Head Football Coach, Penn State University
Ethics: The Inaugural Symposium of the Rock Ethics Institute
Conference, March 14-16, 2002
Nittany Lion Inn
In the era of the Internet, PlayStation2 and cell phones, Joe Paterno is every bit as relevant as he was when Harry Truman occupied the Oval Office, the Dodgers were in Brooklyn and Paul Bryant was a football coaching novice at the University of Kentucky.
For 52 years and 582 games, Paterno has passionately served the football program at the Pennsylvania State University with honor and principle. After 16 years as an assistant coach, he was rewarded in 1966 with the head coaching responsibilities surrendered by the retiring Rip Engle, his college coach at Brown who appointed him to the Penn State staff in 1950 as a brash 23-year-old.
He is older now, and wiser, but no less enthusiastic and no less dynamic. He is, simply put, the most successful coach in the history of college football -- a fact that was validated during the 2001 season when he moved past Bryant to become the leader in career wins by a major college coach. He also is one of the most admired figures in college athletics, an acknowledged icon whose influence extends well beyond the white chalk lines of the football field.
"Even though he is enormously successful at it, from the perspective of meaningful contributions to society, the least important thing Joe Paterno does is coach football," sports columnist Bill Lyon told his readers in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Paterno has faced every situation imaginable on the gridiron and has used his preparation, experience and understanding of the game he loves to respond and keep the Penn State program among the nation’s elite for more than 30 years.
The 2001Nittany Lions responded to the first 0-4 start in program history by battling back to win five of their last seven games to push their coach's victory total to 327. Paterno passed Bryant on October 27, when the Lions secured his 324th victory by rallying from a 27-9 deficit to defeat Ohio State, 29-27, in the greatest Beaver Stadium comeback under the legendary coach.
A member of the Lions’ coaching staff spanning the administrations of 11 U.S. presidents, Paterno has posted a 327-96-3 mark in 36 seasons as head coach. His winning percentage of .771 is fourth-best among active Division I-A coaches and he is third all-time in games coached (426) among major college coaches.
Paterno already is the all-time leader among coaches in bowl appearances (30) and postseason triumphs (20). The Nittany Lions are 14-5 in New Year's Day games under Paterno. His overall postseason record of 20-9-1 gives him a winning percentage of .683, ranking him No. 3 among the bowl season’s best all-time.
Since Paterno took over in 1966, Penn State has had 55 first-team All-Americans. Over the same span, the Lions have counted 14 Hall of Fame Scholar-Athletes, 21 first-team Academic All-Americans and 17 NCAA Postgraduate Scholarship winners.
Paterno's coaching portfolio includes two National Championships (1982, 1986); five undefeated, untied teams; 20 finishes in the Top Ten of the national rankings; four AFCA Coach-of-the-Year plaques, and more than 250 former players who have made it to the National Football League, 25 of them first-round draft choices.
His teams have registered seven undefeated regular seasons and he has had 25 teams finish in the Top 20. Penn State has won the Lambert-Meadowlands Trophy, emblematic of Eastern football supremacy 21 times in Paterno's coaching run.
Since 1966, there have been more than 700 head coaching changes among Division I-A programs, with multiple changes at every institution except Penn State,
Paterno is the only college football coach to win the four traditional New Year's Day Bowl games--the Rose, Sugar, Cotton and Orange Bowls – and he owns a 6-0 record in the Fiesta Bowl. He was selected by the National Football Foundation and College Football Hall of Fame as the first active coach to receive its Distinguished American Award. Paterno also was the 1986 Sports Illustrated "Sportsman of the Year." In 1998, he was the initial winner of the Eddie Robinson "Coach-of-the-Year" Award, which recognizes an active college coach who is a role model to student and players, an active member of the community and an accomplished coach.
In January 2002 Paterno was presented the Amos Alonzo Stagg Award by the American Football Coaches Association, the AFCA’s highest honor. The award honors those “whose services have been outstanding in the advancement of the best interests of football.”
In a 2000 survey by Bloomberg News of I-A head coaches, Paterno was selected the nation's best coach.
Joe Paterno simply is an unusual football coach...and, an unusual person.
In an exceptional display of generosity and affection for Penn State, Paterno; his wife, Sue, and their five children announced a contribution of $3.5 million to the University in January 1998, bringing Paterno's lifetime giving total to more than $4 million. The gift appears to be, Penn State Vice President for Development Rod Kirsch said, "the most generous ever made by a collegiate coach and his family to a university."
The Paterno gift endows faculty positions and scholarships in the College of Liberal Arts; the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture; the University Libraries and support two building projects--a new interfaith spiritual center and the all-sports museum, both on the University Park campus.
"Penn State has been very good to both Sue and me," Paterno said. "We have met some wonderful people here, we've known many students who have gone on to become outstanding leaders in their professions and in society, and all of our children have received a first-class education here. I've never felt better about Penn State and its future potential than I do right now. Sue and I want to do all we can to help the University reach that potential."
Obviously not a person of misplaced priorities, Paterno always has concentrated on seeing that his student-athletes attend class, devote the proper time to studies and graduate with a meaningful degree. He often has said he measures team success not by athletic prowess but by the number of productive citizens who make a contribution to society. An NCAA report for Division 1 institutions revealed that the Penn State football program had a graduation rate of 76 percent for the entering class of 1993-94, substantially above the national average of 48 percent.
The wisdom of Paterno's "total person" approach to football--which addresses academic and lifestyle matters in addition to athletic prowess--has won almost universal endorsement from the "products of the system."
"...I can tell you that virtually all of the players he's touched in fifty years as an assistant and head coach have been enriched by the experience," former quarterback Todd Blackledge said in the forward to "Quotable Joe," a book of quotations by and about Paterno. "I consider myself, and I know my teammates and Penn State players past and present feel likewise, a better person for having played for Joe Paterno."
LaVar Arrington, one of the 25 NFL first round draft choices to come through Paterno's Penn State program, was a two-time All-America selection and won the 1999 Butkus Award as the nation's top linebacker as well as the Maxwell Club's Chuck Bednarik Award, presented to the top collegiate defensive player. "If you're not a man when you get there, you'll be a man before you leave," Arrington said of his Penn State experience. "...Joe has his system so that you're prepared for life. Joe trains you more mentally than physically so that nothing will rattle you."
Ex-All-America linebacker Matt Millen, now President and CEO of the Detroit Lions and a former television analyst on Fox Network telecasts of NFL games, is of the opinion "the main thing Joe gives you is perspective. He's a teacher. He does more than football stuff. He's always giving you these little speeches, and after a while you hear them so often and understand them and they're pretty true.”
Joe and Sue Paterno have five children, all of whom are Penn State graduates, and nine grandchildren.