Paterno, Joseph Vincent ("Joe")
PATERNO, Joseph Vincent ("Joe")
(b. 21 December 1926 in Brooklyn, New York), football coach who as of 2001 led college coaches in the number of career wins and who is perhaps best known for his belief that athletics should play a secondary role to academics in college life.
Paterno was the oldest of three surviving children of Angelo Lafayette Paterno, a law clerk, and Florence de la Salle Cafiero Paterno, a homemaker. After serving in the U.S. Army, then marrying, Angelo had taken night classes in order to earn his high school, college, and law degrees. From watching his father, Paterno learned the value of education.
Paterno became an avid student at the prestigious Brooklyn Prep School, where he was president of the student council and belonged to a book discussion group. He volunteered to do extra work outside of class, most notably translating Virgil's Aeneid from the Latin. He also began his athletic career playing basketball and football. On Brooklyn Prep's football team he was a heady leader, entrusted with calling plays for Coach Zev Graham's no-huddle offense. During his senior season, Brooklyn Prep lost only one game. Paterno and his younger brother George were the team's stars.
Paterno graduated from high school second in his class in 1945, and was immediately drafted into the military. He served as a radio operator with the U.S. Army of Occupation in Korea. Discharged in 1946, he enrolled at Brown University, where he majored in English literature with a specialization in the Romantic Period.
Charles A. ("Rip") Engle, one of the originators of the complex wing-T formation, was Brown's football coach. Although Paterno was only five feet, eleven inches tall, and 170 pounds, and did not throw the ball well, he soon mastered the quarterback position and became adept at calling plays. When Brown was on defense, Paterno played in the secondary and set records for pass interceptions that stood over fifty years. He also returned kicks and punts. During his senior year Paterno led the team to an 8–1 record, one of the best in the school's history, and was considered one of the best signal callers in the East.
Following his graduation in 1950 Paterno planned to enroll in Boston University's law school. Engle, however, had just accepted the position of head coach at Penn State College, now Penn State University, and invited Paterno to join his staff. Engle needed help. Penn State had run the single-wing formation, but the other coaches were not experienced with the wing-T. Together, Engle and Paterno had to teach the other coaches the new offense, then help them instruct the players.
Paterno believed he would coach for only a few years in order to earn money for law school. Having grown up in New York City, he was initially unimpressed with Penn State's rural location. Soon, though, he began to enjoy his work. Penn State had an enlightened attitude toward intercollegiate athletics. Coaches were considered to be members of the faculty and socialized with them freely. National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) rules on player eligibility were tightly enforced. Paterno began to find the university conducive to his intellectual and athletic interests and decided to make coaching there his permanent career.
Furthermore, the school's football team, the Nittany Lions, enjoyed success on the field. Victories over schools like Ohio State and the University of Illinois brought the team national attention. During Engle's sixteen years as head coach, Penn State won the 1959 and 1960 Liberty Bowls and 1961 Gator Bowl, and three Lambert Trophies for being the best team in the East. Paterno, whose duties expanded from just coaching the quarterbacks to being responsible for the entire offense, received much of the credit. By the early 1960s he had received and turned down several offers to coach in the National Football League.
In 1962 Paterno married Suzanne Pohland of Latrobe, Pennsylvania. They had five children, including one, Joseph Vincent (Jay) Paterno, Jr., who would later serve on his father's coaching staff.
In 1963 Yale University offered Paterno the position of head coach. Paterno was interested in the offer, but Engle told him he would soon be retiring. Paterno decided to stay at Penn State, where was promoted to the position of associate coach. Following the 1965 season, Engle stepped down and Paterno became Penn State's head coach. In his first season, the Nittany Lions finished with a 5–5 record. In the spring of 1967 Paterno created a new, complicated defense, and in 1967 season the team lost only twice and was invited to the Gator Bowl. In 1968 and 1969 the Nittany Lions finished undefeated, winning the Orange Bowl at the end of each season. This long winning streak earned Paterno the first of his four Kodak Coach of the Year Awards. It also gave him the status to speak out on inter-collegiate athletics. Paterno called his approach "The Grand Experiment." Penn State, he said, would recruit only the players who could excel in the classroom. They would be expected to interact with nonathletes and to treat football as just another extracurricular activity.
