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Joe Pa: Off to the Happiest Valley

Penn State football coach Joe Paterno died this weekend. As a Penn State graduate, I'd like to share my thoughts about him with you.

Legendary coach Joe Paterno (Joe Pa) died this weekend. Much will be written about him and his years as head football coach at Penn State, and I hesitate to add my few comments. However, I did my graduate studies at Penn State, and I have fond memories of this man. I attended many home football games at Penn State, both while I was a student there and afterwards with season tickets. I was fortunate enough to have met coach Paterno a number of times, and to have been at the Sugar Bowl to watch him coach his team to their first national championship.

Joe Pa was respected and admired by everyone. He was truly an unusual man. What other coach have you heard of who majored in English Literature while at college? Not just any college, but Brown University, where he played football both as a quarterback and as a defensive end. He led his college team against other teams that were coached by the great names in college football, including Bear Bryant and Woody Hayes. But he was different, both off and on the field: he insisted that his athletes take their academic studies seriously. Year after year, his teams had some of the highest graduation rates in all of college football.

When you watched a Penn State football game you always saw the coach pacing the sidelines, wearing a blue jacket and a blue Penn State tie. You saw his players wearing the uniforms which he insisted on: the bland, “generic” all-white or blue and white. You also saw they were very different from most other colleges’ uniforms. He never allowed his players to wear their names on the uniforms because he always felt that the team was more important than any individual player, no matter how talented.

You saw what many criticized as dull, predictable football. Joe Pa firmly believed in having a strong defense, and an offence which controlled possession of the ball. This usually meant a steady ground attack, with very few of the exciting passes that characterized other football teams. You could almost predict what the next play would be. It often was something like “Suhey up the middle” (Matt Suhey was a Running Back at Penn State from 1976 – 1979).

When his team was winning, he didn’t believe in humiliating the opposing team. Often he’d pull the first string team out of the game in the 3rd quarter so the younger players could play and get some valuable experience. The only time I recollect him pouring on the points was when John Capaletti was his quarterback. John’s younger brother, Joey, was dying of leukemia, and looked forward to watching his older brother lead the team to victory. It was when Joey asked if John could have 4 (or 5, or 6) touchdowns in the next game that Joe Pa let him do it (if you haven’t seen the made-for-television movie “Something for Joey”, it’s well worth watching).

Like all Penn Staters, I was devastated by the news of the sex scandal involving Jerry Sandusky. I’m sorry that the school’s Board of Trustees fired Paterno so unceremoniously, and without due process. I’m sorry that Joe won’t be able to testify to his side of the story when the case finally goes to court. I have to believe that Joe Pa lived by the words of Penn State’s school song:

                                                  May no act of ours bring shame

                                                  To one heart that loves thy name.

                                                  May our lives but swell thy fame

                                                  Dear old State, dear old State.

The area around State College, Pennsylvania is known as Happy Valley. It’s miles and miles from the nearest big cities, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. When I was there, some people called State College “Dead Center, PA”. It’s a great little town, full of friendly people. The campus is safe and is right at the center of town. Joe Paterno was a big part of Happy Valley. He lived in a modest house; his home phone number was in the phone book; he turned down several offers to coach for professional football teams, preferring to spend his time with his wife, Sue, and his 5 children. Now after many years, he has left Happy Valley and has met St. Peter at the gates to the happiest valley. Joseph Vincent Paterno will be missed by us mere mortals.

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B January 25, 2012 at 12:07 AM
JoePa's legacy at PSU will never change w/ me. Outsiders can say all they want, but the man I met was always kind and supportive to the students at PSU. I once "met" him out side Rec Hall when I was upset (BF just dumped me). Joe told me to go cry it out and next week go out a new boy will be the lucky one to have a catch like me. That lifted my spirits so much that I never looked back. RIP JoePa.
Mark Willis January 25, 2012 at 01:54 AM
Thank you for something postive about Coach Paterno. He reached out to so many, and the news of the scandal broke many hearts too. Joe and Sue Paterno worked very hard as spokespersons for the Charcot-Marie-Tooth Association, CMT is a progressive neuromuscular disease, the most common inherited peripheral neuropathy known, but is often called the biggest disease no one ever heard of. Joe tried his best to change that. Last year, when I ran an awareness/fundraising event at the Somerset Patriot's, Coach Paterno supplied an autographed football. There was a mini-bidding war going on and that ball alone brought in $500! As a father myself, I was so hurt for those children. Sandusky is the animal. He is the one that deserves the wrath from the masses (and hopefully his fellow inmates where he should rot the rest of his life). As a manager in corporate life, I can see how someone in the middle like he was had his hands tied on how far to go with reporting. Had this happened today, I am quite sure his actions would have been different. Back then, he may have done all he could. Only he knows, and let the judgement fall on the ones facing charges because Joe was never charged with any crimes.
rfm January 25, 2012 at 02:08 AM
@ Mark Yes, Sanusdky is an animal. But the others who CONTINUED to enable him to allow a pedophile to bring children onto the campus AFTER he was told he couldn't, enabled him. You're a manager in corporate life? Had you done the same thing in 1998, and AGAIN in 2002, you would've been fired. Your beloved JoePa will be sued - and he should be. Just as you would've been had you allowed the same thing to occur. Sticking ones head in the sand is not an affirmative defernse. People who loved him are allowed to mourn him. He's not the saint who many pretended him to be. He ALLOWED a pedophila to continue under his watch. His watch. There is no excuse for that.
Amber Wright January 26, 2012 at 06:44 PM
It boggles my mind how the public is willing to celebrate. Woody Allen married a girl he raised as his own daughter - but people think he is great. Morgan Freeman is having an affair with his step grand-daughter - but he just received an award at the golden globes. Joe Paterno did not effectively report to the authorities the sexual abuse of boys but hey he was a great coach who did a lot of nice things - who cares. He let down a lot of young men also. He had an opportunity to put an end to it and didn't. What more is there to say. He ran one of the biggest football programs in the country and he did not know how to report sexual abuse? GIVE ME A BREAK. He destroyed his own legacy - plain and simple.
Amber Wright January 26, 2012 at 06:51 PM
celebrate celebrity*

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