Those who never met the man wonder why so many of us defend him passionately. After all, they say, he was just a football coach.
Last week, we asked if any PS4RS members had personal recollections they could share? Overnight, there were nearly a hundred stories posted. Some were funny, many touching, more than a few brought tears. But almost none talked about Joe the football coach. No one mentioned his 409 victories or his six undefeated teams or his two national championships. That’s the Joe ESPN and the sports talk shows know — the one they say put his football program before everything else.
This is one of the many remembrances. It’s by Art Greenwald and it speaks volumes.
My far and above favorite, unforgettable JoePa story while a journalism student at Penn State in 1975: One of my class assignments was to write a feature on the scrubs, aka backup players on the football team, the Rudy’s of the world if you will. These guys sacrifice their bodies and souls for four years for the good of the team and the majority of them never get to play, less suit up for a game, get no public recognition and hardly ever get to travel to away games. And yet these unsung heroes are integral parts to a team’s success.
Deadline was drawing near and I needed some more info and actual quotes from the Coach himself. Picked up the SC phone book the evening before the story was due and called JoePa at home. (Can you believe he had his name, address and phone # listed?). It was a bold move indeed, that was passionately advised against by most of my dorm-mates at Porter Hall, mainly players and roommates Matty Bahr and Brad Benson who had more than once experienced the wrath, the prickly side of Joe. I took the risk and called anyway.
Joe answered and, without listening to the reason for my call, cut me off at the pass, literally laid me out as I’d been sufficiently warned, ripped me a new one, as he had just sat down for one of Sue’s legendary pasta dinners and who the hell did I think I was calling him at this (expletive deleted) hour? I listened respectably (while shaking uncontrollably and nearly wetting my pants), never once interrupting him, answering “yes sir, no sir, sorry sir” and regretting the call. After all, this man was a God to me and I had completely blown it.
Eventually, he calmed down and asked me what I needed. He may have been testing me to see how much I was willing to endure to get what I needed. Gave me 30 rock-solid minutes, though never imposed a time limit or tried to control the interview. Deep down, Coach respected the press and understood the job as a difficult, unglamorous one, though he didn’t always relish my intrusions and directness later as Collegian writer and sports director of the campus radio station. He often lost patience with the line of questioning and could explode anytime and give you an earful. And you took it, because he was Joe and he was challenging you to be better in his own way, to be professional.
He answered all my inquiries and became a complete gentleman, as kind, charming and accommodating as could be. To my surprise, he apologized for screaming at me, the tender Joe obvious in his tone, asked me about myself and my family and where I was from and why I came to Penn State and I answered without hesitation, “because of you, Coach, because of you.” He never responded, ever the modest and humble Joe, but I’m sure that made him smile.
He urged me to call anytime (except at dinner time, of course) or stop by his office if I needed anything at all. I apologized for interrupting his dinner and he wished me all the best and luck in my journalism career. He asked me for a copy of the story I was writing for my class after I got it graded and returned. I hand-delivered to him a copy of UNSUNG HEROES a week later.
The next day I returned to my dorm room after classes to a short and simple note slipped under my door written on Penn State stationary. “Good job, Art! Keep writing! All my best, Coach Paterno.”
Thank you, Art.
Do you have any stories you would like to share? Post them here. With all the misinformation out there, we can help keep the focus on the man himself. He wasn’t perfect and he certainly had, as Art said, a prickly side. But his love for Penn State and young people generally, extended far beyond the football field.