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Joe Paterno, the Inovator : Want to Get Penn State Coach Peturbed? Call Him Old Fashioned


STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — If you want to get Joe Paterno perturbed, just call him old-fashioned.

He shakes his head, his brow furrows and his eyes become even larger under those thick trifocals.

"That really irks me, and sometimes I get a little annoyed," Paterno said angrily.

Despite having the same haircut and wearing the same familiar coaching outfit--dark glasses, shirt and tie, slacks rolled up to expose white socks and black sneakers--for 40 years, Paterno insists that he is not stuck in the past.

Decades before the concepts became popular, Paterno called for a college football playoff system and paying players a stipend. While Big Ten and Pac 10 officials have been reluctant to end the 50-year relationship with the Rose Bowl, Paterno has been pushing for the conferences to buck tradition and join the bowl coalition.

"I probably would do more things differently than most people," he said. "I'm not afraid of change if I think it's helpful."

Paterno particularly resents the implication that his offense is boring and out-of-date.

"Very few people mention that our 1982 team was the first national champion that passed more than it ran," Paterno said.

However, don't expect the Nittany Lions to start wearing flashy uniforms or adopting the run-and-shoot any time soon.

"Just to change for the sake of change or to try to do something because someone else is doing something new . . . doesn't make any sense to me," said Paterno, sporting an August tan that will be faded by the time Penn State opens the season against Texas Tech on Sept. 7.

In the 45 years that Paterno has been a coach at Penn State, he's seen a lot of change. His salary has gone from $3,600 to some undisclosed six-figure number.

When Paterno arrived at Penn State, the Nittany Lions had two bowl appearances and no bowl victories. Penn State has 19 bowl victories, 16 with Paterno as head coach. Paterno is the only coach in history to win the Cotton, Orange, Rose and Sugar bowls.

During Paterno's reign, Penn State has gone from a solid Eastern team, to a perennial national-title contender, to a Big Ten powerhouse. Paterno, meanwhile, has gone from an anonymous assistant coach to a legend. The bothersome autograph hounds are what he dislikes most about the job.

"It's very, very difficult just to sit around and talk politics or have a few laughs at a restaurant," Paterno said. "I try to always be in control when I'm out, even when people annoy me and harass me to the point where you'd like to just give him a good shove and get rid of them."

Paterno has never been consumed by football. He would rather spend time with his family or discuss literature and politics than study tape or speak at a coaching clinic.

"People talk about stress--I've never really felt stressed about winning or losing," he said. "I'm always able to sleep after a game."

But early in his career, Paterno, 68, was more prone to doubt his ability.

"After every loss, I thought I was going to quit and go to law school," said Paterno, who graduated from Brown University.

But Paterno never went to law school and he has turned down several overtures from other schools and the NFL, including a multimillion-dollar deal from the Boston Patriots in 1972 when his salary was just $35,000 a year.

He rejected the offer on the urging of his wife, Sue, who wanted their children to grow up in State College. But the offers never stopped coming.

The most recent offer came this year from the University of Miami, and Paterno was intrigued by the challenge of keeping up the winning tradition and cleaning the program's image. After considering the job for one night, Paterno turned it down, as he has dozens of others.

When Penn State entered the Big Ten, Paterno said he was within five years of retirement and his goal was to win the conference and the Rose Bowl before that point.

The Nittany Lions achieved both those goals in their second year of league play, but that hasn't changed Paterno's retirement schedule.

"I'll just keep evaluating the situation every couple years," he said. "Right now, I think I can coach at least five more years."

And when he hangs up his whistle, don't expect Paterno to disappear to his home on the Jersey shore.

"Retirement is a word I don't particularly like," he said. "If there came a point where it was time to turn this program over to someone else, I'd want to take on another career."

Paterno, a good friend of George Bush, is not interested in partisan politics, but he would like to "get involved in a cause that would make this a better country, something I really strongly believe in, such as doing a better job in the inner-city schools."

Although Paterno had wanted to get involved in politics when he was younger, he said he never regrets sticking with coaching college football.

"For me to second-guess and think what might have been, it would really be almost sinful," he said. "God couldn't give me more. My concern is, am I giving him enough back?"

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