JOE PATERNO: 1926-2012

Coach left behind good memories

January 23, 2012 

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The flowers, candles and endless mementos grow around the base of the Joe Paterno statue on Sunday, January 22, 2012. Abby Drey

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UNIVERSITY PARK — Joe Paterno had shown up at practice with a new haircut.

A trophy had fallen off a shelf in his house and onto the Penn State football coach’s head, resulting in a cut that needed several stitches and required some adjustment to his classically styled coif.

Paterno took some good-natured ribbing from his players, remembered former wide receiver Deon Butler. But, as always, he had a response ready.

“I might start wearing baggy pants now, too,” Paterno joked.

Butler and the rest of Paterno’s former players, a group that numbers in the thousands and spans six decades of football, shared memories Sunday of a man who served as a role model for them in football and in life and reflected on the coach’s ability to relate to three generations of players. Paterno died Sunday morning at age 85 from lung cancer.

“He always had a great sense of humor, so something like that can connect to people of all ages,” said current offensive lineman Mike Farrell, one of the last Nittany Lions to play for Paterno. “His sense of humor still worked with all the guys on the team. And his passion for football is something he shared with all of us.”

Paterno rarely joked once practices or games started, though, and he would share no laughs with players who cut classes or showed up late for meetings. But he went out of his way to help set his players up with internships or summer jobs, and he did what he could to help players network long after they had left the program.

“He was like a parent,” said former Penn State wide receiver Kenny Jackson, who later returned to the team as an assistant coach. “He always believed you could go to school and play good football. And we won’t see that again — not like that.”

Butler, a former walk-on who is now a wide receiver for the Seattle Seahawks, last saw Paterno about a year ago. The first thing the coach told him, he said, was to remove his earring.

“What he meant to Penn State is going to be hard to put into words,” Butler said. “Everything he’s done for the university, for that area, as far as the message and the loyalty that he possessed for everyone that went to that university and what he was all about — graduating and getting into the real world and teaching us all those life lessons. I don’t know if you’ll ever find another guy like that who’s really committed to that purpose.”

Many of Paterno’s players went on to successful careers in professional football. But even more went on to be successful in other professions — medicine, business, communications, the music industry. And many raised sons who would also play for Paterno.

“You knew that your son would come out of there and have the ability to handle different things in life and make contributions in many different ways,” said former running back Mike Guman, whose son, Andrew played safety for Penn State in the early 2000s. “That speaks volumes for who he was as a man and what he stood for. ... There’s very few people that have the ability to transcend their occupation and what they do and to impact so many people. He was certainly one of them.”

Guman visited Paterno at his home in State College in late November, after the coach had been diagnosed with lung cancer, and called it a visit “I’ll remember the rest of my life.”

Jackson had the chance to spend some time with Paterno and his family at Mount Nittany Medical Center during the weekend.

“He fought to his last breath,” Jackson said. “It was just good to see all the kids get the chance to be there, to have a chance to share everything with him before he passed away.”

Jackson, as Paterno often did, credited Paterno’s wife, Sue, with keeping Paterno’s home life running smoothly while he ran the football program.

“People don’t realize how important the woman was,” Jackson said. “Many women couldn’t have handled it. That man gave all the time to us. ... Joe could have left here years ago and been owner of a football team some place. He never wanted to leave because Sue didn’t.”

The Paternos lived in the same house on McKee Street for decades. Despite Paterno’s generous salary, they lived modestly and instilled blue-collar values in their five children as well as Paterno’s players.

“He wasn’t a guy that was as much concerned with himself as you may think,” Jackson said. “And that’s why he was so successful. ... He fed a lot of families. He fed a lot of families at one place and that just doesn’t happen anywhere else.”

Paterno was loyal to his assistant coaches and they were loyal to him, too. Six of the nine assistants on his staff this past season had been with the program for at least 10 years.

“He was a tremendous teacher not because he knew all of the answers but because he challenged us to find the answers for ourselves,” longtime assistant coach Tom Bradley, who was interim coach after Paterno was fired in November, wrote in a statement Sunday. “He made us better men than we believed we could be — both on and off the field. And when we lost our way or became unsure of ourselves, it was Coach Paterno who was there to encourage us, guide us and remind us that we must always strive to succeed with honor.”

Paterno’s last public appearance came at his home the night he was fired by the university’s board of trustees, when he briefly spoke to a group of students and reporters. His last interview came last week, when he spoke to Sally Jenkins of The Washington Post. Paterno’s players expressed varying levels of displeasure with the way Paterno has been treated by the media and by the university, but the coach himself never fired back.

“He didn’t point fingers at anybody. He said what he had to say,” Jackson said. “I really do feel like he was at peace. He wasn’t bitter through all this.”

The way Paterno handled two of the greatest challenges of his life — the scandal which led to his dismissal and his lung cancer — might have been the last of many lessons to his players.

“He stayed positive until the end,” Farrell said. “I think that would be a nice reflection on him if the team was able to adopt that mindset and make things as positive as they can from here on out.”

Paterno didn’t just impress, impact or crack up his football players.

Nittany Lion wrestlers Frank Molinaro and Cameron Wade trekked to State College in 2006 for a recruiting visit with then-head coach Troy Sunderland. Molinaro a three-time All- American for Penn State, was expecting to take a tour of the campus, meet a few new potential teammates and catch the Penn State-Michigan football game the next day.

He was never expecting a personal challenge from Paterno.

“We did everything. We got breakfast at the Penn Stater. They really treated us well,” Molinaro remembered. “Then we went to meet Joe Paterno and I didn’t think we were actually going to say ‘Hi’ to him or anything. I thought we were just going to see him and I saw him and he shook my hand and he got down in a wrestling stance, he’s like ‘All right. Try to take me down.’”

Wade couldn’t believe it, but he couldn’t help chuckling as the spindly, then-80-year-old Paterno crouched down in his stance, goading the short, stocky Molinaro into an impromptu bout at the team’s hotel.

“He was serious. Like, ‘Take me down!’” Wade said.

Molinaro politely declined Paterno’s invitation.

Paterno wasn’t willing to mix it up with Wade — a heavyweight — however.

Paterno’s influence also was felt in sports played by the opposite sex.

“I think that Joe made so many contributions in ways that will only come out later on,” said Ellen Perry, a former associate athletic director and senior administrator for women at the school. “An example of that is the whole era of Title IX at this university and his willingness to help with that transition. The other area was his support of the academic advising center. It’s unfortunate that this has played out like it has, but his legacy is secure. There will be many stories to be told and his place here will be enshrined.”

Lady Lion coach Coquese Washington called Paterno her “big brother” on campus since taking over the basketball program 2007. Paterno offered her advice and Washington marveled at his stories.

“He just had a great memory,” said Washington, whose team wore a black ribbon in honor of Paterno for Sunday’s game against Iowa. “He would ask me, ‘Where have you been traveling?’ Oh, I was in Tulsa. ‘Oh, I remember this guy from Tulsa.’ I’m like, ‘God, you know everybody from everywhere.’”

Washington said she was happy her team could rally to a 68-52 win against the Hawkeyes.

“I know he would have been probably ticked off if we had lost,” she said. “... We just wanted to play our best on this day. Give our best effort and honor and respect to a man who always gave his best to Penn State.”

Travis Johnson and Walt Moody contributed to this story.

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