundraising for the University, be it through leadership roles in each University capital campaign, other organized development efforts or simply the goodwill and image Paterno cultivated during his decades at Penn State. His mark was so distinct, even his signature glasses sold at auction in 2010 for $9,000 to benefit Penn State Public Broadcasting. In 2011, the necktie he wore during his 400th win was auctioned for $10,200.

"We have met some wonderful people here, we've known many students who have gone on to become outstanding leaders in their professions and in society, and all of our children have received a first-class education here," Paterno once said.

Unexpected path

Paterno grew up in Brooklyn's Flatbush section during the Great Depression. He has frequently spoken of how his parents valued education, his father having passed the bar at age 44 to become a clerk of the Supreme Court's First District.

"I quickly learned that through hard work and perseverance you can attain your goals in life," Paterno said at the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame Banquet in 2004.

With his parents' example, Paterno became a star in the classroom and in athletics. He was selected to honor societies and enjoyed opera. Sportswriter Rick Reilly, in his 1986 Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year profile of Paterno, wrote, "He was bred for more."

After serving in the Army in 1945, when he was stationed in Korea, Paterno took his athletic and academic prowess to Brown. A quarterback, defensive back and kick returner who also played two years of varsity basketball, he still holds the Bears' single-season interception record (14). In 2006 he was named No. 26 on the NCAA's list of the 100 most influential student-athletes.

Upon graduating, Paterno's coach at Brown, Charles "Rip" Engle asked him to join Engle as an assistant coach at Penn State, where Engle was taking over the football program in 1950. Paterno took the job with the intention of earning money for law school. He would stay on as an assistant coach for 16 years before becoming the head coach in 1966.

"For God's sake, what did you go to college for?" Paterno remembered his father asking when he told him he wanted to forgo a law career to be a football coach. He told his father, "I think I might be pretty good. I like it. I like the town. I like the people."

"Well … try to have an impact on that team instead of just teaching guys how to knock each other's brains out," Angelo Paterno advised.

Angelo didn't live to see what kind of impact his son would have. He passed away in 1955, 11 years before Paterno coached and won his first game as head man of the Nittany Lions (a 15-7 win over Maryland).

Raising the beast

Paterno's success would come quickly. Penn State finished undefeated and No. 2 in the nation in 1968 and '69, with another undefeated season in 1973, when he coached Penn State's lone Heisman Trophy winner, running back John Cappelletti. The 1969 team, meanwhile, may have been one of the best in college football history, but had no shot at the national title when President Richard Nixon declared that the winner of the Texas-Arkansas game in December would be the national champion.

In the '60s and '70s, Paterno transformed an already solid Nittany Lion program into the "Beast of the East." His success led to other job offers. Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney made Paterno an attractive offer to take over his NFL club. Paterno considered it, but stayed put.

"I can tell you Penn State would have been the loser in that situation," Rooney told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2004. "He is the perfect coach for college football. But that doesn't mean I don't think he could have done it in the pros, because I think he could have."

The Steelers hired Chuck Noll, who won four Super Bowls in six years. The University of Michigan also hired a legendary coach, Bo Schembechler, after Paterno rebuffed their offer.

Perhaps the closest Paterno came to leaving Happy Valley was in 1973 when the New England Patriots offered him a hefty salary and ownership in the club. He was going to take it, and told Sue the night before the announcement was to be made, "You're going to bed with a millionaire." The next morning, to Sue's delight, he decided Penn State meant too much. He couldn't leave.

On top of college football

Once more Paterno almost left Penn State, but not because of success. The 1978 Sugar Bowl pitted No.1 Penn State against No. 2 Alabama in one of the greatest defensive matchups in bowl history. Penn State failed to score from less than a yard out of the end zone in a 14-7 Alabama win. Paterno blamed only himself for the loss.

"I almost quit," Paterno later said. "I came back and said I was going to resign."

But he came back again, and following the 1982 season returned to the site of one of his greatest disappointments to register one of his greatest triumphs. His Lions defeated favored Georgia in the Sugar Bowl to claim Penn State's first national title.

In 1985, Penn State nearly nabbed a second national title, taking a No. 1 ranking into the Orange Bowl against Oklahoma, which emerged victorious. A year later, the Lions took the No. 2 ranking to the Fiesta Bowl against top-ranked and heavily favored Miami for what would go down as one of the most dramatic bowl games ever.

