As many Penn Staters, myself included, tried to cope with the recent widespread obsession with our institution’s lack of moral character, one of the most common sayings I heard started something like this: “Penn State is not defined by the action of a few corrupt individuals…”
The problem with this though, is that Penn State really is defined by one individual, and that individual was at the forefront of all the negative media attention. The irony in this is that if there was ever anyone who deserved the benefit of the doubt in an unclear situation, it would be Joe Paterno.
To understand what I mean with the link between Paterno and Penn State, as well as why Paterno deserves the benefit of the doubt, I would recommend reading the book, "Captains' Letters To Joe." This book was compiled after JoePa’s 400th win a season ago and consists of letters from over a hundred former football captains who played under Paterno during his long coaching tenure, stretching between 1966 and 2010 (when the 400th win occurred).
There are several themes present in their letters. All of the former captains express a gratitude to JoePa that is much broader than just success on the football field. In fact, one of the lessons players learned from Paterno while at Penn State was to put life first, then school, then football.
Further, it is clear that Paterno also has preached this prioritization by example. Several of the letter writers mention a death in their own family where Paterno has offered condolences, attended funerals and provided support. Most of these instances occurred long after the player graduated from Penn State. Most of the letters also mention Joe’s wife Sue Paterno, identifying her as an equal part of their football family.
Other “Paterno-isms” that the players have grasped onto include: Show up at least 10 minutes early for everything, have a clean-shaven and well-dressed appearance, “believe deep down in our hearts that we are destined to do great things," “take care of the little things and the big things will take care of themselves," “you’re never as good as you think you are and never as bad as they say you are” and “every day you either get better or you get worse," just to name a few.
Many of the players mention how Joe promised them he would be the coach for the next four or five years to see them graduate. He kept that promise to more players than would have ever believed him. From reading the book, it is clear that JoePa continued coaching into such an old age not in pursuit of wins records but in pursuit of impacting lives.
Several of the players attempt to comment on Paterno’s legacy.
1989 Captain Brian Chizmar writes:
“Memories of the wins and losses will fade, but your teachings and life lessons will be remembered and passed on to future generations. We are? Correction! You are…PENN STATE!”
1991 captain and current Miami Hurricane head football coach Al Golden, writes:
“Joe, by relentlessly teaching your teams the right way to do things in the classroom, in the community and on the field of competition, you have improved the lives, not solely of those who have played for you, you have impacted the lives of millions whom your former student-athletes touch every day.”
I think the former captain who wrote it best was 2000 Captain Mike Cerimile. He wrote:
“Coach, YOU ARE PENN STATE and everything and everybody that falls under the Penn State umbrella should always and will be forever thankful for what you have created for all of us."
To further illustrate my point, I conclude with my own letter to Joe:
We’ve never actually met, but still you have touched my life. I moved to State College, Pennsylvania just before the third grade, and I first heard about you a few days after our move. My mom came home one day exclaiming that she almost ran you over as you crossed the street, joking that we would have had to flee town if she had. As I got more accustomed to my new home, I quickly learned that this was no joke. We would have not only needed to move out of State College, we would have been forced to leave the country.
Coming from Lexington, Kentucky, I wasn’t used to caring about college football. That fall though, I learned that football season in Happy Valley is unlike anything else. On weekdays, the sports section of the Centre Daily Times has its first four pages filled with articles about the football team and their upcoming game.
On Saturday and Sunday, the football team gets their own entire section. Our preacher, before every Sunday sermon, made sure to acknowledge the mood of the congregation depending on the outcome of the previous day’s football game. At school, conversations revolved around the game, particularly centered on those who were lucky enough to attend. It was literally impossible to not know about how the football team was doing. I immediately was sucked in.
Like most other kids in State College, I had a parent employed at Penn State. I found the process of applying to colleges to be very easy; as far as I was concerned the best university was also where all my friends were going, where my family was, the best financial deal and an opportunity to be in the student section at Penn State football games.
At that time, the team wasn’t very good. Most everyone blamed you and your old age, saying you should retire. Some even wanted you fired, but many respected your accomplishments enough to say that they wanted you to leave on your own terms. Almost nobody believed that you would bring the football team back to national relevance.
In the fall of 2005, I became a Penn State student. In the fall of 2005, the football team burst back onto the national scene with a Big Ten co-title and BCS bowl berth, due to a tiebreak which was earned in the greatest sporting moment I have ever witnessed when your team beat Ohio State, 17-10.
In the Orange Bowl that season, much of the media attention turned to you and Bobby Bowden, two legendary and very old coaches. It was during this time that I was able to really hear you speak and begin to appreciate you as more than a coach. Though your national championships and undefeated seasons were mentioned, most of the coverage was focused on your donations to the university and your ability to both graduate your players and keep them out of trouble.
I also learned that you don’t take crap from anyone, especially the media. My favorite quote I have heard you actually speak, loosely paraphrased, came after a reporter asked you if you were going to consider retiring after the bowl game. You responded quickly and curtly that he should be the interviewer should be the one retiring.
For the next three years, I watched as the program returned to what so many fans had taken for granted. At the games I yelled my loudest, stayed until the end no matter what the score and participated in all of the cheers. There are two cheers which were not only heard at every football game, but also heard regularly at random times whenever multiple Penn Staters were present. As I have come to appreciate, these two chants are actually synonymous. “We are…PENN STATE” and “JOE PATERNO…clap-clap-clap-clap-clap."
Coach Paterno, you are Penn State football, you are Penn State, you are State College and for those reasons you are a part of me. As all of your former captains have acknowledged, your impact as head coach is much greater than your accomplishments on the field.
On November 9, 2011 the Board of Trustees took Penn State football away from you. For that I am truly sorry. Like so many others, I watched in both disbelief and grief as the story unfolded. But after almost two months, now I take comfort in the fact that though they can take Penn State away from you, they will never be able to take you away from Penn State. Your teachings, your personality, your character and your entire legacy will continue to live on in the countless lives you have impacted.
We are…JOE PATERNO!