"I'd be embarrassed to drive a Cadillac," says Paterno. "My wife would be, too. We wouldn't be comfortable having a maid. We just don't need a lot of things."
In 1973, the New England Patriots offered Paterno $1.3 million to coach their National Football League team. Penn State students, alumni and fans mailed Paterno postcards that read: "Joe, Don't Go Pro." Neighborhood children stood outside his house and chanted the same plea.
"Here, I have an opportunity to affect the lives of a lot of young people -- and not just on my football team," he said. "I'm kidding myself that that would be true at the professional level."
At Penn State, the fit, 5-foot-10, 165-pound Paterno, a name that means "fatherly" in Italian, is the Big Man on Campus. He is affectionately known as "Jo Pa."
He walks to work, goes to church on Sunday and at least once a year likes to hold a "bull session" in a campus dormitory on any topic -- football, politics, life.
One of the most popular items in campus book stores is a life-sized cardboard likeness of Paterno. It sells for $24.95. The money goes to a Penn State library fund -- named for Paterno.
Paterno was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., four days before Christmas in 1926, as the first of four children of Angelo and Florence Paterno, an Italian-American couple of modest means who demanded that their youngsters hit the books.
Angelo Paterno worked his way through law school during the Depression and became a clerk in an appeals court, where young Joe spent many days watching lawyers match wits and judges preside.
Joe Paterno planned to become an attorney, but after he graduated from Brown University in 1950, where he majored in English literature and played quarterback, he switched to football. He became an assistant coach at Penn State.
"My father loved the law, but he never leaned on me. He wanted me to do whatever I wanted to do. My mother said, 'Why did you go to college? After all those years, you're just going to coach.' But after my name started to appear in the papers she thought it was all right."
Paterno, the father of five children -- two girls, three boys -- says: "I have no regrets."
Still, he retains a breadth of cultural interests. "I like music. I have a lousy ear and I can't sing. But I really like classical music. I like opera. In fact, 'Carmen' was on last night, on educational TV," he said, and he watched it.
"I like to read just about anything," Paterno continued. "I always liked classics. Now, I'm going back to (the Roman poet) Virgil (and) I just finished a book on Napoleon."
Dennis Booher, as a Penn State graduate student in 1985, profiled Paterno for his doctoral degree in physical education. It took him two years and 100 interviews. He wrote:
"Joe Paterno is much like a corporate executive operating a large business. He makes decisions based on what's best for the business, not necessarily the individual. He ... demands total accountability in academics and athletics.... There is no room for the lazy or the weak."
Booher found most ex-players overwhelmingly supportive of Paterno, hailing him as a supreme motivator. He also noted, though, that some scorn their old coach as a ranting ogre.
"He's a disciplinarian, a driver, a pusher, he yells at players," Booher says. "But I believe Joe Paterno is what he says he is. He wants his players to do as well as they can. That's his thesis on life."
Booher, now athletic director at the Penn State campus in Schuylkill, Pa., says Paterno's pious image was developed by the media and the university. "Paterno says he objects. But I doubt he objects that much. He's human."
Paterno has been a crusader, championing reforms to correct problems ranging from uneducated "student-athletes" to recruiting scandals -- like the one recently made public at Southern Methodist University, where boosters, with the approval of top school officials, made under-the-table payments to players.
Paterno has plenty to say on a variety of topics.
--SMU: "It's unbelievable to think that kind of corruption came right from the top of the power structure. The NCAA did what it had to do" in canceling SMU's 1988 football season.
--Drug testing: "I'm for drug testing, even though we're violating some of the rights (against self-incrimination) that we are all entitled to. But if I'm going to be consistent with doing what I think is best for young people, I should know if they're horsing around with any kind of drug."
--Paying players: "I think part of their scholarship should be some spending money, $50 to $60 a month. If the NCAA is going to prohibit them from holding a job during the school year, let's give them some money so they can be part of the mainstream -- so they can buy a new shirt, a cup of coffee."
--Boosters: "You've got to control them. I tell them, 'I want your money, but I don't want your two cents. Keep your nose out of this program .... If I find out you're horsing around, you won't get a ticket into the stadium."'