Penn State's Paterno proves his way works

Longtime coach always trusted his approach would help bring Penn State back to the top

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By Chico Harlan,
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

So you wanted to try this Joe Paterno's way?

Then know the rules that never eroded: You climbed in the back and he directed, because the right way was always the right way, amen, and once you found it you never veered. Paterno knew this, even before Penn State's most recent 10-1 season proved it beyond a doubt.

You opted for Joe Paterno's way, and you were better off looping stitches through your lips than objecting to his instinct. Sure, challenge him -- he enjoyed debate -- but keep the arguments microscopic, about details too small to define him. About schedules, about blocking schemes, about lineup changes.

Carolyn Kaster, Associated Press
Former players and assistants said Joe Paterno lived by a bible of basic rules, his rules, and they scripted his coaching conviction that grades and wins could coexist.
Orange Bowl

Game: No. 3 Penn State vs. No. 22 Florida State

When: Jan. 3, 8 p.m.



Don't approach him, armed with evidence, and encourage him to step down from his job. That's what four men -- including Penn State's president -- did one year ago, according to multiple sources, and all they found, in return, was a coach telling them they didn't have a clue.

A half-century of Paterno's personal history provided one claim: The man had an internal compass that never lied. He knew he would marry Sue Pohland even when she was a freshman in college, though she was 13 years younger, called him "Mister" and would have backed away if he had spilled his guts about love.

Former players and assistants said he lived by a bible of basic rules, his rules, and they scripted his coaching conviction that grades and wins could coexist. The Grand Experiment, folks called it, though to Paterno the notion never felt like an experiment.

He chose unforgiving punishments for players who drank too much or skipped class, like when he cut star wide receiver Joe Jurevicius from the travel roster just before the Citrus Bowl Jan. 1, 1998. Yes, he was willing to worsen his team to strengthen his way. He donated his millions to the school library and his minutes to film study. He pledged simplicity -- a blue blazer wardrobe, a modest house. He decided he would never fire an assistant coach, finding it senseless to let one go when he could help make him better. "You showed you were committed to it," former assistant Kenny Jackson said, "and he'd die with you."

The Paterno File

Born: Dec. 21, 1926

High school: Brooklyn Prep

College: Brown

Years as PSU head coach: 40

Family: wife, Sue; daughters Diana and Mary Kathryn; sons David, Jay and Scott

Career highlights: 353 wins, 20 bowl wins, two national championships, five undefeated seasons


"I have coached great football players for 55 years. If I tell you that Michael Robinson is one of the best football players I have ever coached and one of the best in the country, don't question me." -- Oct. 19, 2004

"If you think that I am going to back out of it because I am intimidated, you are wrong. ... I don't see any reason to say, 'I am going to get out of here this year, next year or what year.' I don't mean that to be cocky, stubborn or anything like that. I am just trying to do what is right." -- Nov. 9, 2004


"I think Michael Robinson has been the heart of the football team and hasn't gotten anywhere near the notoriety nationally that he should have. He does it all. Every game we have played in the clutch, he has done the things that had to be done to win the game." -- Oct. 25, 2005

"I am just pleased that we are playing good football. ... I felt that before the season started we had a chance to beat everybody on our schedule and that we would be playing for a national championship." -- Nov. 1, 2005


Paterno's doorbell rang Nov. 21, 2004 -- a Sunday -- only one sunrise separating the coach from the conclusion of a 4-7 football season. Four high-ranking Penn State officials, including university president Graham Spanier and athletic director Tim Curley, walked into Paterno's home and told him, for the second time in less than two weeks, that they wished him to stop coaching, either at that minute or very soon.

Curley, Spanier and the others arrived with a message they had heard from many. The 2004 season convinced legions that Paterno was instinctively driving his program to its grave. For the first time, folks spotted the coach's sincere, growling confidence and figured it the root of his decay.

For the first time, others had their way.

Only a half-decade earlier, the very suggestion of Paterno's departure would have felt blasphemous. Paterno's first 34 years as the Nittany Lions' head coach had produced 30 bowl trips, two national titles and a school identity. Financial donors admired him because he could cruise through a ballroom of politicos and charm even the left-wingers. Fans adored him because he ascended from their bucolic college town into the pantheon of famous American men, and he brought all willing parties along for the ride. You wanted to try this Joe Paterno's way? During that period, every Lions fan in the state nodded "yes."

