Joe Paterno

Joe Paterno's legacy remains intact for senior football players

Joe Paterno shared a unique relationship with nearly every player on the last team he ever coached.

There was Michael Mauti and Michael Zordich, players Paterno could always pick on if he needed to make an example for their teammates, as Paterno had the distinction of coaching both of their fathers. There were lesser-knowns like Matt McGloin who were given chances to earn playing time after walking on to the team.

Some spent time in his doghouse. Some occasionally disagreed with his methods.

And while Paterno’s reputation has taken hit after hit following his termination as Penn State football coach in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, those players still remember him fondly.

For them, his legacy is cemented.

A year after Paterno's passing following a short battle with lung cancer, Matt Stankiewitch still gets requests for Paterno imitations. Stankiewitch, who played in the East-West Shrine game last weekend, spent a lot of his time in St. Petersburg, Fla., retelling Paterno stories for those who asked.

"I was just saying to the guys in the weight room (Monday), how much Penn State is respected by the coaches, the players, the equipment managers," Stankiewitch said. "Everyone respects Penn State. It was a very humbling experience."

His all-star teammates in Florida all wanted to hear Stankiewitch attempt what has become a staple for Penn State players over the years — an imitation of Paterno’s high-pitched, nasally voice — but he didn’t oblige them.

"Everyone asked me, 'Can you do the Joe voice? Can you tell a Joe story?' I told a couple of Joe stories down there. I didn't do the Joe voice."

Paterno was fired following a 10-7 win against Illinois. It was Paterno’s 409th victory, one of 111 taken away by NCAA sanctions leveled against the program last summer.

First-year head coach Bill O’Brien and a resolute group of seniors helped the 2012 Nittany Lions establish a fresh precedent. Playing an exciting brand of football, Penn State finished 8-4, and 6-2 in the Big Ten, and helped restore a proud tradition that was overshadowed by the details in the Sandusky sexual abuse case and obscured by implications against Paterno in the university-ordered Freeh report.

Louis Freeh, the former FBI director who compiled the report, did not have subpoena power and did not interview key people involved in the Sandusky case.

Nevertheless, public sentiment for Paterno and his legacy soured — his alma mater, Brown University, removed his name from a player award, much like it was scratched from the Big Ten championship trophy. His statue at Beaver Stadium was removed and Nike, an organization long associated with Penn State and Paterno, removed his name from one of its company buildings.

In the meantime, the last players he coached fumed and still insist Paterno’s legacy is what it is.

"I think it is starting to sink in on me just the fact that I was kind of pissed off at the fact that he was kind of forgotten," Stephon Morris said.

Morris hasn't forgotten Paterno.

Recently, the former Penn State cornerback who is busy preparing for a shot in the NFL, remembered one of the first times he realized Paterno, who was in his eighties at the time of Morris's commitment, was still involved in day-to-day activities.

In a Beaver Stadium scrimmage during Morris's freshman season, former linebacker Jerome Hayes made a big hit to stifle a play and Morris lost it in excitement.

"I went over there and celebrated with him and I celebrated a little bit too long," Morris remembered. "I wasn't even in the game. I was on the sideline. (Paterno) came over and grabbed my facemask, 'You're not going to do this here! Whatever you do it's always going to be with the team. It's not the Penn State way.'"

Morris was shaken, determined to "stay out of Paterno's way" for the rest of the season.

But Paterno made that impossible, seeking Morris out again the next afternoon to congratulate him on a good practice performance, free of excess celebration.

"There were other times where he was Coach Paterno, the coach that everyone knew how he was in the '80s," Morris said. "He was still hands-on. People didn't really know that he was still coaching because they always saw him in the booth because he was hurt or Tom Bradley was calling the signals. He was always hands-on."

Stankiewitch knows there have been things said and implied about his former coach, accusations the late Paterno cannot respond to, but he said he has all the evidence he needs to paint a picture of Paterno down the road.

"I think everywhere in my life I'm going to be somehow reminded of him and talking about him," Stankiewitch said. "Of course I'm going to tell my children some day. Of course they're going to know who I played for and what type of man he was."

Penn State's rapid resurgence under O'Brien can be attributed to the fiery leader's coaching prowess, skills that earned him multiple national coach of the year awards, and the leadership on and off the field of the team’s seniors.

But Morris was quick to point out the reason he and his teammates chose to come to Penn State in the first place.

"I'm glad to be part of one of (Paterno's) last group of guys," Morris said. "The season that we had was definitely for Penn State and it was for Coach O'Brien, myself and the senior class, but nothing would've ever happened without (Paterno) because he was with all of us that were on this team."