The accent seems all wrong. It's full of hero sandwiches and screeching El trains. This is central Pennsylvania, gray-green and forested and whale-humped with mountains. The Nittany Lion once prowled here, not the Sharks and the Jets. So who is this Flatbush interloper with the coal-black hair and Coke-bottle glasses and comic, crooked grin?
Joe Paterno backs out of a low brick building at the far end of campus, where he has been closeted all this December morning with his assistants. He is still talking, still analyzing, still trying to find the shard of detail that might spell the margin between winning a national football championship on New Year's Day and losing one.
"Details," he sighs, climbing in the car, wrestling for his belt. "One more detail. Jeeze, You'd think we were playing the Dallas Cowboys."
Fifty-two-year-old Joe Paterno is the commander in chief of the Penn State football team. Which happens to be undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the country. Which happens to be going against the red swath of Paul Bear Bryant's Alabama, the No. 2 team, for the mythical national championship. In a hundred Pennsylvania mill towns these days, Joe Paterno is higher than God -- or at least the governor. Which is what some people in the state once wanted him to run for.
He is headed toward lunch at the Nittany Lion Inn across campus. The Inn is a great white colonial building gracing North Atherton Street, just across from the college golf course. Paterno often lunches here; it's an easy 60-yard toss from his offices in creaky old Rec Hall.
The face and voice may say Brooklyn; the dress says Harvard Yard. Brown University, actually, which is where Joe Paterno played quarterback and got his bachelor's in English lit. That was in '50. "He can't run and he can't pass," wrote the late Stanley Woodward of the spindlylegged, rag-tag Paterno's play. "All he can do is think and win."
The thinker and winner is clad in a blue oxford button-down shirt, a striped tie, a rich woolen suit tinted blue. On his finger is a knuckle-sized ring from one of his team's bowl victories. Even on the field, Paterno is a classy dresser. He wears a shirt and tie, set off by white socks and cleats. He turns up the cuff of his pants and combs the sidelines coatless.
But not for this day. There is no game. There is not even a practice. This is the next-to-the-last day of classes before Christmas break, and Joe Paterno, who thinks of himself first as a teacher of young men, wants his boys to hit the books. The Sugar Bowl can wait -- till tomorrow, when he'll work them plenty.
This is the coach who "recruits to commencement," who tells fevered alums, "Look, these kids aren't gladiators," who keeps insisting to anyone who'll listen that you can pursue athletic excellence without tunnel vision, who achieved fame as a kind of Aristotelian man's coach by turning down the million-dollar blandishments of the pros, the better to enjoy more Verdi, more discussions of Coleridge, more evenings with his family.
It's all part of Joe Paterno's Grand Experiment that winning doesn't have to be one only thing Lombardi to the contrary. The talk has somehow gotten on to classical languages, in particular Latin and a Brooklyn Prep Jesuit named Father Birmingham. "Father Birmingham was the guy who got Bill Blatty to write 'The Exorcist.' And me to read Virgil. I'd do 10 lines, he'd do 20. He kept after me. He knew I was going to a nonCatholic college, and I think he was trying to drum into me something about values. He thought of Virgil as a real Christian man."
Joe Paterno, who has spent the better part of the last 28 years drawing Xs and Os on blackboards for 200-pound 19-year-olds, pauses here. Looks up, a smile glinting off the glasses. "You know, there's nothing like Latin to give a person an insight to what language is all about". He says this with airy nonchalance. Not smugness; the thought just came, that's all. The Paterno Style
Nonchalance is the way in which Joe Paterno greets the world today. "Hey, hiya, Cap'n," he says to a mailman at the door to the Inn, cuffing him affectionately. "Howareya? Been out to the Elks lately?"
"When are you going to sign that book, Joe?" scolds a matronly woman in the dining room.
"Well, when are ya going to bring it in, buddy?" he fires back, giving the lady a small hug, aware he has an audience."I mean, if you weren't out running around every night...."
"Whatcha got here, chicken cacci-a-tore?" he says to the white-jacketed waiter at the buffet line, peering into a pot. "Got anything for a diet?" He sounds a little like a Brooklyn Rocky.
Outwardly, Joe Paterno's seas are calm.