Then during the 2004 season, the Lions lost their first six Big Ten games. Fans bombarded Spanier and Curley with e-mails begging for change. Parents of players on the team stewed privately about Paterno's coaching tactics, and by the time the coach's doorbell rang one day after the season, a brood of Penn State followers pegged college football's most powerful coach as a defeated man.

The four men who arranged the meeting with Paterno spoke first.

Recalled Paterno during a recent interview: "The direction they wanted to take was, 'Maybe it's time to go, Joe. You ought to think about getting out of it.' I had not intended to discuss that with them, because I felt I would know when to get out of it." (In describing the meeting, Paterno refused to identify the school administrators, saying "it wouldn't be fair to them.")

So Paterno, speaking to the four school officials only briefly that day, stressed several things. He refused to quit. He hoped to prevent Penn State from imitating Nebraska, a program that in 2003 fired head coach Frank Solich despite a 10-3 season. He shared his observations: that Penn State needed only two or three blue-chip recruits to swing its fortune in time for 2005 season; that he wished to keep his staff together; that the Lions were close to a special year.

"That's all I said to them," Paterno said. "They didn't quite understand where I was coming from or what it took to get a football program going. ... I said, 'Relax. Get off my backside.' "

Then, his power at least temporarily retained, Paterno began thinking about the upcoming season, and the experiment that would define the final chapter of his career. He wanted to conduct a turnaround by refusing to make a single turn.

Power corrupts, drop-kicking proud men from high places, and Paterno knew this even before he sat down in his home for what threatened to be the last fight of his career. In previous decades, Paterno grabbed all the power and reverence a coach could ever imagine. He studied power and, even as it grew, eclipsing that of his official superiors, he guarded it. He feared corruption, and his instincts helped him avoid it.

In staff meetings, he pleaded for confrontation. He proposed outlandish personnel changes "just to see if anybody had the guts to tell me 'no.' " He hoped loyalties toward him were founded on respect and friendship, not fear. He used his clout sparingly -- only as a last resort.

Paterno gained that power not from intimidation, not from persuasion, but because his basic ground rules guided his football program. He was powerful because he was right -- so damn right so damn often that fans labeled him brilliant, critics labeled him egomaniacal and those who knew him best could never quite decide. The coach drilled his players with demands and hard work, for instance, and some left State College smarting from the abuse. Still, almost every former player gained a retrospective love for his lessons, which is why fathers played for Paterno and then entrusted him 25 years later with their sons.

"How did I know he was for real?" said Ron Dickerson, an assistant with the team from 1985 through 1990. "First week I was there, I sat to his right in staff meetings -- I kept pinching myself that I had a chance to work for him -- and one day, he addressed the football operations director. He said, 'Listen, I've got the names of two former players, and I want you to find out where they're at. I don't know what happened to them.' He wanted to know why they never finished school. He said, 'Find them, and tell them I'll pay them to come back and finish their degrees.' "

He was sometimes fastidious, sometimes furious. His slumped, erudite physique -- thick glasses, sunken chest, half-ballooned belly -- was only a decoy. God had mistakenly planted Gen. Patton's will in a 5-foot-10 pillowcase.

Want doggedness? For the opener of the 2005 season, Paterno insisted on starting inferior Robert Price at right guard to punish senior Tyler Reed for his tertiary involvement in damaging an on-campus apartment wall. Want strictness? Before a recent news conference -- conducted in front of only a half-dozen media attendees -- Paterno asked his participating players to dress in suits. "Coach's orders," senior cornerback Alan Zemaitis explained, pointing to his black two-button jacket. "If it was up to me, I'd be wearing a do-rag."

Other football coaches, even the greatest ones, loosened their control, adjusting to the lax trends of the modern century. Florida State's Bobby Bowden -- Division I-A's all-time winningest coach, and Paterno's opponent in the Jan. 3 Orange Bowl -- used to maintain strict rules, like Paterno, against long hair.

"But there have been many kids I've tried to recruit who've made us let up a little bit," Bowden said recently by phone. "A great player with long hair ... I used to say, 'You've got to cut that hair if you come here.' And so he'd go to Stanford.

"But Joe has stayed by his guns, even on those things. That's nearly unheard of nowadays."

Oh, so you still wanted to give this a shot? Just be forewarned: Those who have followed Paterno too closely often swore, every now and then, that he needed an intervention. When his wife went into labor with their fifth child, Paterno was on the practice field, so Sue drove herself to the hospital.

