Just a quick bio about Coach Paterno before I get into my personal thoughts. Coach Paterno was born on December 21, 1926 and passed away on January 22, 2012. He grew up in the Flatbush section in New York City, according to the February 2012 issue of Town and Gown magazine, and played football at Brown University. He came to the coaching staff of Pennsylvania State University in 1950, under head coach Rip Engle. He married Penn State graduate Suzanne Pohland in 1962.
He was the Winningest Division 1-A Coach of all time, according to the Altoona Mirror.*
Coach Paterno took the reins as head coach for the start of the 1966 season and went to his first bowl game one year later; a 17-17 tie with Florida State in the Gator Bowl.** Coach Joe Paterno had three opportunities to be a head coach in the NFL. First, in 1969 with the Pittsburgh Steelers, then in 1970 with the Green Bay Packers, and finally in 1972 with the New England Patriots. He turned down all offers.** Coach Paterno and the Penn State Nittany Lion football team moved to the Big Ten Conference in 1993.
Coach Joe Paterno was the only coach at Penn State that I’ve ever known. His integrity and generosity are well documented. He gave back millions to the university and coached and mentored many football players, making certain that they were quality, well-rounded human beings.
I remember one year not too long ago, when one of the football players got into some legal trouble. When no one came forward as to whom the guilty party was, Coach Paterno insisted that the entire team clean the stadium for as many Sunday mornings as it took until someone fessed up. Coach Paterno believed that unity was the strength of a football team. I heard it once said that he liked to think of his team as a single entity rather than a group of individual players. I believe that is why no names were ever on the uniforms, nor was there ever any fancy logo on the helmets.
Many times as I would sit and watch the football games over the years, I would watch JoePa, as he was affectionately known, yell and scream at the officials. No, he was not a cranky old man; he was simply standing up for the players in whom he believed.
The popularity of Coach Paterno and his football team grew by leaps and bounds over the years, so much so that Beaver Stadium was expanded to accommodate over 110,000 people. I am old enough to remember when the two nose-bleed sections did not exist. In 1993, we joined the Big Ten Conference, ending our days as a major independent. Now we would have such teams to battle as Michigan, Ohio State, and Iowa. When I was growing up, one point against Penn State was that we didn’t play very tough competition. That changed when we got to the Big Ten. Coach Paterno and the team rose to the occasion and in the 1994 season went to the Rose Bowl, the Big Ten’s top bowl game, and beat Oregon 38-20.
I only had the rare opportunity to speak to Coach Paterno once. I was driving home one day and saw JoePa taking a stroll through my neighborhood. He liked to walk and never seemed afraid that people would swarm around him begging for autographs. I stopped my car and put the window down and said, “Hiya, Coach.” He waved back and I remember asking him how the team was going to be this year. I remember him giving me some reply such as, “We are a young football team this year, but I think we’re going to be pretty good.” Not wanting to press my luck, I waved and drove on. That encounter gave me the impression that Coach Paterno was much more accessible to people than others as famous as he was might be.
I only attended two Penn State games in my lifetime. The first one was in the late 70s, versus Pittsburgh. I remember it being so cold that even though I wore three pairs of socks with boots, my feet were still cold. The other game was many years later, versus Nebraska. The Cornhuskers came in ready to kick our butts. Boy did we hand them a surprise. My friend and I had second-row end-zone seats for that game and at the end of the game the Nebraska players walked off the field towards us. They all looked like a bus had hit them. Oh, yes, JoePa got them ready for that game.
Somehow, I thought Coach Paterno would literally die on the field, but in late 2011 the Penn State scandal of one of his former defensive coaches caused JoePa to be fired mid-season. For two nights, downtown State College was in rebellion; more or less non-destructive. People stood in the streets and stopped traffic, chanting Joe Pa-ter-no for literally an hour. I was unaware that one block down a news truck had been overturned.
The offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots, Bill O’Brien, will take over for interim coach Tom Bradley to start the 2012 season. I can hear all the TV announcers in my head already. “Penn State now begins the post Joe Paterno era.” I suppose with good reason, for he was the head coach for well over 40 years. It truly will be a changing of the guard. I wish our new coach all the best and I shall continue to support the team. Though I must admit, when news of the scandal first hit, I contemplated being a fan of the Pittsburgh Panthers, since I was born in Pittsburgh.
Time will tell if, as the expression goes, time heals all wounds. Until very soon, take care and happy reading.
**Bowl game information was from the USA Today magazine Paterno: The Man, the Era, and the Team.