JIM DAVIS: Always Room For Paterno At Penn State
Here we are on the threshold of another college football season. I like professional football too, but it's the college game that really gets my juices flowing.
Once again my beloved Penn State Nittany Lions will be on the prowl in search of a Big Ten title or, dare I say it, a national championship. By the way, don't ask me why they still call it the Big Ten when there are 11 teams in the conference. That's just the way it is.
My Penn State roots are wide and deep. When Marilyn and I went there in 1947, it wasn't even a university; our class rings are inscribed "Pennsylvania State College." The Lions played in cozy Beaver Field, a short walk from anywhere on campus. We played local Pennsylvania teams and some out-of-state rivals like Syracuse and West Virginia. The last game of the year was always against the hated Pitt Panthers, and it was traditionally played in Pittsburgh. We always thought Pitt never came to State College because they couldn't find it.
In 1950, "Rip" Engle was hired away from Brown University to be head football coach. This was a monumental event, because one of Engle's players at Brown was a young fellow named Joe Paterno, and Engle brought him along as an assistant. When Engle retired in 1966, Paterno stepped in as head coach, and as all college football fans know, he's still there. And by the way, no one called him "JoePa" then. Some sportswriter thought that up much later.
Joe Paterno is a true icon in college football, right up there with Amos Alonzo Stagg, Eddie Robinson, Bear Bryant, Bobby Bowden, and all the other legends of the sport. In his head coaching career, his teams have won 372 games, including 23 bowl games. He won national championships in 1982 and 1986, and Big Ten championships in 1994 and 2005. His teams traditionally graduate over 80% of the senior players, far above the national average.
Paterno is devoted to his family and his university. He and his wife have donated millions of dollars to further academics at Penn State. He has turned down several lucrative offers to coach professional football, preferring to stay at the university he loves and which loves him back. The University Creamery even has an ice cream flavor named for him.
Why are most alumni happy to see Joe stay on into his 80s, prowling the sidelines like an expectant father whose wife has just entered her fourth day of labor?
I think it's because he's synonymous with Penn State football. He has almost single-handedly brought the program from the minors to national prominence, without sacrificing an ounce of his integrity. He's human, approachable, fiery, and totally dedicated.
Two seasons ago, standing on the sidelines, he was crashed into by a couple of players and his leg was broken. He coached the rest of that season from the press box, and the next year he was back on the sidelines, as usual. That's how involved he is.
He's eminently quotable. When asked about the rumored low IQ of a former player, Joe said kindly, "What God had in mind there was a football player." On showboating after touchdowns, Joe said, "For Pete's sake, when you get into the end zone, act like you've been there before."
He doesn't allow player names on the team jerseys, saying that "It's the name on the front of the jersey that counts, not the one on the back." The team is everything to Joe.
There are those who feel that the game has passed him by and that he should retire. Not me. Joe has earned the right to retire when he's good and ready. Right now he's good, and he's not ready.
Excuse me, but I have to go now. I have to get my Penn State flag ready for opening day.
Contact Pinehurst freelance writer Jim Davis at email@example.com.
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