Friday, September 08, 2006

JoePa | by Pat

It's been a long time since we've had an honest-to-goodness legend come to face ND. And while we joke around about his age, and giggle at his press conference bloopers, the fact is that Joe Paterno has been coaching in some manner or other at Penn State longer than Charlie has been alive. That kind of longevity is hard to fathom for ND fans, when even our greatest Irish coaches have lasted only about a decade or so. We did a little Q&A with Mike from the Penn State blog Black Shoes Diaries (check it out if you have a second) and in return, we had a simple essay question for him: As a Penn State fan, what does JoePa mean to you? Here's what Mike had to say.

Penn State University has played 1153 football games in its 120 year history. Joe Paterno has been an assistant coach or the head coach in 611 of them. That’s over half. Paterno owns 355 of the school’s 772 all time wins. Joe Paterno is the face of Penn State football and Penn State football is a reflection of Joe Paterno. Achieving longevity like that takes more than just winning games. It’s more than x’s and o’s. It’s about being part of the community. It’s about standing for principles and values that go beyond football. It’s about doing things the right way.

In the 1970’s Joe had a vision that has since come to be known as “The Grand Experiment.” Paterno believed it was possible to have a program that excelled in academics as much as it excelled in football. He insisted his players go to class and get good grades. He was determined to run a clean program that followed the rules and still enjoyed success on the field. In the 1998 Citrus Bowl Paterno benched his two biggest offensive weapons on the team. Curtis Enis sat out for accepting a suit from an agent, and Joe Jurevicius sat out for skipping classes. Penn State lost the game, but it didn’t matter. Winning in football comes second to winning in life at Penn State.

Paterno is deathly loyal to Penn State. He had opportunities to join the NFL in the 70’s and 80’s. He turned them down, saying Penn State was where he belonged. He and his wife Sue have given $3.5 million dollars of their own money to the University to fund various academic ventures. In the 1990’s he co-chaired a committee that raised more than $12 million for a new library. Today the main library on campus is known as the Paterno Library. Penn State is the only school to name the football stadium after a former university president and the library after the head football coach.

Joe laughs when people call him a legend. At Penn State, we laugh too. We don’t think of him as a legend. He’s just Joe. He lives just a few blocks off campus in a very modest home for someone who probably makes over a million dollars a year (the university will not release his salary). He doesn’t get around as well anymore, but he and Sue used to walk home from the games, waving to the fans and stopping to pose for pictures. He could often be seen walking around campus on his way to a meeting or practice. People would yell “Joe!” and he would wave and flash them a wink. He is always approachable. He is one of us. When he comes out of the tunnel for warm-ups on game day he circles in front of the student section and takes in a round of applause. He could keep looking straight ahead and pretend he doesn’t hear it, but he always waves and acknowledges the crowd. If it’s a big game he may start waving his hands in the air as if to say, “Is that all you got?” He’s like our grandfather. His words may be slurred and he stutters when he collects his thoughts, but you can tell his mind is still as sharp as a tack. He doesn’t have time to deal with silliness, but he still likes to mix it up.

A favorite story about Joe was last year when the wrestling coach was showing a potential recruit around the campus. He walked into Joe’s office to introduce the kid to the legendary football coach. Joe shook his hand and then dropped to his knees and tried to tackle the kid with a double-leg takedown. The kid quickly sidestepped the 79 year old man and put a reverse move on him and had Paterno pinned face down with his arm pinned behind his back in a matter of seconds. Paterno started yelling “Wait! Wait! I’m an old man!” That’s Joe. Just having fun doing what he does.

We love him because he’s tough. He tells you what’s on his mind and he isn’t going to hold anything back (other than football strategy for an upcoming game). This with his loyalty, his commitment, and his humble upbringing is what makes us love him so. In the list of great college coaches like Bear Bryant, Pop Warner, and Alonzo Stagg, Joe Paterno deserves to be right there with them. NCAA President Myles Brand called Penn State a “model institution”. He brings dignity and class to the school. I don’t mean to disrespect Bobby Bowden, but 20 years from now I don’t think you will hear anyone say they want to model their program after his. That is really all you need to know.

Joe still has two years left on his contract, and I’m sure he intends to honor it. I think he will continue to coach as long as he is physically capable. Bear Bryant was his hero when he was a young coach. The two of them were good friends which is why Penn State used to play Alabama so much in the 70’s and 80’s. When Bear retired it was only a few months later when he died. I think that personally affected Paterno and he’ll continue to coach until he just physically can’t anymore. There is no clear successor at this point, but Penn State is such a family program and there are so many assistant coaches that have been with the program for over 10 years that I suspect they will promote someone from within. Tom Bradley, the defensive coordinator, is the most likely choice. He’s been with the program for 28 years. I hope Joe stays on with the team in some capacity even after he is gone. Let him work for the Athletic Director or something. He still has amazing charisma and can make a big impression on recruits. Thanks for giving me the chance to answer such an open ended question.

Usually when we Penn State fans start talking about our coach, most people roll their eyes and walk away. So I appreciate the opportunity.

Thanks to Mike at BSD sharing his thoughts on the guy in the dark glasses and the black shoes with us. For a pretty detailed retrospective on JoePa and his legacy at Penn State, check out the Paterno bio on the official PSU site.