Our 1995 "Deep Roots in Happy Valley" profile of Jerry Sandusky and Joe Paterno
In light of the recent, disgusting events that have come out regarding Jerry Sandusky's alleged child sexual abuse while working as an assistant under Joe Paterno at Penn State, we feel that some of our archival content regarding Joe Paterno is worth revisiting now.
This article originally appeared in Athlon Sports 1995 Big Ten regional edition. Jerry Sandusky's quotes are in bold.
Deep Roots In Happy Valley
More than anything else, that explains why they come and, more to the point, why they stay.
They put down roots and those roots have a way of tunneling down as deep as the stately elms that ring the campus, Almost before they know it, time has done a silly thing to them: It has made a lifetime come and go. And the nice thing is, none of them ever seems to be gnawed by doubt or haunted by second-guess. None of them seems to harbor so much as a single regret about never leaving, about not sampling life beyond the leafy hills that wall of Happy Valley from the rest of the world.
The remarkable part about all of this, of course, is that they are gypsies by trade, members of an inherently nomadic profession. The lifters, the career coaches, they tend to change zip codes as casually as coats. But Penn State is a notable exception. In Happy Valley, they tend to stay put.
Since its first season of football, in 1887, the Nittany Lions have had only 14 head coaches, four of whom held that job for just one year. And only 74 assistant coaches in the university’s 108 seasons up to 1995. Many schools have gone through that many in barely a decade. But from “Anderson, Dick, 1973-83, 90-present” to “Yerger, H.C., 1918,” it takes barely half of one page to list every full-time assistant Penn State has ever had.
The most celebrated of them, of course, is Joseph Vincent Paterno himself. After his senior season at Brown in 1949, Paterno was awaiting graduation and anticipating his entrance into law school at Boston University. He had already been accepted there and fully intended to follow the career path taken by his father, who had set a worthy example by going to night school to earn his degree and them, in an admirable demonsration of persistence, passing the bar exam at the age of 44.
“I was all set,” Paterno recalls, “and then I got a surprising phone call from Rip Engle (who had been Paterno’s coach at Brown). He’d just been hired to be Penn State’s head coach, and he said his contract allowed him to bring one assistant.”
Paterno accepted, fully intending to leave after a year or two and resume the pursuit of that law degree. Forty-five years later, he is still in Happy Valley, and it is now impossible to distinguish where the man leaves off and the legend begins. Because he will start his 30th season as head coach this autumn, it is easy to forget that Joe Paterno was an assistant for 16 years. He seemed to set the tone of fidelity that has become so impressive.
There must be a reason for such an unremitting loyalty. Certainly, it is a pull more powerful than wealth and more seductive than ego. Because many of the assistant coaches at Penn State have had their chances to ramrod their own outfits.
Some of them try it, and then come back. Like Anderson. After 11 years on Paterno’s staff, he became the head coach at Rutgers in 1984, and lasted for six seasons. Relieved of that job, almost immediately he came back to Happy Valley and fell easily, naturally, back in step, as though he had left a 1950’s line dance, slipped out of the gym, and come back without losing the rhythm, the feel.
“In some ways,” says Anderson, coach of the quarterbacks and the passing game, “it was like I never left. There were some subtle changes in the offensive system, sure. All systems constantly evolve. They never stand still. But the guts were pretty much the same.”
Anderson’s tone suggests that you don’t mess with what works. The rest of it: the lifestyle, the Happy Days, Happy Valley insulation-that hadn’t changed. That never changes. Some people find that stunting and stultifying. Others find it charming and irresistible. Some of the assistants think about trying it out there on their own, being the boss man, but back away.
Like Jerry Sandusky. In 1988, Temple reached out to Penn State’s longtime defensive coordinator and offered him the head coaching job. Sandusky held it up t the light and examined it. And then politely handed it back.
“Who knows, I may set an NCAA record for staying on as an assistant coach at one school,” Sandusky says, laughing. Well, this will be his 28th season on Paterno’s staff. “Penn State’s my home. It’s more than just the place I make my living. It’s a place my family and I all love. They really don’t know any other place. Penn State spoils you. You get a perspective that doesn’t exist out there.” Some of the assistants accept a head-coaching job, only to have a change of mind-and of heart-literally overnight.
