Oct. 28, 2009
By SKIP MYSLENSKI, NUsports.com Special Contributor
It was January of 1973, a cynical time, that time of Richard Nixon and laundered money, of an endless war in Vietnam and a second-rate burglary in the nation's capital that all simply referred to as Watergate. Principles were being ignored, ideals were being undermined, disillusionment was being loosed on the country and, in the small Pennsylvania town of State College, Penn State football coach Joe Paterno was searching for an answer. He had just been offered the extravagant (in those days) sum of $1 million to coach the New England Patriots and now he had to accept it or choose to remain in the comfortable environs of Happy Valley.
He, of course, ultimately rebuffed that temptation, saying when announcing his decision: "I analyzed the situation here at Penn State and I realized that I've always hoped I could work in an atmosphere on a campus where the approach by the administration toward athletics was such that I could be a little more than just a football coach. That's what Penn State has allowed me to be. . . I have had an opportunity to work with young people and have an influence on their lives. I think that was an overriding factor in my decision."
That statement immediately transformed him into a folk hero, removed him from the status of mere football coach and reintroduced him as a paragon worthy of respect. He stood suddenly in stark contrast to the horrors then infecting the land and laudatory reactions soon showered down upon him. Normally cynical sports columnists applauded his character, editorial writers from as far away as Honolulu heralded his decision, the governor declared a Joe Paterno Day in Pennsylvania, the Phi Betta Kappa chapter at Penn State invited him to speak at its year-end banquet and the school's seniors selected him to give their commencement address.
That helps explain why The Scribbler, then laboring in Philadelphia, traveled to State College six months later and took a look at this man who was born in the middle of Calvin Coolidge's second term as president (1926). It was that year, too, that the Frankford Yellow Jackets won the pro football championship; that Chicago was awarded a pro hockey franchise and the Black Hawks played their first game; that the Walt Disney studios were formed; that the first trans-Atlantic telephone call was made; that Gene Tunney defeated Jack Dempsey to win the world heavyweight boxing title; that Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to swim the English Channel; that Winnie-the-Pooh was released; and that there was the first public demonstration of something called TV.
All of that, these many years later, are now mere benchmarks or the stuff of history books. But Paterno, in his 44th season as head coach, still carries on and, this Saturday, leads his Nittany Lions into Ryan Field. To honor that occasion, some notes, quotes and anecdotes from that visit The Scribbler made in the long ago of July, 1973.
Paterno, after much agony, actually did accept the Patriots' offer and even called then-team owner Billy Sullivan to arrange a meeting in New York so he could go over the contract one final time. But the night after making that decision he could not sleep and, at 6:30 the next morning, he called Sullivan and told him he was staying put.
Sue Paterno, his wife, awoke a few hours later and looked quizzically at her husband. "What are you doing here?" she asked him. "You were supposed to be on a plane at six."
"A lot of things have happened," Paterno said. "A lot of things have changed."
"What do you mean?"
"Well," Paterno said with a smile. "How did you like your one night with a millionaire?"
"All along I had felt it was one of those things offered a person so infrequently that, well, who was I to turn it down," Paterno told The Scribbler in explaining his decision. "I had that kind of approach. But then I went to bed and couldn't sleep. I kept thinking, 'What the devil am I doing?' It was the first time I had been by myself and had a chance to project myself into the future.
"As I projected myself, I thought I could do it, there wasn't any doubt in my mind that I could give it a good shot. But I just said to myself, 'There I am, I win the Super Bowl and what do I have?'"
SOME QUICK HISTORY
He was born in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn and raised in Flatbush, a tough, unyielding environment that itself provided an education. His father Angelo worked in the New York City courts. His mother Florence was the quintessential housewife. Their home, each Sunday afternoon, hosted a dinner that was attended by relatives and neighbors, that was filled with animated discussions and that often lasted until nightfall.
