Joe Paterno may be the most celebrated man to ever coach college football. In a profession where coaches play musical chairs—there have been 657 head coaching changes in Division I-A football since Paterno took the helm—he has never had an adult job outside Penn State. He has won glory for Penn State on the field and crafted his players into true student-athletes. And on top of that, Coach Paterno is a serious philanthropist who has showered his university with gifts, mostly to bolster academics. Barry Switzer, who coached both the Oklahoma Sooners and the Dallas Cowboys, says admiringly, “Joe’s different from the rest of us.”
Switzer is right. Paterno has won more football games than any active coach, has been married to the same woman for 38 years, and during his 50 years at Penn State has given the college nearly $4 million dollars of his own money. “It’s just like the old good Samaritan,” he says. “You wouldn’t walk by somebody in the street who was bloody and beaten up without trying to help. There are a lot of people out there that we don’t know who just need help. And we are honor bound to try to help them.”
Latin and Free Throws
Joseph Vincent Paterno was born on December 21, 1926 in Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood. His father dropped out of high school to enlist in World War II, and upon his return from the war entered night school. At the age of 40, he earned his law degree.
The Paterno family placed a high value on the life of the mind. “At the dinner table, we were allowed to argue about anything. And we did. You name it, we’d argue about it. Kids from the neighborhood would walk into our kitchen, unannounced, and sit in, just to listen,” Paterno recalls.
As a young boy Paterno was an usher at Ebbets Field and went on to attend Brooklyn Prep, where he became a star athlete. He excelled at basketball and quarterbacked the football team to a nearly perfect record during his tenure. His lone loss came to St. Cecilia’s of Englewood, New Jersey whose squad was coached by a young fellow named Vince Lombardi.
But the most important part of his high school years came in the afternoons after school. He convinced one of his teachers, Rev. Thomas Bermingham, to broker a deal with the basketball coach: If Paterno came to school early and shot free throws in the morning, he would be excused from practice a half hour early so that he and Bermingham could translate Virgil’s Aeneid from the Latin.
Those afternoons shaped the way he viewed the world. “A hero of Aeneas’s kind does not wear his name on the back of his uniform,” Paterno would later say. “His first commitment is not to himself but to others. ‘You must be a man for others.’ He lives his life not for ‘me’ and ‘I,’ but for ‘us’ and ‘we.’ He is the ultimate team man.” The Aeneid also instilled a belief in fatum that meshed with his Catholic faith. “God gives each of us a destiny,” he says. “Then confuses us with the power of free will.”
After graduation Paterno went north to quarterback the Brown University team while studying English literature. At the end of his senior year he was filling out applications to law schools when Rip Engle, one of the assistant coaches, asked him for a favor. Engle had been named Joe Bedenk’s successor as head coach at Penn State. He needed an assistant whom he could trust. He asked Paterno to defer law school while he got on his feet. It would be, he promised, a one-year stint.
Paterno accepted, and in 1950, the 23 year-old moved to the sleepy town of State College, Pennsylvania. “After a few weeks,” he says, “I told Rip, ‘I’m getting out of here before I go nuts in this town. You better start looking around for another coach.’”
Life Outside of Football
Needless to say, Pennsylvania grew on him. Several years into his one-year stint, Paterno met Sue Pohland, a pretty co-ed from nearby Latrobe at a lecture. They began dating as only Paterno could. He took her to the beach and read Camus to her. In 1962 they were married.
Their marriage was and is strong. They have five children, all Penn State grads (son Jay is now one of his assistant coaches). From the start, philanthropy was a family affair. “When we were younger and we didn1t have the kind of means we now have we still gave, and I’ve tried to get my children to give a bit” says Paterno. “[Even] if you give $25 a year back to your college, that’s fine. I just think that you have to understand that we have an obligation to share some of our wealth with other people.”
Sue Paterno is a major presence at Penn State and the impetus behind much of the family’s philanthropy. “It is difficult to talk about Joe in a philanthropic context without talking about Sue,” says Michael Bezilla, director of development communications at Penn State. “They have always been equal partners in their philanthropy.”
Coach Paterno agrees. “My wife worked harder than I have to get where we are,” he says. “If I’m going to give anything I say to her, ‘Let’s talk and see what we want to do.’ And then we share it. We share everything we have.”
Sue is also a partner in the education of some of Penn State’s players. Recruits who aren’t up to Paterno’s academic standards are sentenced to tutoring by the coach’s wife. When Paterno offered defensive tackle Bob White a scholarship it was with the stipulation that White read a dozen novels over the summer and file a two-page book report with Sue every week. The first book she assigned him was Huckleberry Finn.
In 1966, Paterno was named Penn State’s 14th head coach. Almost from the start, it was clear that he wasn’t running an orthodox program. In his second year, Paterno allowed his best lineman, Mike Reid, to take the season off so he could star in a school play. It was the first sign of Paterno’s commitment to life outside of football.
In his third season, Paterno went undefeated and beat Kansas in the Orange Bowl, but Penn State finished second in the coaches’ poll, which determines the national rankings.
Paterno was despondent at losing the national championship despite his perfect season, but he came back the following year and did it again. In 1969, riding a 21-game win streak, Paterno beat Missouri in the Orange Bowl and again finished number two in the championship voting. In his fifth season he ended an incredible run—a 31 game unbeaten streak.
