In Praise Of Joe Paterno
I am like so many of the more than 450,000 folks affected by Joe Vincent Paterno -- thousands of whom work in our industry and who attended Penn State over the past 61 years. It is probably hard for those who didn’t go to Penn State or who didn’t live nearby to fully understand the impact that a football coach could have on so many. But I can tell you that Paterno’s effect on our lives was extraordinary.
Penn State was a very big part of the first 20+ years of my life. Not only did I spend four years in State College in the early 1980s, but my sister, brother, my father, my aunt and my grandmother all graduated from Penn State as well. Plus, I grew up an hour away from the campus, attended my first football game in Beaver Stadium in 1968 when I was five years old, and watched Paterno’s weekly TV talk show every Wednesday night during the football season.
What made Paterno special to most of us was not really what he and his players accomplished on the football field. Certainly, they won a lot of games. Paterno won more games than any other coach in the history of major college football. He won two national championships and had a number of undefeated seasons.
And certainly Paterno’s teams played and acted on the field in a manner different from most other college football players. They wore plain uniforms without names on them. They didn’t celebrate touchdowns or taunt opponents; those who did quickly found themselves in his famous “doghouse” and were benched.
What made Paterno so special was what he and his teams did off the field. Penn State was one of only two large schools never to have been guilty of a major NCAA violation. The players went to class and graduated with degrees at rates that were at or near top of the nation every year since those records have been kept. Players grew up to become important business and civic leaders, great husbands and parents, great teachers in their own right.
Paterno made headlines for turning down millions of dollars to leave State College and coach in the NFL for teams like the Steelers, the Patriots and the Giants. Instead, he and his wife, Sue, stayed in their ranch house on the edge of campus, kept their home phone number listed for any and all to call, donated millions of dollars to the university to expand its library, and led fundraising efforts for the university that sraised hundreds of millions more.
Three months ago Paterno was fired in the aftermath of former coach Jerry Sandusky being charged with serial sex abuse of minors, amid reports that Paterno himself did not follow up his reports of a possible related incident diligently enough to ensure that his superiors investigated it fully and informed police. As Paterno said in a statement soon thereafter, “This is a tragedy. It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”
Beyond this, what Paterno did or didn’t do is not yet known. To date, the only facts we have are a small portion of grand jury testimony transcript that paints a picture of horrific crimes that Sandusky is alleged to have committed -- crimes that are difficult for any of us, particularly parents, to grasp. While it is natural that we all want to strike out at anyone who might have been involved or might have helped stop this earlier, I believe that it is important first to let all of the facts come out and let due process be served, even if it frustrates our desire to strike back at the horror of the alleged crimes.
Today, on the day of Paterno’s funeral, I praise someone who taught me that you have to work hard every day, even when you think things are going really well, because “You either get better or you get worse. You never stay the same.” Or, that “You are never as good as you look when you win or as bad as you look when you lose.” I praise the person who routinely and randomly stopped students as he walked across campus to ask them about their professors and courses, grilled them on Greek history, or debated them on current events.
Before I went to Penn State, I assumed that a good portion of what we heard about Paterno’s maniacal focus on academics was probably as much fiction and image as fact. What I learned once I was there, and got to know a number of his players well, was that the truth was even better. His forced study halls were infamous. His players walked the talk. Surprisingly, I learned that few of them were personally close to him. He wasn’t a “buddy, buddy” coach. He was a teacher. He was demanding. He held them to higher standards than students at large, which is why his players graduated at rates higher than the rest of the university.
Some saw him as tyrannical. Many players found themselves held to standards much tougher than what they had grown up with. His battles with those who chafed and didn’t want to toe his line are famous. However, I suspect that he may have found special satisfaction these past few months from the fact that that some of the former players who defended him most publicly -- former NFL stars like Franco Harris, Matt Millen and LaVar Arrington -- were notable for their clashes with him when they were undergraduates.
Some have described Paterno’s life as a great Greek tragedy, not unlike those he loved to read. I don’t agree. Joe Paterno is a great American success story. He stood for what was right and great. No one is perfect. He wasn’t. We aren’t perfect, but every day we get up and try. He did this day-in-and-day-out on an amazing public stage for 61 years -- longer and more successfully than anyone before him. For this, he deserves our praise. This is also why I believe that time and the truth will be very good to him.
Thank you Joe Paterno.