THERE WERE HINTS OF PATERNO’S POWER getting out of whack, of something not right, as far back as the ’80s, when he won his two national championships. Joe seemed to be toying with going into politics; he and Sue got more involved in fund-raising, in improving the athletic facilities, in charities. He was stretched thin. More to the point, as his brother George would write of Joe in his 2001 biography, “He was just getting too powerful. … The narcotic of success had gotten to him. He talked down to people.”
Rather than pay his brother a visit on McKee Street, George, who was the color analyst for PSU football broadcasts, wrote a letter advising Joe to come down to earth. As George knew all too well: “You don’t take Joe on head-to-head.”
Saintly Joe, it turns out, was quite capable of being full of himself. One day he checked out a defensive drill in practice and saw a walk-on player down in his three-point stance, ready to pounce. Joe yelled, “Get someone in here who’s actually going to play!” Walk-ons are non-scholarship players; this one, a 280-pound lineman who dreamed of simply making the team, who admits that he’s “scared to death” more than 20 years later to say anything bad about Joe Paterno—that day in practice, the legendary coach made him feel like nothing. A waste of the great man’s time.
There are stories like this, too: One day a few years ago, Paterno found his usual route home from practice blocked by some grade-schoolers visiting campus. Firing open his car door into the student cop redirecting traffic, he roared: “Do you know who I am?”
Yeah, the man who built it all could be a jerk.
But perhaps it’s unfair to bring up isolated incidents in 60 years of coaching. Most players who spent four years in Happy Valley became true believers in Joe’s gospel of doing it his way, especially once they left. But you had to buy into it. A graduate assistant coach named Matt Paknis was hired just after Paterno won his second national championship, in 1986. “There was a very bizarre dynamic down there” in Happy Valley, Paknis, now a management consultant, says. “It wasn’t like other programs and staff.” Paknis is referring to Paterno’s absolute control and power. He remembers one time he was late getting a player out onto the field; Paterno threatened him physically, screaming that he would “come and get” both of them. Paknis only lasted a year and a half.
Joe Paterno moved on toward a record number of victories—until he hit rock bottom suddenly, disastrously. Nine games into the 2004 season, Paterno’s team had lost 16 of its last 21 games, an unthinkable falloff.
The nosedive cast a pall over the university and, in fact, all of Nittany Lion Nation. Paterno was the Penn State brand, and the brand was suddenly not just old, not just losing, but maybe lost. Paterno claimed his team was close to being good again, yet in a homecoming game, the offense was shut out in a 6-4 loss to Iowa. That was pathetic. But it wasn’t just the losing: If Paterno was lost—if he’d lost his grip but couldn’t let go—the school itself was in limbo. Waiting. Holding its collective breath for a 77-year-old man.
So PSU president Graham Spanier and athletic director Tim Curley, along with a board member and vice president Gary Schultz, paid Paterno a visit on McKee Street the Sunday before Thanksgiving in 2004. They didn’t demand Joe’s resignation. They only asked, as gently as they could, how long he would stay. They wanted a plan for his succession. Could he tell them when?
Joe threw them out of the house. Nobody was going to force him, the guy who’d created the university’s centerpiece, its calling card, to say when. And then Paterno proved his point by turning his team around in the next couple of seasons. He was untouchable.
And any mere administrator who dared cross him would quickly find out who ran things. When the Sandusky scandal hit, a former PSU standards-and-conduct officer named Vicky Triponey told the Wall Street Journal a chilling story: In the spring of 2007, six football players were arrested after a vicious fight in a downtown apartment. Triponey wanted the players dealt with like any other students. Paterno said the players shouldn’t have to testify against one another; he would decide on punishments, as he’d always done.
Triponey said Paterno told Spanier he would stop raising money for the university unless she was fired. Spanier told her he wouldn’t let that happen, though in the past he’d warned her that she wasn’t fitting into “the Penn State way.” Joe’s way.
In the end, none of the players missed any games; Paterno’s punishment was to make the entire team clean up the stadium for two hours after home games that fall. Triponey resigned from Penn State that September, reportedly escorted from her office on her last day by security guards.