Paterno, Joe

views updated Jun 08 2018

Joe Paterno


American college football coach

Joe Paterno is a living legend. With his thick glasses, khaki slacks (always a bit too short), and his Penn State windbreaker, Paterno is one of the most recognizable coaches in this history of footballcollege or professional. And he deserves the recognition. Since taking over the head coaching position at Pennsylvania State University in 1966, he has amassed five undefeated seasons, more bowl wins than any coach in college football (including three national championships), and risen to earn the title "the winningest active coach in college football." Paterno has also been voted coach of the year an amazing four times by the American Football Coaches Association.

But he is more than just a coach. He is a tenured professor, too, and to his players he is like a father, more so than most coaches could even dream of being. He instills in every member of his team that being well-rounded supercedes singular successes on the football field. "In an era of college football in which it seems everybody's hand is either in the till or balled up in a fist," writes Rick Reilly in Sports Illustrated, "Paterno sticks out like a clean thumb."

Growing Up

Joseph Vincent Paterno was born in Brooklyn, New York, on December 21, 1926, to Italian parents who pressed upon him early the importance of education. His father worked hard, and eventually obtained his law degree when he was forty years old, while at the same time supporting a family with his full time job. The drive and determination of his father rubbed off on Joe.

Growing up, Paterno spent most of his time either playing touch football or with his nose in a book. His parents encouraged friendly debates, and the family spent much of their dinner hours engrossed in heated discussions about one topic or another. According to Sports Illustrated, "At the dinner table we were allowed to talk about anything. And we did. You name it, we'd argue about it. Kids from the neighborhood would walk into our kitchen, unannounced, and sit in, just to listen."

Initially Paterno consideredlike his father, whom he idolizedpracticing law. But when he graduated from Brooklyn Prep High School and then spent a year in the military, his focus began to change. He ended up at Brown University on a football scholarship where he played quarterback. Though he was not an outstanding player, he was quick and very intelligent, able to outwit defenses and able to inspire his teammates to victory. In 1949 he led the Brown Bears to an 8-1 record.

After graduating from college, Paterno was offered a job as an assistant football coach at Pennsylvania State University. Although he was initially unsure if he should accept the position, he soon fell in love with the people of the community and stayed.

Happy in Happy Valley

Paterno remained an assistant coach at Penn State for the next sixteen years. He had started a family with wife Suzanne (they would have five children, all of whom attended Penn State) and felt at home in Happy Valley. When head coach Rip Engle retired in 1966, Paterno was asked to be the new head coach. He had a rocky start, going 5-5 in his first year, but the following season he turned it around and compiled an 8-2-1 record, making an appearance in the Gator Bowl (the first in a long, long line of bowl appearances).

As the seventies progressed, Paterno made the Nittany Lions a dominant force in college football, following back-to-back undefeated seasons (the streak ended at 31 games). Yet in spite of his consistent excellence on the field, Paterno's teams never got the recognition he felt they deserved. For instance, after they went 12-0 in 1973, the team went on to beat Louisiana State University in the Orange Bowl. When the final polls came out, the Nittany Lions were ranked 5th in the nation. Pater-noto put it mildlywas furious with the results, and he paid to have championship rings made for every player on his team.


1926Born Joseph Vincent Paterno on December 21 in Brooklyn, New York
1932Learns early on the value of education over sportsbut plays touch football as much as he can
1942Enters Brooklyn Prep High School
1946Enters Brown University where he plays quarterback and also returns punts and kickoffs
1949Brown goes 8-1 with Paterno at the helm
1950Becomes an assistant coach at Penn State
1962Marries Suzanne Pohland (together they'll have five children: Diana Lynne, Mary Kathryn, David, Joseph Vincent Jr., and George Scott)
1966Appointed as head coach of the Nittany Lions on February 19
1968Records first of five unbeaten seasons at Penn, going 11-0 and beating the University of Kansas in the Orange Bowl
1977Misses the second kickoff in his career as a coach when his son is seriously injured in an accident; the first was due to the death of his father, in 1955 (hasn't missed a kickoff since)
1982Captures first National Championship, beating the University of Georgia in the Sugar Bowl
1986Wins second National Championship, beating Miami in the Fiesta Bowl
1992Attends opening ceremonies of the Joe Paterno Child Development Center on the campus of Nike, Inc., in Beaverton, Oregon
1993Penn becomes a part of the Big Ten conference
1993Brown honors its alum with the scholarship presented in his honor, the Joe Paterno Male Outstanding Freshman Athlete Award
1995Guides Penn to an undefeated season and a victory in the Rose Bowl. It was to that point the first Big Ten team with an undefeated season in 26 years
1995Penn State is ranked first as being the college program that best prepares players for the NFL
1997The Paterno family donates $3.5 million to Penn State to endow faculty positions and scholarships
2001Earns win 324, which puts him as the career leader in Division I-A football, surpassing previous record holder Bear Bryant