And all the while, Paterno preached his gospel: “Football is a high second, but academics an undisputed first.” In his view, a coach should “teach people to discipline that energy, teach them to subjugate it for the good of the group, teach them to make a commitment, set goals for themselves.” Over the course of his career, Paterno’s players have graduated at a rate around 85 percent. To put that in perspective, consider that the during the same time the graduation rate for all Penn State students has been about 80 percent and the graduation rate for Division I-A football players is closer to 50 percent.
The rest of the football world took notice of the Nittany Lions. In 1973 the owner of the Boston Patriots, Bill Sullivan, offered Paterno $1.4 million a year plus a 5 percent ownership stake in the franchise to be its head coach. At the time, Paterno was making $35,000 a year at Penn State.
Paterno accepted, but then called Sullivan the next morning at 5:30 a.m. “I’m not coming,” he said. “I don’t know how to tell you this, but it’s not right for me.”
“So in a couple of years, maybe we’d have gone to the Super Bowl,” he says now. “So what? Here, I have an opportunity to affect the lives of a lot of young people—and not just on my football team. I’m not kidding myself that that would be true at the professional level.” Since the Patriots, other NFL teams have come calling, including the Giants, the Steelers, the Raiders, the Eagles, and the Colts. His intellectual leanings are sated at Penn State, he says, “Why leave? It’s got everything I want. Small town, a college town. I can walk home after games. I’ve been accepted as a faculty member, not treated as a dumb jock.”
During a commencement speech to Penn State around the same time he told the students, “Money alone will not make you happy. Success without honor is an unseasoned dish.”
‘A School the Team Could Be Proud Of’
Years passed and Paterno’s reputation spread. He wrote a series of op-eds for the New York Times about ethics and college sports. In 1986 he won his first national championship. After the celebrations ended he went to a board of trustees’ meeting and requested that they spend more money on the school library, and that they raise admissions requirements. Sports Illustrated called it possibly “the only time in history that a coach yearned for a school its football team could be proud of.”
After the trustees’ meeting the university launched a five-year, $200 million fundraising drive, with Paterno as its vice-chairman. He and Sue contributed $100,000 of their own money to the library and $50,000 to a minority student fund. Originally, the Paternos didn’t want their gift to be public. “I didn’t even want to announce it because I knew that the next month I’d have 28 letters. But the people in the development office thought that it would be the appropriate thing to do because it would set a little higher bar for some people who had some substantial means.”
Once the Paternos announced their involvement in the campaign, they became active crusaders for the school. “Penn State alumni needed to understand that we’re not a state-supported institution in the way that some of the other big schools are. In the state of Pennsylvania, we’re last per capita in what’s given to us by the state. I feel that our mandate is to make sure that there’s a quality education for people who can’t afford to go to Brown or Princeton or some of the small, private good schools like Swarthmore.”
The library drive was only the start of the Paternos’ generosity. In 1992 the couple gave $250,000 more to the library and then led a drive to raise $13.7 million for a new wing. Some sports families give money to their schools, normally to help the athletic department. Paul Bryant Jr., son of legendary coach Bear Bryant, gave $10 million to the University of Alabama to have a stadium named after his father. Penn State, whose stadium is named after Governor James A. Beaver, dedicated a library to Joe and Sue Paterno this September.
Perhaps as important as his personal philanthropy, Paterno took another big step toward ensuring the university’s long-term viability in 1993, when he folded the school into the Big Ten. For 105 years, Penn State had been an athletic independent, like Notre Dame, scheduling its season from scratch each year. But as the Bowl coalition solidified in the early 1990s, the Nittany Lions were slowly squeezed out of the big bowls and the large TV dollars that come with them. In a daring move, Paterno led the drive to join an athletic conference, thereby ensuring the school a large source of revenue in seasons to come.
Finally, in 1997, the Paternos gave their biggest gift to Penn State, a $3.5 million donation. Again Paterno showed an uncanny sense of seriousness: The money endowed two professorships (one in the University libraries and one at the College of Liberal Arts) and three scholarships (one graduate fellowship and one undergraduate scholarship at the School of Architecture and one graduate fellowship at the College of Liberal Arts). Another large chunk went toward the expansion of the school chapel.
“Liberal arts and the library have always been the focal point of any university,” Paterno says. “You cannot have a great university without an outstanding library and an outstanding liberal arts school.”
The Carnegie Connection
“There are a lot of people who will say ‘Holy smokes, what have they been paying that coach!’” jokes Paterno. “But my wife and I have been very careful. We’ve been in the same house for over 30 years, my wife to this day presses all of my clothes and washes all my shirts, and we’ve never had anything fancy.”
“But I’m a little bit like Andrew Carnegie,” he says with a laugh. “He said, ‘If you die with money, your life was a failure.’ I’m not sure I want to go that far, but I really, honestly believe that we have an obligation to help people who haven’t been as fortunate as we have been. Whether it’s helping to provide a little better education or through things like the United Way, I think that’s a very strong obligation we all have.”
Paterno has had success in rare fashion. During his tenure at Penn State his teams have been 317-83-3, with five perfect seasons. Despite the current, dismal season, by next year he will almost certainly have passed Bear Bryant on the all-time list for wins. He has won 23 bowl games and sent more than 150 players to the NFL. But he says of the game, “We try to remember, football is part of life—not life itself.”
Jonathan V. Last is a reporter for The Weekly Standard and lives in awe of Joe Paterno.