Read an Excerpt
Pride of the Lions
The Biography of Joe Paterno
By Frank Fitzpatrick
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2011 Frank Fitzpatrick
All rights reserved.
College football in Alabama is a religious experience, one with rituals, a liturgy, and a deity in a hound's-tooth hat. "The definition of an atheist in Alabama," longtime University of Georgia coach Wally Butts once said, "is someone who doesn't believe in Bear Bryant." So it was hardly surprising that several hours before their team's 2010 opener against visiting Penn State thousands of crimson-clad Alabama fans reverently lined a pathway outside Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa.
These zealots were securing spots along the Walk of Champions, 100 yards of brick connecting University Boulevard and the stadium's north entrance. Since its construction six years ago, Alabama supporters have gathered there early on football Saturdays. Lining the walk, they not only can glimpse visiting players as they arrive but, more importantly, they can welcome the home team in the same adoring way Christ was welcomed to Jerusalem.
As if to enhance the spiritual connection between 'Bama boosters and their team, the university recently added a shrine in an adjacent plaza. There, the four former Alabama coaches who had produced national championships — Gene Stallings, Frank Thomas, Wallace Wade, and Paul "Bear" Bryant — were honored like secular saints, their bronze statues standing in well-tended grottos that invited silent worship.
Such manufactured venues for veneration were typical of major college football in the 21 Century. For its few dozen behemoths — and Alabama and Penn State were surely among them — the sport was a wildly successful amalgam of salesmanship, spectacle, and spirituality. These two state schools, for example, spent a combined $51 million on football in 2009 and earned $146 million, each filling their constantly expanding stadiums with more than 100,000 spectators on autumn Saturdays. And it was the unwavering devotion of financial supporters, true believers large and small, that paid the bills. Bonding rites like the Walk of Champions and the coaches' shrine helped ensure that the money would keep flowing. After all, if you failed to buy a personal-seat license, what would the Bear think?
On this sweltering September afternoon, the waiting spectators — men in garish crimson blazers and perfectly coiffed women in neat dresses of the same hue — seemed more expectant than usual. The Alabama team they prepared to greet had won a national title the previous January, the school's 13, and was predicted to contend for another. But on September 11, 2010, there was an added attraction. They were going to get a peek at a football god. Not some bronzed idol in a grotto, but one who at 83 was still walking, breathing ... and astonishingly, coaching.
Joe Paterno, "St. Joe" as he often was called by fans and his few detractors, was making his first trip to Alabama in 20 years. For weeks, sportswriters and columnists in the state had been heralding the return. Paterno's connections to and admiration for Bryant lent him a special cachet here. As noted by Buck Paolone, a former Penn State player who lives near Tuscaloosa, his former coach was "admired, respected, and talked about in the most reverent of terms [by Alabama's football fans]. Not in the same terms as Bear Bryant, but damn near close."
Each season it got more difficult to grasp the Methuselah-like span of Paterno's career. He had been at Penn State since 1950. Consumer credit cards didn't exist then, and fewer than a million American homes had televisions. Amos Alonzo Stagg was still coaching. Jim Thorpe was still alive. And Bear Bryant, dead now for 27 years, was just 36 years old.
Paterno waited 16 years to become a head coach. His first game, in 1966, came against a Maryland team coached by Lou Saban. Saban, who moved on from Maryland to coach at eight more places, had died in 2009, 30 years after his final game at a Division I school.
Today, 526 games later, Paterno's coaching opponent was another Saban. Alabama's Nick, 58 now, had been just 14 years old when Lou, a much older cousin, faced Penn State in 1966.
In the interim, Paterno had accumulated more wins than any coach in major-college history. No one had more bowl appearances, more bowl victories, more seasons as a head coach, or more seasons at a single school. He had raised millions, donated millions, and won countless honors. He even had his own statue in a grotto outside Beaver Stadium at State College.
Penn State's buses arrived outside the stadium first, disgorging players who looked surprisingly young and small in street clothes so ill-fitting they made the famously fussy Paterno cringe. When the old coach emerged, his appearance sparked a buzz along the Walk of Champions. Soon respectful applause and a rhythmic chant of "Joe PaTer-No" erupted.
If any of these Alabamans were getting their first look at him, it must have been disappointing. Physically, even in his prime, Paterno never matched the conventional image of a football coach. He was more bird than Bear. He didn't loom; he flitted and fidgeted. Still a trim 165 pounds, there was none of the bulk-gone-to-beefiness of a Charlie Weis or a John Madden, none of the visible intensity of a Jon Gruden or a Pete Carroll, none of the clever gambler's bearing that Bryant possessed in spades.