Awards and Accomplishments

1972Named Coach of the Year by the Walter Camp Football Foundation and the Football Writers Association of America
1978Football Writers Association of America Coach of the Year
1986Football Writers Association of America Coach of the Year
1986Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year
1991National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame Distinguished American Award
1994Receives the Ernie Davis Award, presented by Leukemia Society of America
1996Earns National Education and Leadership Award by The Sons of Italy
1997Honored with Duff Daugherty Memorial Award by Michigan State University
1997Vince Lombardi Foundation Coach-of-the-Year Award

When Penn State finally won a national championship and earned number one status in 1982, Paterno refused bask in the glory of his hard-won national title. According to Sports Illustrated 's Rick Reilly, Paterno "marched into a meeting of [Penn State] University's board of trustees and, in effect, scolded them. He urged the board to raise entrance requirements and to spend more money on the library. It may go down as the only time in history that a coach yearned for a school its football team could be proud of."

Moving On Up

In the late eighties Penn Statebased in large part on Paterno's exceptional tenure with the school and the reputation he had brought the football programwas invited to play in the Big Ten, college football's powerhouse. The school accepted, entering the Big Ten officially in the early nineties, and giving Paterno the opportunity he'd been longing for: to win the Rose Bowl.

After only two seasons in the Big Ten, Paterno led the Nittany Lions to an appearance in the Rose Bowl against Oregon, following an undefeated season. Penn State was victorious, defeating Oregon 38-20. Paterno ended up taking his team through the nineties with an incredible record of 97-26 and attaining 300 wins for his career. "There's no secret to how we do things here," he told Newsday. "The kids have to understand they're part of a certain tradition here, and one that doesn't just involve football. I'm old-fashioned enough to believe that these kids want you to give them structure. They want it individually and they want it as a team. So if they go to school at Penn State and play football for me, they know there's going to be a certain structure. I know what's succeeded here, and I'm reluctant to give it up."

Tough Times

But as the millennium turned, so too did the program. Or so it seemed. For the first time in Paterno's career, he posted back-to-back sub-.500 seasons (5-7 in 2000, 5-6 in 2001). In the fall of 2001, despite having an overall sub-par season, Paterno did surpass Bear Bryant's record for coaching victories, with 324 gridiron triumphs at that point.

In the 2002 season the Lions got back on track, going 9-4 and making it to the Capital One Bowl, where they lost to Auburn. Paterno's record at the end of the 2002 season stood at 336 wins, 99 losses and three ties.

Leaving His Legacy

Throughout his career, Paterno has not been without his detractors, many of whom in recent years called for him to step down, due in part to his age and in part to the losing seasons of 2000 and 2001. He has also come under scrutiny for holding closed practices and not allowing fans to watch. But Paterno is a private individual, and he has never been a big fan of media attention.

What he has done for the university, the community, and his players, however, often silences the critics. Dick Frasca, a pizza shop owner on College Avenue in Pennsylvania, told Sports Illustrated, "Before Paterno they couldn't get city kids and suburban kids to come here. Look at how he's grown the place." Indeed, he has been a key factor in Penn State's enrollment increasing from just over 12,000 in the year he signed on as head coach to over 40,000 today. Beaver Stadium (Penn State's football stadium) now holds over 100,000 fans on Nittany Lions game days.

Indeed, he has taken the idea of a college football player and made it something special. Paterno's program consistently ranks in the top tier, if not #1, for preparing football players for the NFL. But it also prepares them for an MBA, or any other graduate degree they want to pursue. Paterno stresses academic excellence, and thus far the Nittany Lions have produced 21 All-Americans in addition to their nearly forty first-round NFL draft picks. He is critical of athletes who arrive at college for the sole purpose of playing a sport. "We've lost a generation and a half of people who were potential lawyers, doctors, teachers and what have you," he told Sports Illustrated, "because they were all caught up in bouncing a basketball and running with a foot-ball.We were supposed to be educating those kids. Instead, we conned them for 15 years and then, when they were through playing pro football or pro basketball, they knew they'd been conned; they knew they'd been had."

He also cares for his playersthough it may be a form of "tough love" that keeps many from getting too close to him. Nonetheless he has their best interests at heart. "I don't care if my players like me," he told Sports Illustrated, "I want them to like me when it's important they like me, when they're out in the world, raising families, using their degrees. I want them to like me when it hits them what I've been trying to say all these years."

During their lackluster 2000 season, Penn State cornerback Adam Taliaferro was hit hard during a game at Ohio State. The accident frightened Paterno, who had a similar scare years earlier when his son hurt himself on a trampoline. After Taliaferro, who might have been totally paralyzed, made a miraculous recovery, the athlete told Sports Illustrated 's Rick Reilly that "You see this man on television. but you don't know him. I know him now. His caring isn't an act."

No Ordinary Joe

Even if his teams don't win as much as they once did-the Nittany Lions, who host Ohio State on Saturday, lost their first four games this season and were 5-7 in 2000-and recruits don't flock to his program anymore, it doesn't matter. Now at the top of the all-time Division I-A wins list, Pater-no deserves high praise for his undying principles and his belief that college football is part of the educational experience, not the sole reason for young men to stay on campus. He has been a true advocate for the student-athlete and a conscience for a sport that often ignores what is right.

