Paterno’s record is not perfect. Anyone who won on his scale has an ungenerous competitive streak and nascent ego. His love for higher learning — he likes to name-drop Puccini and Virgil — could tip over into superiority. He could show a temper, as he did in 1995 when a camera caught him delivering a profane on-field tirade.
His football program was not immune to the problems of big-time college athletics. An ESPN inquiry found that from 2002 to 2007, 46 Penn State football players faced criminal charges. But he liked working with problem cases and turning them around. “Hotshots,” he still calls them today. The 2007 team had 19 players who earned Academic all-Big Ten honors. “The bigger the problem the guy was, the more I enjoyed it when we had success,” he said.
Over the course of his career, 47 of his players made Academic all-American, the third-highest total among institutions playing at the championship level.
He loved his work. “They were all days I looked forward to,” he said. His philosophy was simple. “My thing was play as hard as you can, don’t be stupid, pay attention to details, and have enough guts in the clutch that you’re not afraid to make a play,” he said. “Some things I thought were important for a young man to know.”
Early on, Paterno vowed that he would try to never lose perspective. In 1968 he said: “We’re trying to win football games, don’t misunderstand that. But I don’t want it to ruin our lives if we lose. I don’t want us ever to become the kind of place where an 8-2 season is a tragedy.”
Asked if he succeeded in keeping the vow, he said: “I stayed on the track I wanted to stay on. I don’t think I deviated from what I’m all about and what I thought was important. Whether you want to call that a legacy, or whatever you want to call it.”
These are the things Paterno would prefer to reminisce about. Instead, he is tying up the loose ends of the abrupt end to his career. There are mounds of mail to deal with, 12,000 letters (his grandchildren counted them). Former Penn State running back Franco Harris, the Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Famer, checks in regularly and is leading a furious campaign to depose the Board of Trustees for their handling of the scandal and Paterno’s dismissal. Paterno tries to play peacemaker, although he admits his first reaction was, “Raise hell.” There are still details to work out with the school, because he remains a tenured professor. On Jan. 2 the university sent him a retirement letter.
“Right now I’m trying to figure out what I’m gonna do,” he said. “Cause I don’t want to sit around on my backside all day.” He grins and there is a light behind his glasses. “If I’m gonna do that I’ll be a newspaper reporter.”
Nevertheless, sitting is mostly what he does, surrounded by the photographs that have accrued on the walls for almost a half-century. They provoke memories. His father, Angelo, studying late at a kitchen table to become a court clerk, impressing on him the open-endedness of learning. His deep pride at being admitted to Ivy League schools, followed by chagrin when he visited Princeton and no one in the eating clubs would speak to him. “Bunch of stuffed shirts,” he said. His wound when frat boys at Brown frowned at him for wearing sweaters instead of tweeds and said, “How did that dago get invited?” His mother, when he called to tell her that he was finally ready to wed at 34, to a young woman he had met, of course, in the library.
“I’m getting married.”
“Susie. You know Susie.”
“That big German girl?”
“Yes, Ma, she’s German.”
“What the hell are you gonna eat?”
The big German girl is in fact slender as a schoolgirl and still has world-class cheekbones at 75. She tends to Paterno gently, ushering him from kitchen table to bedroom and back again, clasping his hand when it trembles. “Speak up,” Sue tells him. Paterno smiles and rasps, “Ordinarily she tells me to shut up.”
Every little while, Sue pulls a picture from a wall and shows it to Paterno or shares it with one of his many visitors. They are invariably photos of children, of sons and daughters and grandchildren. The children are captured in time and they are all beautiful. They are new, unmarked, angel-faced, radiant. These are the images the Paternos cling to, through all the levels of distortion, the press maelstrom, the impending trials, the grotesqueries described on witness stands. Whenever someone in her family loses their emotional way, and sits at the kitchen table weeping for something that’s been lost or torn down, Sue holds a frame out to them and shows them a photograph of unspoiled familial innocence.
“Look at this picture,” she tells them. “This is who we are. And no one can take us from us.”
MORE ON THE PENN STATE SCANDAL:
Update, Jan. 22: Paterno dies at age 85
Update, Jan. 22: Jenkins: Paterno’s record is for others to debate
Update, Jan. 21: Paterno is in serious condition
Update, Jan. 21: Incorrect reports spark Internet firestorm
Excerpts from interview with Joe Paterno
Photos: Images of Paterno at home and through his career
Video: Sally Jenkins discusses the interview
Chat, Monday, 10 a.m.: Submit your questions for Jenkins
Your comments on Joe Paterno
#paternospeaks on Twitter
Poll: How do you feel about Paterno’s actions?