This calm, this word-for-everybody, are benchmarks of the Paterno style. He comes right in here, sits down, waits his turn, just like any other guy," says a barber named Cal who has been cutting hair of South Allen Street for 20 years. "Joe's basically a reservist, though."
Says Bill Dulaney, journalism prof: "The students don't know the president of the university. They know the coach, Joe. I know my students bother him. They call him up on assignments. He talks to all of them."
Not that the Paterno style never lapses. He can be as shrill and vile as the next guy -- when a play gets stupidly broken, when somebody shows up late for practice, when it looks as though his team isn't giving 120 percent. At half time during the season opener with Temple this year, when it wasn't going well, Paterno allegedly screamed in the locker room: "You're trying to wreck my reputation." Penn State won 107.
Says Jerry Sandusky, one of Paterno's most respected assistant coaches (who admits to some real ripsnorters with the boss): "He's an intense man, don't be naive. There are extrme demands." Especially now, in the white heat of No. 1 fever.
"Could it be otherwise?" says Sandusky. How else could this be Paterno's 11th bowl game in 13 years as a head coach? (He took over at Penn State in '66.) How else could Penn State have been ranked in 10 of those years among the top 10 teams in the country?
And how else could Joe Paterno have gotten to No. 4 on the all-time winning percentage list, trailing only Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy and George Woodruff?
Says Mike Reid, former All-American tackle under Paterno, now a Cincinnati-based piano player and pop composer: "He is a master at deciphering what your abilities are and unmercifully making sure you don't cheat yourself." Reid says he once remembers Paterno telling a reporter that one of his returning players was "fat." He thinks it was purposeful. "All I know is I would have literally done anything to prevent him from calling me that. I wouldn't have eaten for a week."
Says Joe Rubin, retired professor of English, who has watched and admired Paterno since the coach was a skinny, unmarried assistant under the semilegendary Rip Engle: "It's the ego and psychology all mixed together. He works essentially on negative emotion."
Rubin says he remembers Paterno telling him awhile ago he has become a "folk hero" -- and must live up to its demands. Paterno denies he has ever thought of himself in such terms. Even if that's what he is.
For years Rubin used to play handball with Paterno. Singles always went better, he says. "When we played doubles, and Joe and I were on the same side, I never got much of a workout. He'd take the whole court." Afterward, says Rubin, Paterno would love talking literature. He was especially keen on Howthorn. "That part of him's never been a myth."
Literature or law or even politics: What is essentially intriguing about the life of Joe Paterno is that the coaching profession was not inevitable. It seemed more chance than destiny. Puccini and Wordsworth -- not Red Grange and Doc Blanchard -- were the names on Joe Paterno's lips in college.
But irony works its ways. At Brown, Joe called the signals; his brother George ran roughshod from fullback. Neither of the two Paternos was destined to make old Brownies forget Fritz Pollard or the Eleven Iron Men. But that was okay: Joe intended on law anyway.
When he graduated in 1950, Rip Engle, his coach and mentor, convinced Paterno to put off law school for a year and come with him to the boonies of Pennsylvania, where Engle had just been made head coach of a sometime football factory and land grant college. Penn State was 140 miles west of Philadelphia, 140 miles east of Pittsburgh. And three planets from Flatbush.
"Look, a guy gets a job. You don't know what you're getting into. But you go anyway and see what happens. Now, I admit there were a couple of times early when I really thought I'd blown it. Everytime we'd lose a game, in fact, I'd start thinking about law school. And I hated the town, believe me, I hated the town."
He says this pushed back from his plate coffee removed, the easier to make points with his circling, jabbing hands. Joe Paterno, broad-nosed, flatjawed, looks like a club fighter -- in mufti.
Nowadays, of course, Joe Paterno loves State College (which is the name of the town that encircles the University Park campus). The place is safe, clean, a healthy environment. The mountains ultimately found their pull, even on Brokklyn. His wife Suzie (a Penn Stater whom he married in '62, after 12 years in town as a bachelor) likes it, too. As do the five kids. Their home, not pretentious, sits across from a small park, a brisk 25-minute hike from Beaver Stadium. The Pros and Cons
Joe Paterno so thrives on his job and his adopted town that some Pennsylvanians find it unthinkable he could ever leave and join the pros. God knows, he's had the offers. The Steelers, the Colts, the Raiders, the Eagles (along with Yale and Michigan) -- all have come calling through the years.