Applaud Joe Paterno for his 323 career wins. Cheer him for his two national titles. But respect and appreciate him for so much more.

Source: Bradley, Michael. The Sporting News 22 (October 29, 2001): 20-23.

Paterno also cares about the school, giving of himself both donating millions to the school (a new library wing was named after him) and raising millions more for academic programs, all the while living a rather humble life. He "lives in a home far below what he can afford," writes Reilly. "He takes no salary for his weekly TV show. When the Paternos give one of their regular dinner parties for 40 or so, there's no catering. For two days Sue [Paterno's wife] cooks manicotti and lasagna and freezes it all."

In an uncharacteristic style, Paterno has of late taken issue with some of the officiating he has seen in college football. After a recent game against conference rival Michigan in which a Penn State receiver was called out when the replay clearly showed him in bounds, Paterno, according to Michael Bamberger of Sports Illustrated, had Penn State athletic director Tim Curley write a letter to the Big Ten commissioner "calling for a top-to-bottom review of conference officiating." He later told Bamberger, "In 50 years I've never been in the position I'm in now, in a controversy over whether a guy is a good official or a lousy official and who is appointing them."

No Signs of Stopping

Asked by Sporting News reporter Tom Dienhart before the 2002 season began if he would ever take it easy, Paterno replied: "If I feel as I do now, I'm gonna keep coaching. I'm enjoying it It's a little tougher job than maybe it was 20 years ago because of the environment that's out there nowthe exposure and the attention I'd like to say [I'll coach] maybe five more years. It could be 10 more years. I really don't know."

When Bamberger of Sports Illustrated recently reminded him that nobody lives forever, Paterno said, "You only say that because nobody's ever done it." Regardless of what happens in the last years of Paterno's tenure at Penn State, he has turned around the two-year hiccup in the program of back-to-back losing seasons. His five undefeated seasons, his statistic of more bowl wins than any coach in college football (including those three national championships), his claim as the "winningest active coach in college football," and his greatness seem to speak for itself. Add to that his relationship with his players and his ability to turn young men into outstanding adults, and Paterno remains as one of the greatest coaches the game has known.


Address: Office234 Recreation Building, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA 16802.


(With Bernard Asbell) The Paterno Principle. Random House, 1989.

(With Asbell) Paterno: By the Book. Berkeley Publishng, 1991.

(With Brice Durbin) Portrait of an Athlete. Human Kinetics Press, 1991.

(With Bob Reade) Coaching Football Successfully. Human Kinetics Press, 1993.

(With L. Budd Thalman) Quotable Joe: Words of Wisdom by and About Joe Paterno, College Football's Coaching Icon. Towlehouse Publishers, 2000.

(With Mickey Bergstein) Penn State Sports Stories and More. Rb Books, 2000.



Hyman, Mervin D. and Gordon S. White. Joe Paterno: "Football My Way." New York: MacMillan, 1978.

"Joe Paterno." Newsmakers 1995, Issue 4. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Research, 1995.

O'Brien, Michael. No Ordinary Joe: The Biography of Joe Paterno. Rutledge Hill Press, 1998.

Paterno, George. Joe Paterno: The Coach From Byzantium. Sagamore Publishing, 1997.

Paterno, Joe and Bernard Asbell. The Paterno Principle. Random House, 1989.

Paterno, Joe and Bernard Asbell. Paterno: By the Book. Berkeley Publishing, 1991.

Paterno, Joe and Mickey Bergstein. Penn State Sports Stories and More. Rb Books, 2000.

Paterno, Joe and Bob Reade. Coaching Football Successfully. Human Kinetics Press, 1993.

Paterno, Joe and Brice Durbin. Portrait of an Athlete. Human Kinetics Press, 1991.

Paterno, Joe and L. Budd Thalman. Quotable Joe: Words of Wisdom by and About Joe Paterno, College Football's Coaching Icon. Towlehouse Publishers, 2000.

Werley, Kenneth. Joe Paterno, Penn State and College FootballWhat You Never Knew. University of New Haven Press, 2001.


Bamberger, Michael. "What's Up With Joe Pa?" Sports Illustrated (October 28, 2002): 50.

Benestad, J. Brian. "Paterno on Vergil: educating for service." America (April 2, 1994): 15.

Bradley, Michael. "No ordinary Joe." Sporting News (October 29, 2001): 20.

Burgess, Jack. "For Football's &Joe Pa,' Third Time's the Charm." Insight on the News (October 4, 1999): 32.

Dienhart, Tom. "Paterno Won't Coast Into Retirement." Sporting News (June 3, 2002): 60.

Reilly, Rick. "The Wins That Really Count." Sports Illustrated (November 13, 2000): 100.

Reilly, Rick. "Not an Ordinary Joe." Sports Illustrated (December 22, 1986): 64.


Barra, Allen. "When it's time to go." (January 20, 2003).

"Meet Coach Paterno." Pennsylvania State University website. (January 22, 2003).

Online review of No Ordinary Joe. (January 20, 2003).

Sketch by Eric Lagergren