His mother had the pride. "If you came home and someone had called you a Wop, she used to say, 'Every knock's a boost,'" he would remember. His father had the perspective. "We'd go out and play ball. . .and we'd come home and he'd never say anything but 'Did you have fun?' It was never a question of 'Did you win?' or anything like that," he also remembered.
Both were devout Catholics and so, in 1941, he entered Brooklyn Prep, a Jesuit high school long ago closed. Bill Blatty, who later authored "The Exorcist," was one of his classmates and, there, he himself would develop into a 145-pound double wing fullback. As a senior his team's only loss was to St. Cecelia's of Englewood (NJ), which was coached by a guy named Vince Lombardi.
Sev Graham, the coach of his team, was a friend of Snuffy Stirnweiss, then the Yankees' shortstop, and so one afternoon he took Paterno to see New York play the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. "We sat there," Paterno would recall, "and he leaned over and said, 'Now watch, watch when the Yankees come out.' They came out, you know, all proud in their neat pinstripes. Then he said, 'Now look at their shoes.'
Everyone had their shoes shined. Then he said, 'Look at the Cardinals.' Sure enough, their shoes were all scuffed up. Finally Sev leaned over and said, 'Now that's class. The Yankees got class.' With him it was the little things. He was always pointing out uniforms (which explains, need we say, why Penn State's are unadulterated by stripes, symbols or shooting stars)."
Now Paterno moved to Brown, where he majored in English lit, played for the legendary Rip Engle and developed into a quarterback skilled enough that Stanley Woodward, one of the best newspapermen of the day, wrote of him: "He can't run and he can't pass. All he can do is think -- and win." He graduated in 1950 and his plan was to enter law school the next fall. But then Engle moved to Penn State and asked Paterno to join him as backfield coach. He did, thinking it would be good to spend a year broadening his horizons before moving onto more serious pursuits.
That was his thinking nearly 60 years ago.
On rejecting what was then a considerable sum of money: "I think there's a great tendency in our society now to want something because you're afraid of missing out. A lot of people go to parties not because they want to go, but because they're afraid they're going to miss something. . . I think a lot of people in this world are driving themselves nuts because of advertising, you know, the good life, the beautiful girl and the beautiful guy sailing down the river, all that kind of junk. I think we've built up a world of make-believe that really tantalizes people. I've never let that bother me. . . My kids can swim just as well in a community pool as they can in a private pool."
On the attention he was then receiving: "To be frank with you, I'm a little bit embarrassed. So many people responded so, I don't know, dramatically may be the best way to put it, when I decided to stay. . . But really, I don't think I'm a better person than anybody else. I just may be smart enough to know when I'm well off."
On his approach to the game: "Lombardi said something once that was a really beautiful statement. 'You should love your opponents.' Because they make you do as well as you can. Without them, you wouldn't have any reason to work hard, or any reason to strain and stretch and get better. . . I mean, we lose and we take it tough. But it isn't the end of the world."
Finally, from his commencement speech: "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."
The Scribbler, those many years ago, spent his last night in State College eating dinner in Joe Paterno's kitchen, which provided the final scene in the story he finally filed. It went: "He is holding young George Scott (then eight months old), burping him occasionally, a most appropriate pose for a reaction to the visitor's thought. 'I've never tried to be anything but what I am,' Joe Paterno says. 'I've never felt that, well, like we were saying last night, if you're not big enough to kid yourself, to be proud of yourself, then you don't have any real confidence. If you can do it, you can do it. If you've got it, you've got it. Do your best. If people don't like it, I mean, some people are never going to like me. No way.'
"'But for me to worry about that, I don't know, we try to live an uncomplicated life, to just go along. I say it many times, my dad, he'd kid anybody, I don't care if the Pope came in, he'd have a little needle, he'd want to know where he got that gown or something. You know, as kids, we never took ourselves seriously. It was the same with you, wasn't I?'
"The visitor nods in agreement.
"'Well,' Joe Paterno concludes with a laugh, 'maybe I just haven't grown up yet.'"
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