Jerry Sandusky has tried to teach his players more than football. And he has taught football brilliantly, as a career-long assistant coach, for 34 years. His name may not be familiar, but Penn State, for at least the last couple of decades, has been renowned as Linebacker U. Sandusky is its dean through the Alamo Bowl tonight, when he retires from Penn State, but not from the work that has meant much more than winning games.
"A lot of guys give lip service to there being more to life than football," said Penn State Coach Joe Paterno. "Jerry's always involved. He's always had such a sense of responsibility."
All of the six Sandusky children, three of whom have been involved with Penn State football, are adopted. Jerry and Dottie also have had numerous foster children. As a way to help more troubled youngsters, Sandusky in 1982 started The Second Mile with the proceeds from a book he wrote on developing linebackers. The budget for the foundation that first year was $83,000. The one this year was $1.5 million.
The goal of Second Mile, according to its literature, is to provide a network of educational, early intervention and community-based programs and services for children who have been battered and abused, have few chances to experience personal success.
In its first year, President and Chief Operating Officer Jack Raykovitz said, Second Mile programs assisted 45 children in the State College area. This year, he said, the number was about 100,000 throughout the country.
"Jerry in some ways is a visionary," said Raykovitz, who has been with Second Mile for 16 years. "In some ways, he's the simplest of men. In other ways, he's the most complex. He's very easy with people. He makes children and adults completely comfortable, brings out the child in all of us."
Sandusky's respect inside football comes from his defense having shut down seven Heisman Trophy winners in important games, among them Marcus Allen, Herschel Walker and Vinny Testaverde, and establishing a sort of path for linebackers that stretches from the geographic center of Pennsylvania to the NFL.
"His first year [as linebackers coach] was my senior year," said Jack Ham, an all-American in 1970 whose career with the Pittsburgh Steelers earned him enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. "You could tell in a short period that he'd be successful. Such a stickler for technique and detail. He never let you get sloppy. And he'd never hesitate to pull you and let you know you weren't playing well, whether it was [a backup] or a Jack Ham."
Sandusky was a three-year letterman on defense under Rip Engle at Penn State during the mid-1960s and, after a season each at Juniata College and Boston University, joined Paterno's staff in 1969 and became defensive coordinator in 1977. Nearly two dozen players he coached have ascended to the NFL, including Shane Conlan, Greg Buttle, Ed O'Neil and former Washington Redskins Matt Millen, Andre Collins and Rich Milot. Two of this season's stars, Brandon Short and LaVar Arrington, were the ninth and 10th first-team all-American linebackers under Sandusky.
At 55, Sandusky is much too young to be doing anything other than what he in fact plans: redirecting his career instead of ending it. The university during the spring offered anyone on the staff for more than 30 years a chance to retire with benefits as though they were 65. The package will not be available for several years--and Sandusky announced his retirement in early July.
"I still love to coach," he said. "But I'm not sure I could have gone another five or so years giving the kids what they deserved. . . . I have no major regrets."
There are some minor ones. He wanted to be a head coach but turned down a few offers years ago, in large part because he was seen as the logical successor to Paterno. However, Paterno, who turned 73 last week shows no signs of losing so much as a half-step. One day this month, for instance, Paterno flew to San Antonio early in the morning for some bowl promotions and returned in time to oversee practice late that afternoon.
"If I had a son on the staff, [Paterno] would probably outlast him, too," Sandusky joked the day his retirement was announced.
Sandusky admits he coveted the Maryland job that went to Ron Vanderlinden three years ago but refuses to dwell on it other than to say, "I was not disappointed that they didn't hire me, but I was with the way everything transpired."
Almost certainly, Sandusky will carry more memories of this season than any other. He said the three consecutive losses at the end of the regular season were as tough as any he had ever experienced at Penn State. That might have been because they were so fresh. But he said they hurt as much as the 14-7 loss to Alabama in the Sugar Bowl that cost the Nittany Lions the 1978 national championship.
He also climbed Everest this season, in a way.
"I didn't plan on any grand exit," he said, "but I got one from an emotional standpoint."
That was before the Michigan game Nov. 13, his last at Beaver Stadium, which held about 46,000 when he arrived as a player and about 97,000 now. It was senior day--and Sandusky's day. The tears started flowing during the last embrace, with his son, Jon, a reserve defensive back.
"When I hugged the players," Sandusky said, "I was hugging every player I ever coached. When I was hugging [Jon], I was hugging every member of my family--and my extended family."
Sandusky's players have been most impressed with his ability to separate football from Second Mile when that was necessary and to meld them when that was possible. They remember times shortly before games, when everyone else was grim-faced and focused on nothing but the close-to-holy task at hand. Then Sandusky would pop into the locker room, hand in hand with a couple of kids who might study a bit harder the next week by meeting a few of their football heroes.
Football and classes occupy so much of a player's life, even in the winter and spring, that time for anything else is limited. So Nittany Lions such as Rich Rosa and Ivory Gethers, whose careers ended in the early 1990s, usually were involved with Second Mile on offseason Sundays and during summer school.
"We'd go bowling, ice skating, roller skating, things kids do," Rosa said. "We'd be getting them around us, showing them we were in school and working hard. He's always wanted to touch kids in a special way."
Added Gethers: "Once you're away for a while, you see what he was trying to get at, in terms of teaching us while we were helping some kids."
When Raykovitz started, the staff of Second Mile consisted of him and a secretary. That has grown to 18. Other money early on went to building a house on two acres of land near the State College airport.
The missions of that house have changed dramatically. Originally, the seven youngsters it housed were wards of the court, having parents unwilling or unable to take care of them and almost no other options. Each of those seven youngsters now is part of a voluntary educational program called A Better Chance that takes youngsters from troubled communities and houses them during the school year.
To better serve Second Mile, Sandusky the last few years stopped going on the road to recruit. Paterno said the demands on a head coach at a school that takes football as seriously as Penn State are too great to devote as much time to Second Mile as Sandusky has. Still, Sandusky says he will not totally leave football, and he left open the possibility of coaching. His immediate plans include starting a football camp for youngsters at three locations in Pennsylvania.
"So much to look back on," he said. "So many moments with people you cherished."
Sandusky paused and said, "It'll all be in the book."
Yes, another Sandusky book is taking shape. Guess where the royalties are headed.
CAPTION: Jerry Sandusky, longtime assistant coach at Penn State, hugs his son, defensive back Jon, during ceremonies before their final home game.