Instead what Paterno had after all these years was an aura. The Nittany Lions' coach had accumulated so much agreeable history that it glowed like a halo above a head that was at long last graying. That past insulated him from criticism. It guaranteed him control. It preceded him like a path of palm fronds into visiting cities and made him an icon in his adopted state. It earned him fame, fortune, power, and respect.
He could quell whatever doubts arose about his health or his supposedly fading abilities by pointing to the past and summoning some strategy or trick he had used before. He could deflect disapproval by citing a name, a year, a team that emphasized his career's remarkable success. He'd heard it all, accomplished it all, seen it all. He could do anything it seemed ... except walk away.
Thick glasses — however, thanks to recent Lasik surgery that helped correct 20/20,000 vision, not as thick as he has worn in the past — covered dark and purposeful eyes. His olive skin was tanned from vacations at the New Jersey shore and practices in the hot Central Pennsylvania sun. His lips were pursed and his face was locked in a perpetual squint that lent it an inquisitiveness.
Bespectacled, slight, and swarthy, Paterno not only looked different than most coaches, he was different. He spoke differently, thought differently, had different interests. How many successful college coaches majored in literature at an Ivy League university? Or talked about Dante at a news conference? Or gave their future wives a copy of Camus' The Stranger, asking her to write a summary of her thoughts on the book so that he could compare them with his own? Or listened to opera while devising plays? Perfectly happy to inhabit the public's image, Paterno once confessed, "I am a little bit of an egghead."
That dichotomy — a kind of renaissance man thriving in a profession with an inherent anti-intellectual strain — was just one of the many Paterno contradictions. A streetwise kid from teeming Brooklyn, he had spent the bulk of his life in a small, bucolic Pennsylvania mountain town. A coach who saw football as a means to a fuller life, not an end in itself, Paterno was consumed by the game. "He doesn't like the travel," said Guido D'Elia, a Penn State marketing and communications official who is Paterno's liaison to the outside world. "He wastes no time. No matter what city we're in, New York or Washington, the second we can get back, we're gone."
What had drawn him to the profession against the wishes of his proud mother was his competitive spirit. What made him stay so long was his idealism. Despite his reputation, he was more idealistic than intellectual. The Jesuits had convinced him early that men were born with destinies. Long ago he learned that his destiny was coaching at Penn State. Proud of his status as not just a head coach but a fully tenured professor, content in a town so small it would barely have qualified as a neighborhood in his native Brooklyn, he had stubbornly remained in Happy Valley, spurning numerous offers from the NFL and elsewhere, as well as a few entreaties to run for political office.
In Pennsylvania, he had won two national championships, had five unbeaten seasons, and operated a program that had never been on NCAA probation. Penn State's reputation was so pristine, in fact, that even the hard-probing Dallas Morning News had to admit it was "as clean a program as can be found." Somehow, Paterno had learned to balance what his late brother termed his "rage to win" with a belief that it was more essential to build character than Hall of Fame credentials.
Not long after winning his first national championship in 1982, Paterno urged his university to capitalize on the title not by building new sports facilities or hiring more coaches, but by improving the faculty. "Without Joe, Penn State might still be an agricultural college," said Ronnie Christ, a Harrisburg sportswriter who has known Paterno for decades.
Paterno has never been afraid to espouse his Grand Experiment — his long-held notion that football and academics could be compatible. In making that point, he has lectured CEOs, trustees, graduates, players, and fellow coaches. Some have welcomed the advice. Many, particularly his more pragmatic coaching colleagues, have not. While they respected Paterno, they frequently found his pronouncements to be sanctimonious, holier-than-thou, and even condescending.
He was certainly the most recognizable coach in college sports. But was he the best? How would such a thing be determined? By victories? Years on the job? Graduation rates? Bobby Bowden, Paterno's vanquished longtime rival for most career wins, said whatever the ground rules, it was no contest. "When you add up the three main criteria for a successful football program — academic success, football success, and development of character — Joe wins by a landslide," Bowden said.
Because he has lingered so long, Paterno has already outlived many of those who canonized him over the years, the ones for whom his Grand Experiment was fresh and appealing and possible. A new generation of broadcasters and sportswriters was not so worshipful. For them, time had tattered the image. They were as likely to see Paterno as a stubborn octogenarian as a saint.
They were not entirely wrong. For at least a decade now, Paterno had been the sporting symbol of a cranky old man too cantankerous to yield to reality. The more he aged, the sharper his faults appeared. Increasingly prickly with the media, officials, his players, and his assistants, Paterno could seem demanding, dictatorial, petty, annoying.
