Joe Paterno: How I Will Remember Him and His Note to My Mother
Everyone will choose to remember Joe Paterno one way or another, especially in light of the sad stories stemming out of State College in November that linked the long time Penn State coaching icon to one of the most horrific series of crimes ever to be linked to any university.
He finished his career with 409 wins and more bowl victories, 24, than any other coach in college football history.
He was a five-time AFCA Coach of the Year, as voted by his peers. Three times a winner of the Walter Camp and Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year awards. Nine additional Coach of the Year awards and three Big Ten Coach of the Year awards.
He took pride in his so-called grand experiment, an idea that making academics a priority and still putting together a solid football program was possible. He proved that it was, regularly seeing his players achieve high marks in the classroom while winning a pair of national championships in the 1980s and being the first to coach his team to a win in the Sugar, Fiesta, Orange and Rose Bowl (as well as a number of others).
Those who played for him have a loyalty, a bond, that many coaches wish they could have with their players years after they played. Right or wrong in doing so, nothing demonstrates how true that may be than the recent string of public appearances and media interviews that former Penn State running back Franco Harris has been on a mission to lead.
While Harris may be doing more damage than good for a community that at times struggles to get past the events that took place in November, Harris is just one example of a former player extending his support for his former coach. Harris last played for Penn State in the 1971 season, 40 years ago. But the bond between player and coach spans across generations, and in some cases family trees.
It is not wrong to support a man you consider to be a father figure, or in some cases a grandfather-type.
In the 1950s, Paterno was nothing but an assistant working under his mentor, Rip Engle.
In the 1960s, Paterno was in the infancy of his head-coaching career. At the time nobody knew the Brooklyn native was on his way to becoming a college football icon.
In the 1970s, Paterno’s grand experiment started to come together as the program was on its way to becoming a national power.
The 1980s saw a pair of national titles against Heisman Trophy winners.
The 1990s saw Penn State once again go undefeated without reward and begin a new era in the Big Ten.
Since then, Paterno and Penn State have had their ups and downs, but the constant theme had always fallen back to academics, while football saw mixed results on the field from year to year.
Many will choose to remember Paterno for the decades of positives he had on Penn State, his players, the community and beyond.
Despite his apparent flaws in the Sandusky scandal, and there does appear to be some clear fault given what we know, years from now people will remember the good done by Paterno as well as the bad. That’s the way it is, and everyone will weigh those contrasting facts differently.
While I will not tell you how you should remember Paterno, I will share one more story (or two) to add to the Paterno memoriam.
I covered the final three seasons of Paterno’s career, including the ultimate and sudden firing that fateful November night. I asked him questions in a press setting but never had the opportunity to have a more individual encounter with him. There was the time he was being carted to the press room in Beaver Stadium and scolded a couple of us on his way in, as we were standing in the way filing in to the room from a separate entrance.
“C’mon guys we have to get in there!” he said, looking a little disgruntled with the media. What else was new?
As I sit here and look back on Paterno I think all the way back to the spring of 1994. My mother was closing in her nursing degree from Penn State’s Delaware County campus. For her it was the culmination of 12 years of night classes as she was raising two kids and working at the same time. To this day I don’t know many people who have worked that hard for anything in their lives.
My father, looking to mark the special occasion and reward my mom for her hard work and dedication, wanted to throw a surprise dinner party for her with my family and some friends gathering some time after the graduation ceremony. My dad, who is always looking to pull some tricks from up his sleeve, wrote a couple of letters to a couple of people asking for a short note of congratulations. One was Chris Wheeler, a Philadelphia Phillies broadcaster and Penn State alum. The other was Paterno.
Both responded kindly with a short note of congratulations to my mom, which my dad gave as a present. Out of curiosity my dad was wondering if it was really Paterno who wrote the note. He compared it to a book he had signed by Paterno at a book signing previously. Sure enough, the signature matched. Surely Paterno could have had a secretary or someone else write a short note, but this was no doubt about it a short note from Paterno.
I imagine Paterno probably wrote a good number of short notes over his career.
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