As a girl growing up in North East Pennsylvania, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know who Joe Paterno was. He was like a member of the family, one of my childhood heroes and the person I cited when people spouted about college sports being corrupt and coaches being evil exploiters of athletes. He was JoePa.
He lived in a house with Sue and his kids on campus. You could walk by on game day and never know by looking that’s where the winningest college football coach in history lived, but everyone did know. I can’t help but have visions of Nick Saban and his brethren in gated communities with armed guards. Not JoePa. He was even (and still is) in the phone book! How many other major college coaches are listed? I’d guess none.
This past week I have been incredibly sad – Sad to mourn his passing and downright distraught at the circumstances around the end of his coaching career and life. It’s upsetting to see the venom from those who never knew him or knew of him until this scandal broke; to see him vilified as practically the co-conspirator of a monster like Jerry Sandusky, who preyed upon children. I’m not saying that I disagree with those who say in his position of power he was morally obligated to do more – he was, and he admitted that – but I do object to dismissing an entire life of accomplishment for one sin of inaction. He never once to my knowledge defended Sandusky or asked for anyone’s sympathy. As far as I can recall, he asked for people to pray for and help the victims. To those who say he shouldn’t be mourned or remembered, I say too bad.
Joe Paterno wasn’t the greatest offensive strategist, but he won games. He was a most annoying fan of “run it up the middle” on first/second/third and goal. I’m sure it took him a few decades to embrace the fact that it was legal to throw the ball more than a few yards down field. The Penn State defenses, however, were the team’s bread and butter. Penalties? Forget about it. Joe’s blood pressure would escalate with every flag. (“Yoy, look at how angry he is!” my grandmother would say.) His greatest skill was in preparing his teams as the consummate underdogs. Always respect your opponent. No names on the jerseys. No playing if you didn’t keep your grades up – no exceptions. And if you happened to be a star player who screwed up the week before the bowl game (there were a few during his tenure) you stayed home.
There are two memories of JoePa that stick with me still – The 1987 Fiesta Bowl and the 2006 Orange Bowl – because they showed how different he was from the rest of his peers.
Miami and PSU finished the ’86 season with 11-0 records and were ranked No. 1 and No. 2 respectively. The Hurricanes featured superstars like Heisman Trophy winner QB Vinny Testaverde, and Michael Irvin, and were coached by Jimmy Johnson, who never met a can of hairspray he couldn’t empty. Johnson’s slick style stood in sharp contrast to Paterno’s trademark Coke bottle glasses and white socks with black shoes. Miami showed up at the pre-game dinner dressed in fatigues and stormed out declaring, “The Japanese didn’t eat with the Americans before they bombed Pearl Harbor.”
The Nittany Lions, wearing jackets and ties, remained and ate as one of them aptly pointed out, “But the Americans won the war.” PSU certainly did. They beat the classless Hurricanes 14-10, intercepting Testaverde five times and forcing two more turnovers in earning JoePa the second of his two National Championships.
In 2006, Paterno and PSU faced Bobby Bowden’s FSU Seminoles as the two were vying for the career wins record. The game was exhausting. Kicker Kevin Kelly was a freshman at the time. He missed two field goal attempts of 29 and 38 yards, both of which could have won the game. After the second boot, Paterno was the first person to meet him on the sidelines. The coach could have ripped him a new one, but JoePa didn’t. He put his arm around him and let him know he still believed in him. It was a good thing, because in the third overtime, Kelly kicked the game-winner. Kelly would go on to become PSU’s all-time leading scorer as a junior. Joe knew what he was doing.
As if Joe wasn’t enough of a role model on the field, he was a true philanthropist. JoePa and SuePa contributed to the Penn State All-Sports Museum, the spiritual center and helped to raise millions to expand the Pattee Library — with the university naming the addition in their honor. Joe and Sue also launched the Paterno Fellows Program—to support students who agree to excel in the liberal arts. Not your usual college football coach involvement with the academic programs of a university for sure. Joe may have come from Brooklyn but State College was his home. His heart belonged to the Nittany Lions.
As one of his former players said at his memorial service, Joe wasn’t about perfection because he knew it didn’t exist. He was about excellence and the never-ending pursuit of it.
One of my favorite quotes of his is this: “What you are today isn’t what you’re going to be tomorrow, all right? What you’re going to be tomorrow is what you make happen tomorrow.”
Basically, every day in life is an opportunity to strive. You will make mistakes, but that shouldn’t stop you from trying and trying again. I am sad that JoePa will have no more tomorrows, but those of us he influenced can take what he taught us into ours, and that is the most fitting tribute to him of all.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that in lieu of flowers or gifts, the family requests that donations be made to the Special Olympics of Pennsylvania http://www.specialolympicspa.org/support/ways-to-give or the Penn State-THON (The Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon) to fight pediatric cancers: https://secure.imodules.com/s/1218/thon/thon.aspx?sid=1218&gid=1&pgid=671&cid=2344.
About the Author
Written by Stephanie Geosits