One symbolic interaction between legendary coach Joe Paterno and an unassuming college student this summer typified the 75-year-old’s mentality about being the winningest college football coach of all time.
After sitting through Big Ten meetings at a Downtown Chicago hotel, Paterno sneaked out early – like only he could – and caught a breather.
A young woman was waiting for her ride and started small talking with the legend, unaware of who the man with big googly glasses was.
“Are you with the Big Ten?” she asked.
“Yeah, I’m from State College,” Paterno said. “Just waiting for some friends.”
The two conversed for nearly 10 minutes, discussing the weather, the city, their families – everything but football.
But that’s just the way Paterno is. Never wanting to bring attention to himself or toot his own horn, he would almost prefer that people consider him a teacher than a Hall of Famer.
And while it may surprise some that Paterno is a fan of the opera and classical literature – and is still always the “life of the party” at social functions – it isn’t a shock that he has his Nittany Lions in the Big Ten title hunt.
With the Michigan-Penn State rivalry taking a two-year hiatus due to a revolving schedule, Paterno may retire before the next matchup.
At least, that depends on who you ask.
“Hey I may be getting old, but I have a heck of a staff,” said Paterno. “Maybe things go by me that didn’t used to go by me. I don’t know.”
But his son, Jay Paterno, says the old man hasn’t lost a step and won’t be leaving anytime soon.
“He’s got three years left on his contract, but I guess he’ll probably try to push it to five after this year,” said Jay, who is also Penn State’s quarterbacks coach. “But then again, he’s been saying that for 20 years, and I don’t think anything can drive him away.
“He doesn’t golf, he doesn’t hunt, he doesn’t fish or anything like that. He may read Socrates or the Latin version of Aeneid, but he still has a great passion for the game – it’s what he does.”
But it wasn’t too long ago that critics were calling for Paterno’s head, saying he “was losing it,” and “wasn’t changing enough with the times.”
After last season’s inauspicious 1-4 start, the Nittany Lions were being questioned over their talents, their hearts and their pride.
Then Paterno pulled them together with one of his famous quotes he often uses from the library of books he’s read.
“If nobody told you how good you were, how good would you be.”
Jay said it inspired and challenged the Nittany Lions, and nothing at Penn State has been the same since – even Joe.
“He just seems like he still has a lot of fire in him, and I was just saying yesterday that it just seems like he’s different,” said defensive tackle Anthony Adams. “Last season, they might have said he was over the hill. But if you saw the Iowa game when coach Paterno ran that 4.4 at those refs, you could sense in his eyes that he’s ready to get it done.”
Paterno’s blazing speed in running down a ref definitely caught some eyes.
“Joe looked pretty good on that sprint,” said Michigan coach Lloyd Carr. “I just hope to be living at that age.”
But his athleticism and vigor was nothing new to Penn State players – former or current – because Paterno has always seemed to immerse himself in his practices. Whether that’s showing a center how to snap, or a cornerback how to bump a wide receiver, Paterno’s everywhere on the practice field.
“We used to marvel at how much energy he had,” said former Penn State wide receiver Eddie Drummond.
Paterno usually doesn’t wear a headset on gamedays or call upstairs to the booth. But Jay said it always seems like his father has a masterful control over his team, and that Paterno can see things on the field that not many others can.
“He’s one of those guys who could coach every single position,” Jay said.
And his players feel he can instruct them on every aspect of their lives.
“One of the best things about coach Paterno is that he seems to know everything about everything,” Drummond said. “He just doesn’t teach you football, he teaches you about life.”
Jay said that deep down his father considers himself a teacher. But he said what people don’t know is that Paterno is constantly evolving and learning. He has to, if he wants to continue to relate to his players, who are more than a half century younger than him.
“He’s always has a pulse with how to stay in touch with the kids,” Jay said. “And when he motivates his players, he tries to get inside kids’ heads.”
But Paterno still doesn’t find himself that different from today’s college kids in one special category – partying.
“His image is a plain, vanilla conservative guy,” Jay said. “But he loves a party, and he’s always the first one on the dance floor and the last to leave.”
Just ask other Big Ten coaches. When Paterno goes to conferences with his often-younger peers, Paterno’s definitely the last one to hit the sack.
“Minnesota coach Glen Mason told me, ‘Half of us want to go to bed and Joe’s still out there dancing.'” Jay said.
Dishing out snappy one-liners is another part of Paterno’s personality. Jay swears that his dad, a former English major from Brown University, could have easily became a great lawyer.
Jay found that out early on in his life, as every time the Paterno family had dinner, Joe always initiated a different political or historical discussion – and didn’t hesitate to put his two cents in.
“He loved to argue, and he’d always gang up on me and my brothers or sisters,” Jay said. “And once we thought we had him all figured out, he would take a totally different view and force us to argue from another side that we weren’t comfortable with.”
And when it came to punishing Jay or his brothers, Paterno never really took the “innocent until proven guilty” stance when using his infamous paddle.
“He would definitely not be a good police officer,” Jay said. “He was always shoot first, then ask why later. We’d always be explaining to him what we did while he was using the paddle.”
But Jay doesn’t have to worry about his father turning into a cop; he’s already got a pretty good day job.