HARRY TRUMAN WAS PRESIDENT WHEN JOE PATERNO drove west with Penn State’s new head coach, Rip Engle, to State College. Joe had studied English literature and played quarterback for Rip at Brown; he’d taken the law boards—scoring in the top 10 percent nationally—but he’d forgo law school. He had a thirst to learn but a “rage to win,” as his younger brother George once said. He’d give coaching a try for a year.
State College and Joe were a strange fit. He’d grown up in Brooklyn’s Flatbush section; his parents were staunchly Italian and staunchly pro-Joe, the oldest of three. His mother would ask George, who she suspected was the better athlete, to tone it down in high-school games so as not to outshine his older brother. His father, a state court clerk, studied nights to get his law degree at 42. Joe was a star student educated by Jesuits, a thinking-man’s athlete (i.e.: not a standout) given the nickname “The Dogfaced Boy” as a child—he was deadly serious. Big things were in store for him. It was a given.
But coaching football in central Pennsylvania? He had big doubts. Still, there was an idea Joe had of himself that would start to mesh with coaching. His favorite book, going back to Brooklyn Prep, was Virgil’s Aeneid. To Joe, Aeneas’s epic struggle—to create a new city in Italy after his native Troy was destroyed—was symbolic of a man accepting his fate—not merely what happened to him, but his true responsibility to others, come hell or high water. The molding of young athletes as young men began to grow on Paterno.
It took 16 years, but finally, in 1966, Joe got his shot. By then he was married (Joe met Sue, 13 years younger, in PSU’s library; his idea of courting was to give her a copy of The Stranger and ask for her written thoughts on Camus) and had started a family. He spent a summer as head coach buried in an upstairs room, rethinking his defense. He took complete control of his staff, managing every detail. “When a guy stakes his life on something new, there’s no other way,” Joe would later write.
This was important. This was destiny. But would it work?
PSU’s record, his first year, was 5-5. But then, starting in 1968, Joe’s team started winning, and kept winning.
There were two straight undefeated seasons. Penn State didn’t lose for more than a thousand days. For the first time, the Lions were beating big teams—Kansas, UCLA—on national TV. In January 1970, 5,000 students came to a rally in Rec Hall. The player names were now big-time: Kwalick, Pittman, Reid. But the biggest ovation, a roar that rocked Penn State’s old gym, was for Joe Paterno. Joe had become Penn State football, and Penn State football was national news.
He got bigger. In 1972, the NFL’s New England Patriots tried to lure Paterno—then earning $30,000 a year—with the first million-dollar contract for a pro coach. Joe hemmed and hawed, but in the end he turned the offer down, with his particular ability to be humble and grand in the same breath: “You went to bed with a millionaire,” he said he told Sue, “but you woke up with me.”
With that one, the national press fell in love. Bill Conlin, then with the Philadelphia Bulletin, came up with “The Grand Experiment” to describe Joe’s dictum that his athletes came to Happy Valley to actually study. In fact, they did and still do; almost 90 percent of Penn State’s football players graduate, far above the national average for big-time programs, and professors at PSU say the team exerts zero influence on how players are treated academically.
Joe got bigger yet. In 1973, he delivered the commencement address in June. He quoted John Steinbeck, W.H. Auden and Robert Browning. He urged the graduates, as they walked into a Watergate-obsessed world, not to become cynical about civic engagement. Then he ended with this, to an audience of 22-year-olds who had cut their teeth on the ’60s:
“You have inspired us to stretch. You have disrupted our comfortable thinking. You have made us reevaluate, think again about our ideals and our principles. You have made us look again at our souls.”
This from the football coach? Not a coach. Joe. Sharing the way with us.
There was another big step to take, a decade later, after Paterno’s 1982 team beat Georgia for his first national championship. He was invited to speak before the board of trustees—ostensibly so they could fete him. Instead, he let them have it:
“It bothers me to see Penn State football number one and then to pick up a newspaper and find a report that many of our academic departments and disciplines are not rated up there with the leading institutions.”
Paterno was right; Penn State was a very average public university. What’s more, its endowment, as of the late ’70s, was a pathetic $11 million. Chastised, the trustees soon began a $200 million fund-raising campaign, vice-chaired by Paterno. Two decades later, the trustees wanted to raise another $700 million; Paterno didn’t see why the goal shouldn’t be a cool billion. Everybody thought he was nuts—until the campaign landed $1.4 billion. Or, overwhelmingly, Joe did. The master recruiter of kids was dynamite with moneybags boosters and alums, too.
By the end of the ’90s, Penn State had come up to speed as a research university, with enrollment tripling since Joe Paterno’s arrival half a century earlier. And Happy Valley belonged to him.