STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — EDITOR'S NOTE--Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, whose Nittany Lions face the University of Oklahoma's Sooners in the Orange Bowl for the national championship, is adored by partisan fans and respected--if not always liked--by his players. Here is a look at the man and his methods.
At Beaver Stadium, football fans chant for "Joe Pa" as if he were family. They idolize him in song and wave giant posters bearing his likeness.
To the admiring alumni and students at Penn State, Joe Paterno is a wise uncle. To the football players, he is a strict father.
Some critics sniff that Paterno has been elevated to the status of demi-god. Admirers say he is a steadied conscience to the sport of football.
Whatever people think of him, Joseph Vincent Paterno, who turned 59 on Dec. 21, is at the zenith of college football.
"Many a night when I go to bed, I think how lucky I've been and I get nervous," Paterno says. "I get scared. I think, God, the good Lord's been too good to me. I've got to do something."
What Paterno is doing these days is preparing for a New Year's night battle for the national championship. Penn State, with an 11-0 record, faces Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.
It will be Paterno's 17th bowl game in 20 years. He has won 81% of all his games since 1966. His record is third among active coaches, behind Barry Switzer of Oklahoma and Tom Osborne of Nebraska, and 14th among major colleges coaches of all time.
Paterno has sent 121 players to the pros.
The beak-nosed Brooklyn native, whose trademarks are thick, tinted eyeglasses and black shoes over white socks, is a romantic about his sport and a softie about the high school boys he turns into men. His wife, Sue, calls him a realistic idealist.
"Nine or 10 years from now I'll have guys who hate my guts now write me long letters," Paterno says. "And I've had a whole series of kids who would come back and all of a sudden come in and say, 'Gee coach, I never thought I'd be saying this, but you don't know how many times in the clutch I've done something because of what you said or what you did.'
"And in that sense, I think I'm doing a decent job for them."
Joe Paterno, a man who walks to think and falls asleep listening to opera, once wanted to be a lawyer. While playing quarterback at Brown University, he studied English literature, developing an appreciation of romantic poets.
He came 36 years ago to central Pennsylvania's Happy Valley, as this rural oasis amid the Allegheny mountains is called, following Coach Rip Engle from Brown as an assistant coach. In 1966, Engle retired and Paterno took over.
Paterno's winning records and his refusal to leave Penn State several years ago for a coaching job in the National Football League further endeared him to fans. He is also known for his stubbornness, temper, and outspoken views on education and the rules of football.
Paterno is opposed to freshman eligibility, though as long as it is allowed he will play them. He's for the toughest of sanctions when schools get caught cheating. He harps on high academic standards. The College Football Association recently recognized Penn State as one of only three schools this year to graduate at least 75% of its football players on scholarships.
Paterno is also one of the few major college football coaches with a listed home telephone number. That's so players or parents can get in touch with him easily.
"I think you go to college to try to find out who you are," Paterno says. "You try to find out what you can do, what you can't do, and I think always with the sense that you're going to try to make a difference and yet realize that unless the good Lord wants to let you do it, you're not going to do it, so you better have some humility."
If his players don't have that humility naturally, he drills it into them.
Paterno's players don't brag about their talents.
"I do think it's important that the kids have a feel for it--that somebody gave them something," Paterno says. "They ought to make the most of it and if they're successful, make sure they're humble about it."
Paterno was uncomfortable receiving an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from his alma mater.
"I was embarrassed to get the degree because some of the kids I had gone to school with had done so many more things that took much more ability, that were much more meaningful to society," he says. "But I know what kind of world we live in and that people are groping for people that they can identify with. I'm not naive."
Paterno also is not naive about the sport that has consumed nearly two-thirds of his life.
"I think that throughout history young men have had to go out and prove their masculinity, their courage. ... There's always been some form of game where we needed to vent that savage part of us," he says. "I think we need that and I think football is a good way to channel that energy."