If not for that call half a century ago Paterno might have been a lawyer

Posted: October 28, 2001

The plan for Florence de la Salle Paterno's oldest son was evolving just as she had hoped and prayed it would.

Young Joe, 23 years old at the time, had just earned a degree from Brown University and had been accepted into law school at Boston University, where he would enroll in the fall of 1950.

But a telephone call from Paterno's football coach at Brown, Rip Engle, altered Paterno's immediate future. And when Paterno told his mother he had accepted a position to assist Engle in his new job as head football coach at this place called Pennsylvania State College, Florence was not happy.

"A coach?" she said to him incredulously. "You didn't have to go to college to be a coach."

Now, 52 fall seasons later, Joe Paterno, who will be 75 in December, is still a coach. His 324th victory, which came in yesterday's thrilling 29-27 win over Ohio State, placed him on top of the all-time list of major-college coaches.

The guy with the thick glasses and rolled-up khakis - who now into his 36th season as head coach continues to dress his players in plain uniforms and black shoes, all the while exhorting them to subjugate their egos for the good of the team - passed former Alabama legend Paul "Bear" Bryant, something he couldn't quite do on the field. Paterno was 0-4 against Bryant, including two Sugar Bowl losses.

Along the way, Paterno has accumulated five undefeated seasons, two national titles (in 1982 and 1986), and 20 victories in bowl games, more than any other coach. He has coached a Heisman trophy winner (John Cappelletti in 1973) and sent 225 players on to the NFL, including 25 who were first-round picks.

When asked yesterday whether he ever envisioned having this kind of career, Paterno said, "Who knows that you can stay as healthy as long as I have stayed healthy? I never envisioned coaching this long. It's just that I always felt good here, that the pros was not a way of life for me.

"My dad always said, 'Make an impact; don't just be another guy.' "

Would Florence and Angelo Paterno have been proud of their son's statistical achievements? Of course. Most likely, though, they would have been more proud that the Paterno name is on the university's library after Joe led the financial drive to expand the building with some of the approximately $4 million he and his wife, Sue, have donated to Penn State.

The Paternos would have been more proud that their son helped transform a lightly regarded agricultural college into a university that is nationally respected for academic pursuits.

More proud that Paterno's players consistently graduate at a significantly higher rate (76 percent) than the national average (50 percent), and that he's the university faculty member with the most seniority.

More proud that even though, in their minds, he chose a more meaningless career path and became a coach, he became one who brought dignity, character and virtue to the profession.

Purdue coach Joe Tiller echoed the sentiments of so many other college coaches through the years when he recently called Paterno "a true icon."

"Joe Paterno is a role model who achieved the record the way it ought to be done," Tiller said.

In times of trouble for the football team he's coached since succeeding Engle, Paterno has been known to seek comfort and inspiration in English literature, in which he earned his degree from Brown. This summer, in anticipation of a second straight difficult year for the Nittany Lions, Paterno turned to history, reading the latest book by Stephen E. Ambrose, which details the intense bond a company of World War II soldiers developed during the invasion of Europe.

Indeed, an irony prevalent in Paterno's pursuit of the victories record formerly held by Bryant is that the bespectacled Penn State coach set it during a difficult season of losses unprecedented in his long, storied career.

Almost everyone with an interest in college football assumed Paterno would break the record during the 2000 season. He entered that season with 317 wins, needing seven to surpass Bryant. The previous 34 seasons, Penn State had averaged a remarkable 9.3 wins a year. It seemed logical, then, to believe Paterno would break the record even if the Nittany Lions weren't up to snuff.

But the 2000 team went 5-7, the worst ever under Paterno, and when this season began with four consecutive losses for the first time in the 115 years Penn State has fielded a football team, talk of the record was largely drowned out by talk that perhaps Paterno had lost his touch.

Suddenly, Paterno was being judged, at times harshly, by alumni, followers of the team, and members of the media.

Typically, Paterno has responded to the criticism with a blend of humor and a sense of history, strengthening his determination to reverse the losing trend by quoting Churchill and Lincoln, or by paraphrasing Emerson's writing that a person's character can be judged by how he reacts to adversity. So rather than talk of retirement, Paterno seems to be relishing the opportunity to pull the team out of its crisis. Pity and scorn be damned.

"I appreciate people's thoughts, but I don't need anyone to tell me to hang in there," he said. "I've been down before and come back. I enjoy the challenge."

As Bryant's record came within his view, it became obvious Paterno wasn't comfortable whenever the subject was broached. Usually, he'd dismiss questions concerning the record with an exasperated wave of his hand and a whiny retort. He has long instilled in his players that they shed their egos for the good of the team, as illustrated by his long-standing policy of having no names on the backs of Penn State's jerseys. Concerning the record, he's adopted his own policy by crediting the university's support and the sacrifices made by his players, emphasizing it hasn't been the work of one man. And he has pointed out that he might not hold the record long. Bobby Bowden, Florida State's 71-year-old coach, is right behind him.

Realizing that this might sound like false modesty, Paterno quickly will assure everyone that he still thinks he's a pretty good coach, and that he has no doubt Penn State will rise again, resurrecting one of his favorite sayings: "Things are never as good as they seem when you win and never as bad as they seem when you lose."

Many wondered why his players didn't carry Paterno off the field when he tied Bryant's record with a win over Northwestern, the team's first of the season. The fact is, most players didn't know Paterno had tied the mark.

"Most of us didn't even realize it because he's never mentioned it to us, not once," senior tight end John Gilmore said.

The only time Paterno mentioned the record to his players was before this game against Ohio State. He loathes distractions, and he didn't want the Nittany Lions to feel an added burden of trying to get him the mark.

"I tried to keep pushing it away," he said yesterday, when even he seemed overwhelmed. "I tried to keep it away from the squad. I'm amazed at the emotion the players showed. But, yes, I'm glad it's over.

"I wish I could think of something brilliant to say. I am really just emotional right now. You never think it's going to be a big deal until it happens. And then you see so many people, it's just hard to describe."

Ray Parrillo's e-mail address is rparrillo@phillynews.com.

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