The Lion Of Penn State
He's taller than you think. And in better shape than most men half his age.
I've met my share of football coaches, but none like Penn State's Joe Paterno. He was even better than advertised.
We were introduced on the 50-yard line on Media Day at Penn State. I was expecting to meet a legendary and cranky old coach (based on many of the most recent press clippings on the guy). But the man I shook hands with was actually bigger than his legend and far from a cranky old coach.
His first words to me were "Nice to meet you Byron. So glad you made it home safe from the Middle East." I thought we'd talk x's and o's... and he was more interested in world affairs and the well-being a stranger. That, it seems to me, is the less-widely-known portion of the Paterno legend. He certainly cares about the game he's coached for 56-years (41 as head coach at Penn State), but he genuinely cares more about the kids he's coached and people he's met along the way.
We were told '"Coach is on a tight schedule." We had 20 minutes for the interview and he gave us an hour. I can't remember the last time I learned more or laughed more. He's thoughtful, funny and cares deeply about issues well beyond football.
I asked Paterno if he felt more like a teacher or a coach. He said he saw little difference between the two. I wanted to hear about all the All-American's he'd coached and NFL Hall Famers who played for him at Penn State, but Coach preferred to talk about his players who'd gone on to become doctors, lawyers, businessmen, husbands and fathers.
He did talk in detail about a former player who didn't like to read before coming to Penn State, but as a requirement to play, Paterno made him read several books. Can you imagine, in this age when so many big time college athletes are allowed to skate through college, Paterno insisted one of his top recruits actually get an education, or else? He once kept a star player out of a bowl game, because the kid cut class.
Paterno's old school. No throat slash'n, trash talk'n, put a kid's name on the back of his journey at Penn State. And thank God for that.
Make no mistake... Paterno doesn't run a perfect program, but it's one I'd be honored to have a child play for. He graduates 84% of his players. That's higher than the national average for any major college football program.
I've been blessed to interview some wonderful people in my career... and I'd rank Coach Joe Paterno with the best of them.
Here's some good news: Coach had a physical recently and the doctor said he could coach another 8-10 years. Paterno joked you never saw a sadder group than when he shared the good news with his assistant coaches.
Honestly, all who love college football....or who love adults who take a real interest in shaping young people... just have to love a man like Joe Paterno. His dad wanted him to be a lawyer, to "make a difference." Well at 79 going on 19... Coach Paterno has done at least half of what his dad wanted.
I'd bet money... for everyone All-American on a Paterno team.. there are at least 20-kids who go on to become All-AMERICAN men.