This profile originally appeared in Athlon's 2007 Penn State Game Day booklet.
Where to begin? Paterno is synonymous with Penn State football in much the same way that Bear Bryant is linked forever to Alabama, John Wooden to UCLA and Vince Lombardi to the Green Bay Packers. He ranks second in all-time Division I-A coaching victories and is within reach of the leader, Florida State’s Bobby Bowden. He has enjoyed five unbeaten seasons and won two national championships. He’s coached 71 first-team All-Americans, seven College Hall of Famers and 30 first-round NFL draft picks. Three of his former players—Jack Ham, Mike Munchak and Franco Harris—are enshrined in Canton. He’s a Hall of Famer himself, having been inducted into the college hall in December 2006. People like to think the Nittany Lions don’t have an emblem, but the truth is they do. It’s Paterno. Just try to imagine this program without visions of JoePa’s wavy pompadour or rolled-up trouser legs creeping into your subconscious. Go ahead, try. Not so easy, is it?
The on-field highlights of Paterno’s career are so familiar they hardly bear repeating. There’s the breakthrough 1968 season, in which the Lions went 11–0 and emerged as something more than just another regional power; the marvelous 1969 encore in which they matched their previous record by going unbeaten and defeating Missouri, 10–3, in the Orange Bowl; the national championship seasons of 1982 and ’86; the unbeaten 1994 season in which the Lions fielded what some regard as the best offense in college football history yet finished second to Nebraska in both polls; and, of course, the magical 29–27 victory over Ohio State in 2001, which gave Paterno his 324th career win, one more than Bryant amassed with the Crimson Tide.
What makes Paterno’s career so interesting is that none of those triumphs ever seemed preordained. The very idea that this lawyer’s son would become a football coach was absurd on its face. And not just to friends and family, but to Paterno himself. He was planning on attending law school.
A surprise phone call from Engle changed Paterno’s life. But even after taking up coaching at Penn State—the only postgraduate employer he has ever known—his ascent to the top of the profession was fraught with road blocks and detours. In 1967, his second season, Penn State lost its opener to Navy, 23–22, on a freak play. Coming on the heels of a 5–5 debut season, the loss shook the faith of some early Paterno backers. All of a sudden, Rip’s boy wonder didn’t seem so smart. “I thought I was going to get fired,” Paterno recalled recently. “A kid by the name of John Sladki from Johnstown … they threw a pass on the last play of the game, he deflected it and the guy caught it and ran. I go to bed sometimes thinking about Sladki, poor guy.” School officials stuck by their young coach. He justified their faith by guiding Penn State to victories in 31 of its next 33 games.
But there were more difficulties to come. An Alabama goal-line stand in the Sugar Bowl cost top-ranked Penn State the 1978 national championship and gave rise to talk that Paterno couldn’t win the big one. It remains the most haunting loss of the Paterno era. And while Paterno did finally get even with the Bear—more than even, actually—his triumph had a bittersweet aftertaste. Even as he was eclipsing Bryant’s career victories record in October 2001, the Lions were in the midst of their second consecutive losing season. From 2000 to 2004, Penn State would suffer four losing seasons. It was the school’s longest period of sustained mediocrity since the 1930s.
Still, Paterno avoided some other trap doors. He resisted the urge to leave for the NFL, spurning an offer from the Patriots in the early 1970s. He didn’t venture into politics as some other legendary sports figures have done, nor did he fall victim to health problems typically associated with high-pressure jobs. Even after suffering a broken leg last November when a player ran into him on the sideline at Wisconsin, he tried to talk his doctor into letting him coach the team’s next game a week later against Temple. The doctor refused, but the incident said volumes about Paterno’s determination. Said defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, “He’s a wily old rascal. He’s not going anywhere.”
Paterno’s only real indulgence—if that’s what it is—is his desire to keep on working. With the losing seasons a not-so-distant memory, some would like to see him step away. Forty-one years, they say, should be enough for anyone.
But that wily old rascal has built up an enormous reservoir of goodwill in his tenure as head coach. He may not be the saintly figure the national media makes him out to be. He may be cranky and stubborn, and he may scapegoat officials from time to time in a way that some find unseemly. But he graduates his players, he gives back to the university (more than $4 million in philanthropic contributions as of this writing) and he lends the football program an iconic dimension it might otherwise lack.
Oh, and he still wins games in bunches from time to time. In 2005, the Nittany Lions went 11–1 and defeated Florida State, 26–23, in a triple-overtime Orange Bowl marathon. After the game, senior quarterback Michael Robinson took a seat in the interview room and addressed Paterno’s critics. He was speaking specifically about the recent attacks on the coach’s fitness for command, but he could just as well have been addressing an earlier generation of skeptics, one that thought Paterno was too stogy or archaic or conservative to succeed.
“To think that people actually wanted him to give this game up, to call it quits, when we knew what type of team we could have, I mean, I’m at a loss for words,” Robinson said. “What could these people have been thinking?”
“I don’t think our uniforms look that bad. I think they say something to kids about team-oriented play and an austere approach to life.” —Paterno on Penn State’s conservative look—dark jerseys without player names, plain white helmets, black shoes.
“I consider myself, and I know my teammates and Penn State players past and present feel likewise, a better person for having played for Joe Paterno.” —Former quarterback and current television analyst Todd Blackledge
“One of the greatest things Coach Paterno has said, when asked about his greatest team, is ‘I don’t know. I’ll tell you in 20 years.’ He really believes his greatest team isn’t which one had the fewest losses. His greatest team is what becomes of the men he coached. That’s a rarity in collegiate and professional sports, but that just epitomizes the class and values of Coach Paterno.” —Steve Wisniewski, guard, 1985-88
“I think everyone on the team not only wanted to win the Big Ten but to show the nation that the program was back and that Coach Paterno still had it, that he’s able to do things the right way with the right guys and not bend or break any rules. To get back in the spotlight, I think all of the players just wanted that for Coach.” —Linebacker Paul Posluszny, on the 2005 season