JoePa's Not Going Anywhere, Just Ask His Son

Mark KriegelCorrespondent INovember 7, 2008
I ask Jay Paterno, the Penn State quarterbacks coach who campaigned for Barack Obama, whether his support put the President-elect over the top in Pennsylvania.

"No," he says. "But being 9-0 didn't hurt."

Perhaps Obama owes a bigger debt to Jay's boss and father, the gridiron patriarch known as JoePa. A staunch Republican who once seconded the nomination of his friend, George H.W. Bush, the elder Paterno—whose backing could in fact have changed things in the Keystone State—sat this one out. The point here is not a partisan one. Rather, it's about a man just a month from his 82nd birthday, and his ability to acknowledge and adapt.

Obama visited State College last spring. Jay noticed that his father was not nearly as dismissive of the candidate's pitch as he'd been of other Democrats in years past. "I'm really intrigued," he told his son.

It wasn't an endorsement. But it wasn't business as usual, either.

A couple of weeks ago, Jay asked his father who he'd be voting for.

"Don't get me started," he said.

"He'll probably never tell me," says Jay.

Of course, with the election now past and a bye week concluded, it'll probably never come up again. Penn State has more important business, starting with Iowa in Iowa City tomorrow. Let's table, at least for the moment, any discussion of the Big Ten and its relative merits vs. other conferences. For now, it is enough to accept that a program once thought passé is undefeated, ranked third in the country, and, given the schedule, a favorite to appear in the BCS title game.

Penn State didn't get here by playing typical Penn State football. Last year, in the weeks before the Alamo Bowl, Joe Paterno gathered his coaches, telling them "we're going to need to score some points next year."

The new offense would be designed around a quarterback, Daryll Clark, whom Jay Paterno had recruited out of Youngstown, Ohio. Jay recalls first seeing him at Ursuline High School, where visitors were warned about gun shots being fired during the game. Clark had a powerful, if erratic arm. "He could run, too," says Jay. "I remember him going about 65 yards for a touchdown. Made about six or seven guys miss."

Four years later, as a junior, Clark would come on in relief of Anthony Morelli in the Alamo Bowl. Penn State, down 14-0, would come away with a 24-17 win. It was a victorious debut for JoePa's new offense.

Conceptually, the scheme was a collaborative effort, with facets designed by the offensive coordinator, Galen Hall, the line coach, Dick Anderson, and of course, the quarterback coach who, knowing that everyone wants an HD television, christened it "Spread HD."

"It's a hybrid," says Jay Paterno. "We still do the traditional Penn State two-back running game. But we can also go with five wideouts and spread the ball around the field."

Considering the way the offense has evolved and that so much of it revolves around the quarterback and his coach (Jay had to talk Clark into staying at prep school), Jay Paterno finds himself in an unusual circumstance, working in a place where blood meets ambition. He's not coaching so much as defending the dynasty, ensuring its legacy, protecting the family name.

"I don't know if I ever thought about it like that," he says. "That would be putting too much pressure on me."

As the coach's son, he's been on the receiving end of some hurtful criticism. "I'm an easy target," he says.

But he remains an assistant under his father, whom he calls "Joe" when it pertains to football, and "dad" at family functions. Sons of other famous coaches—the Bowden boys and Skip Holtz come to mind—have left to run programs of their own. But after 14 seasons working for Joe, Jay Paterno has no such plans.

"It would have to be the right opportunity," he says. "This is home."

As far back as he can remember, Jay Paterno wanted to be a football coach. "Most of the kids," he says, "thought I was kind of a dork." At seven and eight years old, he'd be diagramming plays. He'd creep into his father's den to watch tape of game film.

The university was central in his scheme of the world. His playing career would end with him as Penn State's backup quarterback. I wonder, though, if he ever saw himself coaching for his father.

No, he says: "I figured my dad would be retired. I mean, I'd be out of college when he was 65."

Still, there's another issue to consider: Did he want to coach for his father?

"Probably not," he says. "As a kid, I probably figured I couldn't coach for the guy. You know how fathers and sons are."

The Paterno family dinners which did not begin until Joe got home—were famously argumentative. After the dishes were cleared, the debates would rage, the subjects being history, politics, even occasionally, football. The father would sometimes take a position he did not believe, just for sport.

"It's a family trait," says Jay. "We love to argue."

It's funny, though, they don't argue as much anymore. "The older you get, the smarter your father gets," he says. "Or maybe I'm just getting dumber. Either way, I'm starting to agree with him more."

Of course, JoePa is old, not obstinate. His inclinations in both football and politics are conservative. Still, he can see the virtues in Barack Obama and the spread offense.

I remind Jay of a recent remark by the broadcaster Brent Musberger. The elder Paterno, he said, "looks back at Bear Bryant as the example. He is fearful that he would not be with us if he stepped away. He is a man that doesn't fish, doesn't play golf. He has no interests other than his family and football."

Bryant, it's worth noting, died in 1982, just 28 days after coaching his last game.

"I do know he's very aware of Coach Bryant," says Jay. "He has said he wondered how much longer Bryant could have lived...But Joe's never said, 'If I don't coach I'm afraid I'll drop dead in a few months...Believe me, he'd find something to do. He has great intellectual curiosity. He's a voracious reader."

College football's winningest coach has a bad hip and an ailing right leg. He's been coaching games from the press box. Still, none of that means he's retiring anytime soon.

"Joe's going to be here another couple years," says Jay Paterno.

The way he says it, I get the feeling a couple years could last longer than Obama's first term.

This article originally published on

Read more of Mark's columns here.


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