One story a football coach friend of mine once told me encapsulates much about Paterno as a coach and as a man. It was the 1987 Fiesta Bowl, which pitted Penn State against Miami. Miami that year had a hot quarterback by the name of Vinni Testaverde. The game is now legendary for the contrast between the two teams. Miami was a team that had earned its reputation as a band of thugs. As someone put it, they were the "Oakland Raiders of college football.
And they were furthermore run by a coach who had no business coaching students: Jimmy Johnson, who later went on to coach the Dallas Cowboys and who has thankfully retired from coaching. He personified everything that is wrong with modern college footbal. The thugishness on the team was something he apparently didn't discourage.
The game would be a contest between the good guys and the bad guys.
The Hurricane players decided to dress the part--in military fatigues. In a pre-game steak fry, to which both teams were invited, Penn State players ribbed the camo-bedecked Hurricanes about their coach, among other things. The humorless Hurricane players walked off in a huff, one remarking, "Did the Japanese sit down and eat with Pearl Harbor before they bombed them? No. We're outta here." The team walked out.
"Excuse me," said a Penn State player. "But didn't the Japanese lose the war?"
When the Penn State players arrived for the game, they stepped off the bus--dressed in suits. As they made their way to the locker room, Johnson's thugs were there to greet them. Paterno referred to both these incidents in his wonderful, Paterno: By the Book:
"I don't know whether Jimmy helped his kids plan their disgraceful walkout. ... But I know he was there. Nor did he raise a finger of caution when we were climbing out of our bus for the locker room as his team ... just about blocked our path, waving and taunting and yelling, 'We'll get you, you mothers.' (I'm only using half their word)."Paterno cautioned his players, telling them to expend their energy on the field.
After having lost to Oklahoma the previous year in the Orange Bowl, Paterno's players wanted a win, and the attitude of the Miami players made them want it even more.
But the Hurricane's offense wasn't doing well either. The much vaunted Testaverde couldn't get anything going, despite the undersized Penn State safeties, which the Hurricanes had ridiculed before the game as "smurfs." It began to become apparent to Miami's offense that the Nitanny Lion defensive backs hit. Hard. And even though Penn State's offense kept stalling, Miami began turning over the ball. In the fourth quarter, Testaverde threw to the wrong places, and when he threw to the right place, his receivers dropped the ball. But Miami still managed a field goal, making it 10-7.
Peterno himself was not worried. His philosophy was that you win with defense, and second with special teams. All the offense had to do was not hurt them. This is exactly what happened.
Testaverde, shaken and confused by Penn State's shifting schemes, threw the ball right into the hands of a Penn State defender, who ran it to the Hurricane's five yard line. On the next play, the Penn State quarterback went in for a touchdown. The score was 14-10, and that's how the game ended.
The good guys had won.
When the board of Penn State basically fired Paterno, they sacrificed him on the altar of their own reputation. Rather than do the right thing to the man who had done so much for the university and its players and students, they did the easy thing. Paterno was 85 years old and suffering from health problems. He had already resolved, in order to make things easier for the university, to retire at the end of the year, which was shortly approaching. The board should have left it at that. It didn't.
Paterno called what he did at Penn State a "grand experiment." What was the experiment? It was a simple recipe: "Success with honor." This he accomplished not only by being a moral example to his players, but by doing something that too many college and high school coaches fail to do--some by simply not even trying: ensure their players do well academically.
Penn State football players not only had to perform on the field, they had to perform in the classroom. He produced 37 first team all-Americans. In 2010, the team sported an 84 percent graduation rate, a rate too rare in college athletics. And the emphasis Paterno gave to academics didn't end with the players on the team. He gave millions of his own money and money that he raised to improve Penn State's academic programs.
It is interesting to note that while the Penn State football stadium is named after a former governor, the library is named after him: The Paterno Library.
The scandal itself was not Paterno's fault. Nobody even pretends that it was. He did what he was supposed to do, reporting what little had been reported to him by Mike McQuary to school officials the next day, one of whom was the head of the campus police. But as soon as the scandal was announced, the Monday morning moralists swung into action, spouting casuistry as they came. Local police had known about Sandusky since 1998, but let it go.
And some of the criticism had come from ESPN, which itself had sat on a recording it had of a conversation with the wife of Syracuse assistant basketball coach Bernie Fine, revealing something of the man now charged with charges similar to those against Sandusky--a recording they sat on for years.
Within a matter of hours, the reputation of Paterno who been the paragon of propriety and virtue in a world characterized by two little of either was in tatters.
Even before the report of Paterno's death, the wheels were falling off the moral case against Paterno. Mike McQuery, who witnessed what we know now to have been child molestation recently testified that he didn't tell Paterno all that he had seen. And the board is now being battered by charges from its own alumni that it did Paterno wrong.
He was told of his firing in a phone call from a board member. It was cheap. It was tawdry. And it was entirely without class.
Paterno's reaction to what was done to him, on the other hand, was as classy as the rest of his career. "You know, I'm not as concerned about me," Paterno told one interviewer. "What's happened to me has been great. I got five great kids. Seventeen grandchildren. I've had a wonderful experience here at Penn State. I don't want to walk away from this thing bitter."
He said he was not bitter, although he had every right to be. He wanted everyone to understand that this wasn't a football scandal. "I'm not worried about me. I think the courts will have their decisions as to what happens. That's where I want to leave it. I want to leave it on a high note and let the legal process do what they got to do."
The Sandusky scandal happened to Paterno in the fourth quarter of his life. He was 85 years old, having been head coach for 46 years, and having served at Penn State in other capacities for more years than that. The scandal put him behind as he approached the final minutes.
But Paterno was a devout Catholic Christian who believed that the game doesn't end here. Despite the fact that you are behind as you near the end is not reason to give up hope. It was a message he told his players again and again over the course of his storied life.
Joe Paterno was a good guy, and good guys eventually win.