Like Fran Ganter, the offensive coordinator. He went to bed one night last December having decided to accept Michigan State’s offer to succeed George Perles. Like pepperoni pizza at midnight, it seemed to be a good idea at the time, but around 4:30 in the morning, emotional indigestion arrived.
“I thought, ‘What am I doing?’” Ganter says. “I realized then that I didn’t really want to leave.”
The money was infinitely better. The opportunity was there to make a program in his own image. And yet he stated. This will be Fran Ganter’s 25th year of coaching at Penn State.
They don’t all say, of course. Ron Dickerson is the head man at Temple now. Jim Caldwell took the Wake Forest job. Craig Cirbus, who was on Paterno’s staff for 11 seasons, left after the 12-0 season of 1994 to become the head coach at the University of Buffalo, which happens to be his alma mater.
So it’s not as though they’re locked up. It’s not as though Paterno doesn’t answer answer the inquiries, the feelers from other schools, and give them all ringing recommendations. It’s not as though they lack ambition or self-confidence, amd it’s not that they don’t think they can make it on their own or burn to do so. It’s just that, in the end, they can’t bear the thought of saying good-bye.
Corny as it may sound, they stay because no other place looks quite as appealing. They are hapy where they are and unashamed to say so. Besides, how bad is it being part of a program that wins 8- percent of its games, that frequently has a perfect season, that has won two national championships and will challenge for more, that comes to think of a bowl game as routine? Maybe it’s better to be an assistant at a successful school than the overseer of a losing program.
Certainly, there are more sophisticated communities than state college .but then part of the allure of Happy Valley is the absence of bright lights and of all the unsavory things they imply. No, State College exists, happily, in a time warp. It is its own Way Back Machine. It is trapped in an age of penny loafers and crew cuts and sha-boom, sha-boom. It is isolated and revels in its isolation.
“Its just a great place to raise a family,” says Jerry Sandusky. It is a subject he knows something about. He and his wife, Dorothy, have five adopted children. They also founded and run The Second Mile, a charitable organization that addresses the welfare of young people. It has expanded into eight separate non-profit programs, including foster homes and summer camps, and they in turn have touched more than 80,000 children.
Such a venture might not have been possible in a different environment, under different circumstances. The Sanduskys are so involved in what they began that to leave Happy Valley is virtually unthinkable. Some might say they are prisoners of their own making. And some might say they are an extraordinary couple that who would have succeeded wherever they lived. They happened to pick Happy Valley. Or was it, perhaps, the other way around?
“The uniqueness of Penn State football is the number of people who have stayed here and retired here,” says Sandusky. “I don’t know that you can explain the attraction. It’s a lot of small things. I guess you have to experience it.”
You can get a taste of it on Saturdays in the fall, on those tart apple-cider afternoons when 96,000 clog the pitifully few access roads, paralyzing the surrounding area in terminal gridlock. Beaver Stadium keeps expanding, the waves of “progress” keep lapping at the doorstep, but Happy Valley remains pretty much the same, pretty much immune.
Over the years, representatives from other football programs have made the pilgrimage to Happy Valley in an effort to entice Paterno away. He has turned them all down, and some of the opportunities were mightily tempting. Michigan, for one. The Wolverines wound up with Bo Schembechler instead, and went to nine rose Bowls. The Pittsburgh Steelers, for another, who settled for Chuck Noll and won four Super Bowls.
“I sure left he door open for some great careers, huh?” Paterno laughs. “The only job I wanted was at Yale, and John Pont got it.”
But the closest Paterno ever came to leaving was for a job in the pros, specifically with the Boston Patriots. “I had decided to accept,” he says, “but the next morning I woke up and told Sue (his wife), ‘You slept with a millionaire…for one night. I just can’t leave.’”
In his 1973 commencement address at Penn State, Paterno amplified on that decision thusly: “Money alone will not make you happy. Success without honor is an unseasoned dish. It will satisfy your hunger, but it won’t taste good.”
Paterno, who will be 69 in December, is quite likely to avoid retirement until he has completed half a century at Penn State.
Nor is the Paterno name apt to be severed from Penn State football when the patriarch does retire. To fill the vacancy created by Cirbus leaving this past winter, Joe Paterno named as his new recruiting coordinator and tight ends coach…Jay Paterno.