Awhile ago, the New England Patriots tried to buy him with a ridiculous $1.3 million. It nearly worked. Paterno said yes, went to bed, couldn't sleep, in the morning called back owner Billy Sullivan and said no deal. He said he didn't want his kids just saying, "Dad, he was a good football coach, he won lots of games." He hoped for a little more than that. Damn the money.
Now the New York Giants want him. Dave Anderson writes about it in The New York Times. The Giants should make him an offer he can't refuse, Anderson says. "I'm not sure there is such an offer," says John Morris, Penn State sports information director.
Paterno says he's not interested, the Grand Experiment isn't over yet. His face is screwed in concentration. "You see, with the pro game, you're just zeroed into the one thing: the football game. There isn't room for... anything else."
He looks suddenly frustrated. Maybe he doesn't feel like naming the other things -- his players' grades, their love labois, their career musings. Turning agile behemoths on to "Aida" instead of comic books. Keeping the larger picture constantly in view. Once, a few years ago, he was quoted in sports pages saying, "Until we get double digit inflation cured, we should try one-platoon football and see what happens."
Maybe he doesn't feel like naming these things. Instead, he says this: "The only way I can see that the pros might appeal would be, say, if you finally got tired of working with 19-year-olds. Or mayble sick of the recruiting. But, hell, you're bound to feel that once in awhile." He almost looks apologetic.
Joe Paterno will look you blue in the eye and say that today's televised tilt for the nation championship is not very important. To him. "It's important to seniors and alumni and fans more than to me. If we get it, we'll have a big party and everybody will be happy... but we don't have to have it. What I'm trying to get across is this: Let's be as prepared as we possibly can. And if we win, we win; and if we lose, we lose. But either way, let's enjoy it."
He hunches forward -- no, lurches forward. He wants this understood. "But even with that statement, paradoxically, I must tell you my pride is such that I want terribly -- desperately -- to win."
Flash of grin: "Although, I am reminded of Aquinas. Didn't he say, 'anticipation was the greater joy'?"
A moment later, coming back: "Goals, goals. Writers always ask me about my goals. Well, I really don't have any goals. That's part of my whole philosophy. I don't go into a season with specific goals. I get up in the morning, and there's something to be done. It might be mowing the lawn, it might be working out a defensive play. I just go about getting it done."
Early, as it usually happens. Says Joe Rubin: "I've seen him at 8 o'clock on a summer's day -- this is June or July, mind you -- heading toward his office. He's walking fast. He's absorbed in thought. That's the key to the guy: He works unbelievably hard."
People talk about the pressure, Joe Paterno says. "You want to know what the pressure is? It's not letting down all these guys across the state who are so vicariously identified with the Penn State program. It sounds crazy, but a football game can ennoble these guys, enrich their lives.
It's like driving to Pittsburgh for the symphony, then coming home and feeling high for the next three days. That's what's happening with our football program in this state. When it's right, when we win, when we've all pulled together, then it's almost... a work of art."
He leans back. "That's what the pressure's all about. Hell, I got guys who don't want to go to work on Monday because we've lost."
He is asked if he is mellower now. (A couple of years ago, Paterno's son fell from a trampoline and was seriously injured. Paterno missed a game; his friends say it changed him.) He says he despises the word "mellow." What I think has happened is that I've gotten a better feel for knowing how to get things done. I've learned how to back away from my intensity, handle things a little better softer maybe, with a little more kindness. I can be more sensitive to people's feelings now."
There have been enough who have despised him through the years. Don Abbey, a former Pann State fullback, once supposedly said: "He shouldn't be Coach of the Year. He should be Wop of the Year." Says Mike Reid, basically a Paterno admirer: "I have to think a large healthy portion of it was always for himself. Joe, above all, really had a sense of theater, the event. Sports as spectacle. He was right in there, letting the light shine."
