Sunday, November 16, 2008

JoePa: a life

“Hi, I’m Joe Paterno. I’m a football coach. Not very good.”

Such was my introduction to the legend that is Joe Paterno. I interviewed him in the early ‘90s when he and two-time Heisman winner Archie Griffin appeared at a benefit for Buckeye Boys Ranch (now The Buckeye Ranch), a home for troubled youth in Grove City, Ohio. For not being a very good coach, he sure has built quite a name for himself. Only 23 bowl wins from 34 bowl appearances, and being named Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year in 1986 (the first college football coach to win that title), among many other honors.

I had met many prominent people from the sports world during my career as a sports reporter, but it was special to interview Paterno. Why did he come into the middle of Buckeye territory to speak at this awards banquet? Ultimately, to make a difference in people's lives.

"You never know what sticks in somebody's head," he said. "A lot of these kids will say 'Who's this guy with the funny suit and the big nose and the funny glasses?'"

This was 1991--a time where major challenges lay ahead for Penn State, as it had recently been included in the Big Ten.

"I've always felt that one thing I wouldn't get the chance to do is coach in the Rose Bowl--and that still might happen," he said. It happened in 1994 (Penn State won 38-20) and it will happen again this year.

But he didn't want to talk about himself--he wanted to talk about young people.

"I can't imagine where it would be more fun to be young than it is today," he said. "There's no Iron Curtains and no Berlin Walls...We cannot afford to lose another generation of young people. If we blow this thing now, we're never going to have the opportunity again."

For many college football fans, Joe Paterno is the only head coach Penn State has ever had. That’s literally true for me, since he became head coach in 1966—the year I was born.

Imagine working the same job for 42 years. Most people couldn’t imagine this, even if they liked the job. But while many other coaches have come and gone, JoePa has been synonymous with Penn State. His presence is as old-school as the Nittany Lions’ white uniforms, and his dedication to his players and to education has few rivals in college football.

It is hard to picture Penn State football without Paterno, but that will happen soon. We have seen him continue to coach the team from the press box, through several injuries, but how long will it last?

This season would have been a perfect ending to his career. Penn State seemed destined for a perfect season and a national championship, but it all ended with a one-point loss to Iowa last week. (Yet another case for the playoff that JoePa has long favored.) He will probably retire with two college football championships, which is two more than most coaches have.

There’s still an outside chance at the BCS title, but a lot would have to happen. A Rose Bowl win seems more likely. Still, JoePa will be retired soon, and he will take with him a piece of anybody who follows college football.

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