The pregame was a study in contrast, with Penn State embodying the Paterno attitude, arriving in suits and relishing the role of underdog. Miami players, meanwhile, played the brash renegades, the top dogs who would dominate the game, arriving in camouflage fatigues and walking out in the middle of a pregame steak-fry.

On the field, it would be Paterno and company's no-nonsense attitude and game plan that would win the day. Miami's Heisman-trophy winning quarterback Vinny Testaverde was baffled by the Shane Conlan-led Penn State defense and threw five interceptions, the last by Pete Giftopolous on the Penn State goal line to seal the win. Meanwhile, the no-frills Lion offense got just enough from star running back D.J. Dozier and quarterback John Shaffer to overcome a star-studded Miami defense and win Paterno's second national title.

Though that was Paterno's last official national title, Penn State remained a national power through the 1990s. The 1994 squad gave Paterno his first Big Ten title and Rose Bowl win, and his fourth consecutive decade with an undefeated team. That team boasted one of the best offenses in college football history to date, but despite a 12-0 record, finished No. 2 behind Nebraska. The New York Times would award Penn State its No. 1 ranking, and like he did in 1973, Paterno gave championship rings to his players.

Back on top

The early 2000s found Paterno's club adrift. Losing seasons in 2000, 2001, 2003 and 2004 led to heightened criticism of Paterno.

But as he saw his team coming together near the end of 2004, Paterno knew the Lions would rebound. He responded with a late-career comeback, winning two Big Ten championships and two BCS Bowl berths in four years. In 2005 and 2008, he earned more Coach of the Year honors, saw his players collect more All-American awards and kept his team second in the Big Ten and among the best in the nation in graduation rates and academic success. In both years, which sandwiched 9-4 seasons that concluded with bowl wins, the Lions were one play away from being undefeated. In 2009 he led his team to a 10-2 regular season record and a New Year’s Day 2010 date with LSU in the Capital One Bowl, the 21st time a Paterno squad finished a season with 10 or more wins. The 2010 campaign ended with a 7-6 record and a loss to Florida in the Outback Bowl.

In 2007 he was officially enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame. A year earlier, he and Florida State Coach Bobby Bowden, longtime friends and competitors, were announced as the first active coaches to be inducted.

The Paterno legacy

Paterno is quoted as saying, "They ask me what I want written about me when I'm gone. I hope they write I made Penn State a better place, not just that I was a good football coach."

The influence of Paterno, father of five and grandfather of 17, is far-reaching. Hundreds of former players credit Paterno for transforming them from boys to men. A former student sports reporter, Ryan Hockensmith, recalled to The Patriot-News of Harrisburg in 2004 a phone call he received from Paterno in the middle of Penn State's preparations for the Alamo Bowl in 1999. Hockensmith had a life-threatening battle with meningitis that fall, and in late December got a call from Paterno, who talked about the time his son, David, had been critically injured in a trampoline accident and the need for families to come together during difficult times.

"Now think about how many players Paterno has coached. And the players' relatives. And friends of Paterno's family," wrote Penn State beat writer Bob Flounders after recounting Hockensmith's story. "And you wonder: How many phone calls have there been like this one over the last 40 years?"

Former President George H.W. Bush, for whom Paterno seconded the Republican nomination for president in 1988, called Paterno "a great coach, a great man, a sports hero and an icon," in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2004.

Former President Gerald Ford said in the same article, "He transcends football. I tried very strongly to get him to run for Congress. But he was so dedicated to Penn State and young people, he turned me down. Joe could have done anything he wanted to in life because he's so dedicated."

Paterno, though, always said he only wanted to have a positive impact. When he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, he said he was flattered but, "I hope people understand that nobody gets there by themselves. I'm indebted to college football. I appreciate what college football has been able to do for me."

When he surpassed Grambling's Eddie Robinson as all-time Division I wins leader in 2011, he used the opportunity to praise Robinson and longtime Florida A&M Coach Jake Gaither as being among the greatest figures in college sports history for opening doors for African-American student-athletes.

For Paterno it was always about the impact he made on individuals and an institution. That always stood above what he could achieve on the football field.

"Have I had the impact that a guy like (legendary Alabama coach) Bear Bryant had? No," Paterno said in 2007. "Have I had the impact that a couple of other people have had? No. I don't think that at all. I think that I've had an impact. To what degree, I don't know. I've tried to make Penn State the best place I could make it."

  • Joe Paterno as a Penn State assistant coach in 1960. To view a brief photo retrospective of Paterno's career, click on the image above.

    IMAGE: Penn State
Last Updated October 17, 2019