Joe Paterno can flatten you with his honesty about himself. In 1976, the Nittany Lions went 7 and 5 -- which some people thought akin to heresy. Paterno thinks he knows what happened. "I lost control of the team and the season and myself. I did an awful lot of traveling. I got involved with making a lot of speeches -- banquet speeches for IBM. I wanted to make some money. I went into the season tried. I never had the proper time to spend with the squad. I was arbitrary with the staff."
He doesn't breast-beat in this; just recites the facts.
One of Joe Paterno's secret assets is his recruiting strength. There are few better. When he is in those Chamokin parlors and Coaldale kitchens with Mom, he is just another nice Italian boy. They love him.
He has been known to stir the spaghetti with a wooden spoon while stirring the glories of Penn State football. No empty promises, though: There won't be cash under the table or cars from downtown merchants. You'll have to study. If you come, he says, you'll live in a dorm or a fraternity like everybody else. Penn State doesn't believe in pampered athletic dorms. By the end of the night, likely as not, he's got mom and pop and junior in the cup of his hand.
Maybe sense of family, going back to Brooklyn, is the key to Joe Paterno. For 10 years in State College, before he was married, Paterno lived with Bets and Jim O'Hora. O'Hora, 31 years a defensive line coach for the Lions, is retired now. He and his wife figure they raised a couple of kids -- and the young Joe Paterno.
"He couldn't be alone," says Mrs. O'Hora, who was pregnant with her third child when Paterno came to stay. "We had no furniture for him. We got a chest of drawers and a bed and a little orange crate from the A&P for his night stand. He was so happy."
He had 30 pairs of woolen socks, Mrs. O'Hora says. "One for each day. They always had holes in them. At the end of the month, he and I would go down to the basement with the Woolite. He was just one of the family. He had his place out here in the living room. He'd take his shoes off and leave them there till morning. Our kids never bothered him in the least. He loved being around a family. On weekends, maybe, he'd go out to the Elks or the American Legion."
Finally, says Jim O'Hora, they kicked him out. He breaks up in memory. "It became apparent he'd never leave."
"Yeah." says Mrs. O'Hora, "and when he got his own apartment, it was right up the block. He kept coming over all the time."
But it an worked out: In less than a year, Paterno had met and wed Suzanne Pohland of Latrobe, Pa. Now there are five kids, oldest 15. She's great, says the coach of his wife. "You take her out, get a few drinks in her, and you can't shut her out. Course. I get a few bourbons in me, I'm ready to go too."
He is mugging comically, diddling with his tie. He sounds like somebody out of "Saturday Night Fever."
Though Don Quizote isn't a bad thought, either. Don Quixote is one of Joe Paterno's heroes. A statute of him, gift of his class at Brooklyn Prep, stands on his stereo at home. "I don't know, as a kid the whole romance of competition thing... chasing windmills... that's all I wanted from life The Last Act
Joe Paterno has thought some about retirement, he says. "Lately, I've been giving it more thought. Say I want to get out in the next four, five, maybe six years. Well, you've got to be working on it now. I remember asking Darrell Royal before last season began how he knew it was time to get out. He said, 'Joe, what you want to do is leave some meat on the bones.'"
Part of that meat on the bone is that eastern football has proven itself as strong as football in any other section of the country. You don't have to be Texas or Oklahoma -- or the Crimson Tide -- to qualify for the National title. Joe Paterno has raised the standard. He's always been something of an eastern chauvinist. ("It's a major text to his constant sermon," says Joe Rubin.)
No, he says again, he's not interested in the pro ranks, and, yes, this is probably the last and only act. Like Carson on the "Tonight" show, Penn State may be as good as it gets for Joe Paterno.
He pauses. The lips come tight on that street-corner face. Head moves up and down a millimeter. "You know, my father was probably responsible for me and the way I turned out more than anybody. He was with Pershing, later went to law school at night for years. He used to say first 'Did you have a good time?' and second, 'Who won?' He never lived to see me become head coach. Maybe he thought I'd never get over the wall -- being an Italian Catholic from Brooklyn and all."
The cockeyed grin: "Course, what I like to do is fool people." CAPTION: Picture 1, Coach Joe Paterno,; Picture 2, and with defensive back Grover Edwards, AP.; Picture 3, Among the influences in his life -- Thomas Acquinas; Picture 4, Nathaniel Hawthorne; Picture 5, Virgil; Picture 6, Verdi.