He had evolved from ambitious prodigy to coaching genius to elder statesman to an impossibly aged legend. Some of the younger fans along the Walk of Champions who knew him only in that last stage couldn't contain their smiles and giggles. People their age snickered whenever Paterno yelled at an official or a sportswriter, garbled a name, or tried to talk about some new technology. He once called Twitter "Tweedle-Dee" and Facebook "Face Mask."
For all his accomplishments, he has remained nearly devoid of pretensions. "He always, always wants to stay in the background," said son Jay, a PSU assistant. He drives an old car, lives in a modest house, and belongs to no country clubs.
Villanova basketball coach Jay Wright likes to tell the story of his first meeting with the Pennsylvania legend. With a mutual friend who had promised an introduction, Wright had arrived at the Penn State coach's home after a rain-soaked Nittany Lions victory in 2007. He was ushered into the den. Soon Paterno, shoes off, still wearing his wet sideline clothing, shuffled in. He told Wright to grab a beer from a nearby cooler and a seat in his recliner. The then 80-year-old coach sat down on the floor, propping his back against the paneled wall. "I couldn't believe it," said Wright, who grew up near Philadelphia as a Penn State fan. "This was Joe Paterno. An idol of mine. He was soaked and shoeless. Sitting against a wall. He had one chair in his family room, and he gave it to me."
Wearing a pressed and dry version of the same outfit — khakis, a buttoned-down blue oxford shirt, blue-striped tie, a blue windbreaker, and familiar black cleats — he averted his eyes downward as he moved through the cheering Alabama throng. Cell phones and cameras were pointed at him. His pipe-cleaner-thin legs bowed, and he walked with a slight limp.
A violent sideline collision with a player in 2006 had broken Paterno's left leg. Two years later he had badly injured the other while he was, in one of the many archaic phrases he still used, "horsing around" at practice. In recent years, he also was hospitalized briefly for fatigue and dehydration and had hip-replacement surgery. For a while, his gait was so unsteady and the concern for his well-being so intense that he had to use a cane and coach from the press box.
After each of those injuries, and as recently as the past summer when digestive problems forced him to cancel several annual preseason events, speculation arose that Paterno at last was ready to step aside. Such talk had popped up sporadically over the last 20 years, particularly when Penn State endured an unprecedented run of losses around the turn of the millennium. And when it wasn't fans, alumni, and the media suggesting he soon retire, it was Paterno himself. "Every five years or so," said his son Jay, "he says he's gonna get out in a couple of years." But here he was, on the doorstep of his 61 season at Penn State, his 45th as its head football coach, still on the job. He might not have been quite as involved in the details as he once had been, but to anyone close to his program it remained obvious that the man who already was in college football's Hall of Fame was no figurehead.
Once inside the Alabama stadium, Paterno strolled slowly around the lush playing field, like an old soldier revisiting a battlefield from his youth. He was no sentimentalist, but he had to realize he wouldn't be back to this college football landmark. Alabama was coming to Penn State in 2011 and after that, who knew? College schedules were made years, sometimes decades, in advance. He had one year remaining on his contract, and at 85 when it expired, he almost certainly would be at the end of the line.
Or would he? Others who had anticipated his departure in the past had been wrong. In 2004 and again in 2008, Paterno had been granted nearly unthinkable extensions, the most recent a three-year deal with a bizarre clause that permitted either side to shorten or extend it "as necessary," though no one doubted Paterno's ultimate authority in the matter.
As plausible as his retirement sounded to outsiders, it wasn't something Paterno seemed willing to face. Not yet. He told some of the high school athletes he recruited in 2011 that he'd be around "five more years." He might never be ready to walk away from the role that had consumed his life. "I've never been around anyone who has aged as reluctantly as Joe," said longtime friend Jim Tarman, the former Penn State sports infrmation director and athletics director.
He stayed because, for him, this was not a job. This was life. This was destiny. He had made the decision he was meant to make in 1950. He was fortunate. "My destiny and what Iwanted to do," he once said, "were one and the same."
The weeks leading up to this Alabama game had given Paterno opportunities for reflection. Not that he was a particularly reflective man. You didn't thrive for as long as he had by looking back. Even now, in his ninth decade on earth, he preferred to gaze ahead. He'd changed and adapted whenever he'd needed to while at the same time keeping intact the things he felt were important, such as Penn State's plain uniforms and his rigid practice routines. But he was 83. And even if he preferred not to think about it or discuss it whenever he was asked by sportswriters who were insistent in raising the subject no matter how much he demurred, he had to know he couldn't go on forever.
Excerpted from Pride of the Lions by Frank Fitzpatrick. Copyright © 2011 Frank Fitzpatrick. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.