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IN THE WORLD OF COLLEGE ATHLETICS . . . : HE'S NOT AN AVERAGE JOE : Paterno Wants to Win--and Usually Does--but What Sets Him Apart From Many Football Coaches Is That He Won't Put Game Ahead of Academics, Integrity

May 17, 1987|THOMAS FERRARO | United Press International

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Joe Paterno shifts uncomfortably on the couch of his office at Penn State University and makes a confession about his holier-than-thou image.

"It scares the heck out of me," booms the hallowed football coach. "Because I know I'm not that clean. Nobody is that clean."

"I don't want to appear to be any more than I am," says Paterno, now speaking in a near whisper. "And that's a good, hard-working coach who is a decent guy, a family guy, who doesn't want to cheat."

"I lose my temper sometimes. I'm not an easy-going guy when it comes to getting a football team ready. I'm tough on the kids. I'm tough on my staff."

At 60, Joseph Vincent Paterno, self-described everyman, is widely perceived to be the saint in black cleats of the often seamy world of college sports.

With a big nose, a Brooklyn accent and glasses as thick as a Coca-Cola bottle, the Ivy League-educated Paterno is also one of the most revered college coaches since Notre Dame's fabled Knute Rockne.

This fall, Paterno will become the first major college coach to post 200 career victories, with a lifetime winning percentage of more than 80 percent. More important to the reputation of the game, he will also boast a graduation rate by his players of more than 80 percent.

Finding a Paterno critic can be as tough as spotting a hole in Penn State's defense. But there are a few -- some disgruntled ex-players, rival coaches, a doubting educator.

They say that although Paterno preaches balancing academics and athletics, he is basically no different than most big-time college coaches -- an egotistical zealot with a whistle, dedicated to winning games and packing stadiums.

Paterno, now getting ready for his 22nd season as Penn State's head football coach, says he's no saint, but insists he's no phony, either.

"We are trying to win football games ... but I tell the kids 'enjoy yourself. There is much besides football.' I want them to learn art, literature and music and all the other things college has to offer."

While stories pop up about ex-jocks who can't read more than a comic book, Paterno's commandos move on to become teachers, doctors, lawyers, corporate chiefs. Ninety-nine have become pro football players.

Four years ago, Paterno helped head a national campaign to increase academic standards for college athletes, and now wants them raised again. "We're just kidding ourselves if we think we can bring kids in with minimal credentials and have them play football or basketball and get a meaningful education," Paterno says.

He speaks out against exploitation of student-athletes, enjoys opera, scolds players who cuss and exhorts fellow faculty members to make their academic departments "No. 1."

Mounted in Paterno's office is a quote from poet Robert Browning: "A man's reach should exceed his grasp."

Paterno gets involved with his community, Penn State, a school with 33,000 students. Last year, he personally donated $100,000 to a library fund and another $50,000 to a minority-student scholarship fund.

The coach is compassionate. But he can be riled.

In 1969, he left word for President Richard Nixon -- after Nixon proclaimed Texas to be national champs and then offered a "special" plaque to Penn State for having a 21-game winning streak -- to "shove it."

In January, Paterno was named "Sportsman of the Year" by Sports Illustrated, which wrote: "Joe Paterno is a beacon of integrity -- and he knows how to win."

A week later, Paterno orchestrated a 14-10 upset of No. 1-ranked Miami in the Fiesta Bowl for his second national championship, as decreed by the nation's wire services. He won the title once before, in 1982.

"To win a national championship is fine," says Paterno. "That's what you strive for. But striving is what's fun -- the planning, the preparation, the excitement, the tension of getting ready and playing."

"After it's over, it's over," he shrugs. "You won. So you won."

"I go back to (Thomas) Aquinas. 'Anticipation is the greater joy."'

Make no mistake about it, though. Joe Paterno doesn't like to lose.

At one point in 1984, when his team sputtered to 6-5, Paterno called his players "a bunch of babies." The next season, Penn State was within one victory of a national title when they fell to Oklahoma, 25-10, in the Orange Bowl.

Says Paterno, "That really wasn't a tough loss to take because that squad did as well as it could."

Along with being one of the most popular people in Pennsylvania, Paterno is also one of the best paid. He's estimated to earn well upwards of $100,000 a year, including salary, endorsements and speaking fees. He also holds tenure on the faculty, a rarity in any big-time college sport.

"I make good money -- and I think I should," Paterno says.

Yet, he leads a relatively austere life. He drives a red Ford Tempo and, with his wife of 26 years, Sue, a homemaker, in a modest house three blocks off the Penn State campus.

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