The first thought that comes to mind when I think of Paterno is that he knew how build a class act team. Paterno’s teams were always classy. No player was bigger than the rest of the team, and academics were always emphasized as a means to finding success on his football field. This formula almost sounds like a cliché, and is repeated to teams across the country, but nobody really did it or meant it like Paterno.
From the beginning, football was Paterno’s lifeblood. He played on both sides of the ball as a quarterback and cornerback for Brown University. According to ESPN.com, he set a defensive record with 14 career interceptions. After he graduated in 1950, Paterno planned on attending law school, but when a former Brown coach asked him to be a part of his coaching staff at Penn State, Paterno said yes. A assistant coach at the age of 23, and a coaching legend was born.
During his 16 years as an assistant coach, Paterno turned heads with his coaching style and his knowledge of the game. In 1963, Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis offered Paterno a gigantic salary (three times his salary at Penn State) to become general manager and coach of the Raiders. Dedicated to the Nittany Lions, he turned it down, and when Rip Engle retired as head coach three years later, Paterno began his long career as head coach.
Over the span of Paterno’s next 46 years as head coach, Penn State won a record 409 games, two national championships and had five undefeated seasons. He is the winning-est coach in college football history. All of this was done within his mantra, “Success with Honor.”
Part of that honor was to have players succeed not only on the field, but in the classroom as well. Early on, Paterno began what he called the “grand experiment,” which was to graduate more players while continuing to have success on the pitch. Penn State consistently ranked among the best in the Big Ten conference for graduating players and as of 2011, Penn State had 49 academic All-Americans. That ranks as the third-highest among schools in FBS, and all but two of those players played under Paterno.
The influence Paterno had on the lives of his players is immeasurable. He knew how force players to succeed both on and off the field. Even some of his players who were destined to become great stars in the National Football League were forced to take a reality check from time to time to make sure they remained grounded in life.
“I remember one time he sent for me to come to his office,” former Penn State linebacker LaVar Arrington stated in a blog post on washingtonpost.com. Arrington went on to be a three-time Pro Bowl linebacker in the NFL. “At the time that was a scary invite, and I was right; my grades had started to slip after I became a ‘superstar,’ and he got into me pretty good about it. The reason why I feel peace about Joe’s passing is because all that Joe was is what I represent today, and will pass on to my children.”
Arrington’s sentiment, in a nutshell, is what Joe Paterno’s legacy is all about. The good he’s instilled in a hell of a lot of players and students will live on for generations.
For the past 10, maybe even 20 years everyone wondered how Paterno would hang up his whistle. Would he simply retire when he’d had enough? Would sickness remove him from the sidelines? Would he actually die while coaching? Nobody, absolutely nobody, knew his coaching days would end in the midst one of the biggest scandals to hit the sporting world of all time.
It wasn’t supposed to be that way.
The official cause of his death was lung cancer. Some of those who knew him say he died of a broken heart. Others believe the spotlight of the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse allegations was just too much to handle.
I tend to believe that for a man whose an entire life coaching with the passion that Paterno had, being forced to walk away from his job was his first step towards the end of his life. The X’s and O’s of football were everything to him. He needed to be working on next week’s game plan. Or compiling recruits for next season’s roster. Or riding a player for poor grades, or…. That was the stuff Joe Paterno was made of, and once it was gone, he was effectively gone, as well.
Life at Penn State is going to be turned upside down for a while. With the Sandusky trial sure to draw the world’s spotlight, I do take some sort of solace in the fact that Paterno won’t have to live through the trial. It’s going to be ugly. In the midst of that trial, and in its aftermath, though, it will be important to remember what Paterno brought to the school, and to college athletics everywhere. He laid a foundation on how to do things right, with success and with honor. At some point, a sense of normalcy will return to Penn State, and a large part that will be due to the foundation Paterno built at the school. In regards to football and the tradition of Penn State, I think Arrington said it best.
“They say that those things built upon solid foundations can endure all kinds of catastrophes, so if what Joe has built is truly real, it will take way more than the evil actions of a few to tear down what he spent a lifetime building.”
Contact Gus Jarvis at email@example.com or @gusgusj