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The Lion Stalks 300

Paterno Should Reach Milestone Against Bowling Green, and What's So Interesting About That?

September 11, 1998|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — He still doesn't get it, all the camera lenses focusing on him on media day. Joe Paterno stands in the noonday August sun in Beaver Stadium, arms folded at midfield, striking one what-am-I-doing-here? pose after another.

Men and women with notebooks have traipsed the Alleghenies to pay homage, yet Paterno has put out word that he isn't interested in homage.

"When I'm dead, it'll be fine," he has said.

But the cameramen and reporters don't go away.

Looking perplexed, Paterno ambles over to one writer in particular.

"You came all the way out from L.A. to see me?" he says with the slightest suggestion of guilt.

Really, what scant interest might there be in a man who, with a victory over Bowling Green on Saturday in Happy Valley, will become the sixth college football coach to win 300 games?

Why is Paterno so special for having done it all at one school, without having been on NCAA probation, without fanfare, without names on uniforms, without one hatchet-for-every-tackle decal plastered on helmets, without a pair of trousers that ever touched his shoelaces?

What would possess a newspaper to waste ink on a skinny Brooklyn kid headed to Brown Law School in 1950 when the new coach at Pennsylvania State University asked Paterno if he'd like to help out for the summer?

And that the temporary job has stretched to 48 years and counting?

What is so inspiring about an English literature major who has imparted on his players the writings of Robert Browning, "Man's reach should exceed his grasp," and Thomas Aquinas, "Anticipation was the greater joy."?

Who among us would care that Paterno is bet-the-farm assuredly the only college football coach in America who has read most of the novels on Random House's recent top 100 list, among them No. 4 "Lolita" by Vladimir Nabokov?

"Some people thought it was a dirty book," Paterno says. "I thought it was insight to somebody with a problem."

Or that last spring, while sportswriters were cracking the seal on "Street and Smith's" Paterno was revisiting Ibsen?

Or that, between novels, Paterno has produced two national championship teams, four other squads that were unbeaten but uncrowned, a 299-77-3 record, 53 first-team All-Americans, 20 academic All-Americans and 23 first-round NFL draft choices?

Or that he has won more bowl games, 18, than any coach living or dead?

Or that, among major college coaches, only Bear Bryant with 323, Pop Warner with 319, and Amos Alonzo Stagg with 314, have won more games?

Or that Paterno, who turns 72 in December, is almost a lock to pass all three because, he says, he's going to coach at least four more seasons?

"I feel good and healthy," he says. "I don't think it will be a question that I don't want to coach, it'll be a question of whether I physically could do it."

What does Florida State Coach Bobby Bowden know when he says of Paterno:

"I really believe that when Joe hangs 'em up, he might go down as tops. I'm talking, we can go back to Rockne, we can back to my idol, Bear Bryant, go back to Bob Neyland, go back to all the greats.

"Joe might be the guy everybody looks to because, to me, Joe has done everything right. He graduates his players, he's articulate and his character is impeccable, in my opinion."

What did the NFL know by drafting all those Paterno-produced linebackers--Jack Ham, Matt Millen, Shane Conlan?

What solitary soul in L.A. might care that Paterno could have been counting down to No. 300 as the coach at USC had former Penn State coach Rip Engle accepted the Trojans' coaching offer in the late '50s?

Paterno was an assistant on that Penn State staff and encouraged Engle to take the USC job.

What chump would plunk down a quarter to read about a coach who this year donated $3.5 million to his university, a man who has lived in the same house for 30 years, whose wife still irons his shirts, who subsists on "one-tenth of what I make."?

What possible lessons could be drawn from someone who once turned down a $1.4-million offer to coach the then-Boston Patriots, explaining in his 1973 Penn State commencement address that "money alone will not make you happy. Success without honor is an unseasoned dish."?

What's the big deal about staying in one place, with one wife, Sue, whom Paterno met on campus in 1959, and raising five children, all of whom grew up to become Penn State graduates?

What measure of a man's worth is it that cardboard cutouts of Paterno's likeness still show up at weddings and birthday parties?

What does John Cappelletti, the 1973 Heisman Trophy winner from Penn State, add to the conversation when he says of Paterno, "What he did for me is, he got me to the point where I became the athlete I could become. He wouldn't let me settle for less."?

What case is Jay Paterno trying to make when he says of his dad, "No matter how bad things are going, he never gets discouraged. He doesn't let things bring him down."?

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