Jeff McLane: Personal memories of Joe Paterno

In his 62 seasons at Penn State, Joe Paterno inspired many and rankled others. "It was either Joe's way or no way," said Ed Monaghan, who added he was "proud to play" for him.
In his 62 seasons at Penn State, Joe Paterno inspired many and rankled others. "It was either Joe's way or no way," said Ed Monaghan, who added he was "proud to play" for him. (CAROLYN CASTER / Associated Press)
Posted: January 23, 2012

It wasn't supposed to end this way.

That Joe Paterno died just months after his last game as head coach of Penn State football did not come as a shock to the many that either knew the man or knew of him.

It will be written by some that Paterno passed away Sunday of a broken heart. Officially, he succumbed to metastatic small-cell carcinoma of the lung.

Cancer killed Paterno.

But it's not a stretch to say that he no longer had the will to fight the disease, with his legacy tarnished, his selfless acts clouded by the child sexual abuse scandal that will have more than a few celebrating his death instead of his great life.

It's certainly not the way Paterno wanted to go out. He once envisioned his end, tongue halfway inserted in cheek.

"The perfect ending is you drop dead at the end of the game after you kick the winning field goal," Paterno said in 2007, not long before he was to be inducted into college football's Hall of Fame. "And they carry you off the field and everyone's singing, 'So long, Joe, you've been wonderful.' "

I did not know Joe Paterno. I followed his great programs of the 1980s, attended Penn State in the 1990s, and covered the Nittany Lions for The Inquirer in the 2000s. But as a beat reporter for three seasons, I had a brief peek at the man behind the curtain.

He was not without his faults, this many now know. His handling of the accusations against Jerry Sandusky - which eventually brought down his 61-year run at Penn State - will forever be difficult to reconcile with his many noble accomplishments.

But my memories of Paterno won't have anything to do with the millions he donated to the university or his part in the scandal that ripped Penn State apart. They'll have more to do with his character - mostly good, some bad. But what a character he was.

On Friday nights on the road with the beat guys - "bull sessions," as he liked to call them - Paterno could mesmerize a room. No topic was off-limits - politics, entertainment, history, women - but mostly the subject was football.

When I arrived on the beat in 2006, Paterno was 79 and didn't make every Friday night social. Sometimes he would walk into the room and if he didn't recognize an older, familiar face, he'd just turn and leave. But there were plenty of nights when Paterno stayed and was energized by a particular conversation.

He loved a good argument.

And he was best in a smaller setting. One cocktail party in particular stood out. It was 2008, and Paterno had his last national championship contender. Penn State was 9-0, fresh off its first win at Ohio State in 30 years, and you could sense that the old coach knew this might be his last chance to win his third national title.

The Lions were at Iowa and only about a half-dozen reporters showed up for the early portion of the Friday night gathering. Paterno spun tale after tale until he was on his third Jack on the rocks. The subject turned to his team. He got edgy.

Paterno had spent the last four games coaching from the press box because of a degenerative hip. He had been walking with a cane. It ate him alive. And here he was, essentially just one game from an undefeated regular season and a trip to the BCS Bowl. (After Iowa, the Lions had Indiana and Michigan State at home - two teams they would go on to crush.)

Paterno was reminded that the last time Penn State was 9-0, in 1999, the Lions lost to an inferior Minnesota team.

"That loss was my fault. And if we lose tomorrow, it'll be my fault," Paterno said. "I got a bunch of guys playing their hearts out and they got a cripple for a coach."

He stopped and pushed his drink away.

"Ah, I'm telling secrets to the last guys I should be telling them to," he said.

I was seated to Paterno's left and sneakily slid the drink back in front of him. We had - by that point - developed a sort of cranky grandfather-pestering-grandson relationship, and he let out a grand, nasally cackle.

The next day, Penn State - beset by turnovers and poor clock management - lost on a last-second field goal. Who knows if the Lions would have gone on to win a national title had they won? But if they did, it would have been the perfect way for Paterno to quit.

Everyone knew, of course, that he would never retire on his own accord.

"When you guys talk about retirement," Paterno once said, "I often thought about when Bear Bryant left, and he didn't have anything else to do. He wouldn't golf or anything. He was dead, what - ?"

Bryant died on Jan. 26, 1983, 28 days after his retirement. Paterno died 85 days after his last game, 74 days after he was fired, and 65 after it was announced that he had lung cancer.

It wasn't supposed to end this way.

So long, Joe, you've been wonderful.

Contact staff writer Jeff McLane at 215-854-4745, or @Jeff_McLane on Twitter.