Paterno never taught himself to fish, golf, garden or clean. Last time he tried disassembling an extended dining table, he knocked it into a chandelier. He maintained two modes -- witty and whiny -- and two loves -- family and football. Little else fit. "I wish God would tell him to go get a physical," Sue Paterno said. "But no, he doesn't want to bother with it."

Paterno never bothered with television, either, and wished the network execs could allow every game to begin at 1 p.m. He only recently took possession of a cell phone. He never read a single e-mail that rolled into his university-issued account. He has maintained rules for everything, refusing the notion that time ought to change his principles.

Coaches elsewhere could struggle to hold a job for three years, and high school recruits could devolve into prima donna punks, and athletic departments could grow into money-chewing animals, but the right way was always the right way, amen. To change that belief, for Paterno, meant changing his being -- an idea he instinctively dismissed -- because if he somehow succeeded by surrendering his belief, how could he turn to the people behind him and pretend the success was his?

If there was one good thing I was able to do," Paterno said, reflecting on his most recent year, "I was able to say [to the administrators], 'Stay over there.' " Paterno pushed his hands away from his body -- an illustrative shooing motion. "And then, I was able to say to the other group, my assistants, 'Stay with me.' "

While Spanier and Curley, interviewed for this story, acknowledged meetings with Paterno toward the end of last season, neither commented on the details of those discussions.

"Anybody else can say what they want," Curley said. "But I don't want to go down that road."

When Paterno learned with certainty that he would retain his job, he met with his staff and told them, only vaguely, about his sit-downs. Penn State's players, Paterno said, never heard a word about it.

Paterno stressed to his assistants his hopes for 2005 -- how he promised to rededicate himself to recruiting, how he believed, simply by staying the course, Penn State's program could rebuild everything the previous five years had burned away. And he asked, were they ready to help?

At the beginning of his career, Paterno had habitually micromanaged. He scheduled practices minute-by-minute, whistle-by-whistle. He called every play on Saturdays -- for the offense and defense. His way, every second. He yelled at almost every player who forgot what that meant.

But entering 2005, Paterno already had pulled back, presiding more over ideals than details. Paterno reserved rights on key game-day decisions, but during practices, he yelled less, and when watching film, he frequently worked from home. Paterno's new recruits shined, his just-installed spread-it-out offense dazzled, his defense dominated. His way still prevailed, sure ... but those around the program later joked privately that Paterno might have been the first man to win The Associated Press' coach of the year award for coaching less. His decision to pull back, though -- a gradual process, over the past decade -- was exclusively his.

Penn State, after seven combined wins in the previous two years, finished 10-1, its only defeat a last-second crash against Michigan. During the first month of the season, Paterno struggled to sleep, worrying about taking care of his football team or his wife, whose leg was broken in the summer. He often woke up and retreated from his bedroom to watch film. Every morning, at 6, he drove Sue to her physical therapy sessions.

"He wanted this year to be special," Sue Paterno said. "He really did. What bothers him is that Michigan loss."

Kenny Jackson, who coached for Paterno from 1993-2000, recently thought about that loss, and about his old coach who demanded, long ago, that he should aim for at least one or two undefeated teams every decade. Jackson mentioned, offhandedly, the strange thankfulness he felt for that last-second defeat in Ann Arbor, Mich. The defeat promised that Paterno would enter next season, and maybe several beyond that, still clinging to a goal.

"Don't you get it!?" Jackson said, his tone rushing with urgency. "He'll still have that fire, baby. He wants that last undefeated team. He's going to be up at night thinking, 'I've got to get me another one.' Because, hey, people were saying he was too old. No! We've seen it now. The kids have seen it. The parents have seen it. Everybody else can talk about what they want to talk about, but he fixed it. ... He stuck with what he believed in."

Four days ago, Paterno turned 79. He had arrived in Delray Beach, Fla., one day earlier, alongside his team and his assistants. They would be celebrated in the upcoming week, Paterno knew, by the media members trumpeting Penn State's accomplishment and the school dignitaries swearing they always saw this coming. What about you? What did you make of the evidence, a pile of grating losses from 2003 and '04, that screamed one theme -- that Joe Paterno's way had abandoned him.

"In all fairness to [the administrators], they went along with it," Paterno said recently, and that's how he began the story.

He left the others to finish it for him.

"We had several discussions," wrote Spanier, who conducted his interviews via e-mail. "Joe was consistent in saying to us that it was all going to come together if we would be patient -- and he was right."

"He just wanted to do what was best for the program," Curley said. "He felt strongly we were close. And, as usual, he was right."

Chico Harlan can be reached at or 412-263-1227.


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