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Penn State, Paterno Both Have Tough Numbers to Maintain

September 06, 1987|RALPH BERNSTEIN | Associated Press

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — There are some big numbers looming ahead for Joe Paterno and his Penn State football team, but as always Paterno is trying to look beyond the numbers to the people behind them.

The biggest number is the No. 1 ranking the Nittany Lions had at the end of last season after upsetting Miami in the Fiesta Bowl. That number has been changed to an 11 in The Associated Press 1987 preseason poll.

The other number is 200. That's the number of career wins Paterno will have the next time the Lions walk off the field with a victory. It should come in the Sept. 5 opener against Bowling Green.

Paterno, in his 22nd season as head coach at Penn State, is surrounded by numbers: two national titles, four coach-of-the-year awards, 15 Top 10 rankings, six undefeated seasons and 18 bowl appearances.

But he never forgets the people.

"I want somebody to say, 'hey, Paterno coached there this many years and a lot of guys who played for him learned from him, and we enjoyed watching his teams play," Paterno said.

"I've tried to make sure that our kids understand that they are here to get an education, that the game was to be played to have some fun, to keep it in perspective and understand that it is a game."

Paterno, 60, says that if it's a question of winning and losing, "football is a silly game."

Paterno tries to use that "silly game" to get across some important messages.

"The NCAA has standards but Joe has his and his are tougher," said Keith Radecec, the starting center on last year's team. "He emphasizes the books . . . or you don't play. He won't settle for anything halfway."

As a result, he is not always close to his players, a fact that is just fine with him.

"I don't want any of that," Paterno said "I want to make sure people do it the way I think it should be done to win, get control of their lives and destinies as people. Sometimes they don't like it. Like your own kids. But it's easier for me to do it with these kids than probably their parents."

"Because I've got what they want. I've got the carrot, and a lot of them resent it," he said.

"But it's amazing how many people who had trouble smiling at me in the locker room alter their opinions after the experience is over. I get some of the most moving letters after they leave. They tell me they remember what I said about teamwork. A lot who didn't like me turn out to be some of the best friends I have."

Paterno also tries to use his position of power as a highly successful--and lucrative for the school--head coach to influence policy at Penn State.

"For years I've worked to get the university to get into fund-raising efforts," he said. "For years I've felt we have not done the things we could have done to make this a better university. I've been chafing at the bit."

He recalled that in 1982, after Penn State's first national championship, he had an opportunity to speak to the Board of Trustees.

"At that time I challenged them about raising money for professors chairs, scholarships, doing something about the library. Let's not be satisfied in having a second rate department in whatever it may be. If we can't make it really good, let's get rid of it.

"I've always wanted to be more than a football coach and I've worked to have an impact on this university. I don't know what kind of impact I've had, but I've worked very hard to help this university."

Certainly, Paterno is not shy about taking to the soapbox on issues he feels strongly about.

He's done that on such subjects as eliminating the freshman eligibility rule, Proposition 48 and a playoff for the national title, all of which he favors.

"I know people say, 'what right has he to shoot his mouth off. But I have no problem with that."

He laughs when you hint that when he retires, probably in five years when he becomes a senior citizen, his name might be remembered along with the likes of Knute Rockne, Amos Alonzo Stagg, Glen (Pop) Warner, Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, Paul (Bear) Bryant and Bud Wilkinson.

That's not one of his priorities. He just wants to be remembered by his players as the guy who got them started on the right road.

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