Although in many ways this attitude reflected Penn State's traditional approach to athletics, Paterno's success drew more attention to the idea. He began to be considered an idealist and reformer. His rejection of a big job offer in 1973 furthered this image. Billy Sullivan, owner of the New England Patriots, wanted Paterno to be the coach of his team. He offered him a contract that would make Paterno a millionaire, and included part ownership of the franchise. Paterno initially accepted the offer but changed his mind the following morning. In explaining his decision, he said that he thought there were more important goals than winning football games and earning money. At Penn State, he had the opportunity to affect the lives of young people and to be an educator as well as a coach. Newspapers across the country wrote articles about Paterno, the coach who would turn down $1 million as a matter of principle. Paterno's stance led Penn State's seniors to choose him as their commencement speaker in 1973.
Throughout the 1970s Paterno's team continued to win. In 1973 the Nittany Lions went undefeated, and running back John Cappelletti won the Heisman Trophy (awarded annually by the Downtown Athletic Club of New York City to the player voted the best in college football), but the team finished fifth in the national polls. In 1978, after another undefeated season, Penn State lost a national championship showdown to the University of Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
In 1980 Paterno's position within the university changed. In addition to being the head football college, he was named athletic director, a job he would hold for three years. In 1982 Penn State overcame an early season loss to win the school's first national championship in football. Following the clinching victory over the University of Georgia in the national championship game held at the Sugar Bowl, Paterno was invited to address the university's board of trustees. Most expected that he would strike a celebratory tone. Instead Paterno chastised the trustees, telling them they were not doing enough to raise outside money for the university. The football team was the nation's best, but the library and academic programs needed improvement.
Paterno's speech encouraged Penn State to undertake a major fundraising campaign, with Paterno as the vice chairman of the effort. Paterno continued with this involvement in university fundraising. In 1984 he started the Paterno Libraries Endowment. In 1997, after he donated $250,000 and campaigned for further contributions, ground was broken for the Paterno Library. In 1998 Paterno donated $3.5 million to endow faculty positions, scholarships, and building projects.
Paterno also became involved in NCAA issues. He was a major proponent of Proposition 48, a rule requiring high school athletes to achieve designated grade-point averages and scores on standardized tests before receiving scholarships, which was passed in 1983. Paterno believed that in order to win games, colleges had been admitting students who had no chance of earning degrees.
In 1986 Paterno's team won a second national championship, finishing an undefeated season by beating the University of Miami Hurricanes 14–10 in the Fiesta Bowl. In 1993 the Nittany Lions joined the Big Ten Conference. The next year Paterno's team again went undefeated and won the Rose Bowl. He is the only football coach to lead his team to perfect seasons in 1968, 1969, 1973, 1986, and 1994. On 20 October 2001, with a win over the Northwestern Wildcats, Paterno tied Paul "Bear" Bryant in career victories among major college coaches with 323. He has subsequently surpassed Bryant's record.
Paterno's record as a football coach is exemplary. He has won more major college games at a single school than any other coach. He has the record for bowl victories and has won twenty-one Lambert Trophies. His peers have voted him Coach of the Year four times, and in 1995 a coaches' poll voted his program the best in the country. At the same time, Paterno's outspoken position on academic integrity and philanthropy has brought him respect from outside the athletic community. Sports Illustrated named him Sportsman of the Year in 1986. In 1991 he won the National Football Foundation and College Football Hall of Fame Distinguished American Award. He holds three honorary degrees: an LL.D. from Brown University, an H.L.D. from Gettysburg College, and an LL.D. from Allegheny College. Bill Lyon, a writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, wrote "even though he is enormously successful at it, from the perspective of meaningful contributions to society, the least important thing Paterno does is coach football."
Paterno is the subject of five biographies, Mervin D. Hyman and Gordon S. White, Jr., Joe Paterno: Football My Way (1971), and Joe Paterno (with Bernard Asbell), Paterno: By the Book (1989) are traditional sports biographies. Gene Collier, et al., The Paterno Legacy: An Authorized Biography (1997), is a coffee table book. George Paterno, Joe Paterno: The Coach from Byzantium (1997), provides the best insight into Paterno's character and personality. Michael O'Brien, No Ordinary Joe: The Biography of Joe Paterno (1998), is well documented, with footnotes and a full bibliography. See also William Johnson, "Not Such an Ordinary Joe," Sports Illustrated (Nov. 1973), and Rick Reilly, "Not an Ordinary Joe," Sports Illustrated (22–29 Dec. 1986).
Harold W. Aurand, Jr.