Joe Paterno is riding the crest. He is the best coach of the best college football team in the country, a twin status confirmed by any number of polls and groups since Penn State completed a perfect 12-0 season. He's been saluted for his integrity, too, landing Sports Illustrated's ``Sportsman of the Year'' award, this even before the Nittany Lions beat Miami, 14-10, in the Fiesta Bowl. Paterno obviously has his career in order, yet it wasn't long ago that discouragement practically forced him out of the coaching profession. ``In 1979, I was as close as I ever came to getting out of football,'' he admitted during a recent swing through Boston.
His '79 team produced a very respectable 8-4 record, but several uncharacteristic problems (players flunking out, others disobeying orders, and a few even being arrested) riddled the Penn State program, causing one of the nation's most respected coaches to do some soul-searching.
After the season he made a business trip to New York, where he stayed two extra days to sort things out. ``I went back to where I was born in Brooklyn, I went back to my old church, I walked around, sat in the park, and tried to figure out what I wanted to do. I realized I'd had so many good things happen to me in football that I shouldn't let one bad situation discourage me.''
Since then it's quite clear he made the right decision, for besides producing two national champion teams, in '82 and '86, the Penn State program has restored its reputation as a model operation in which players toe the line and hit the books. Every one of the team's seniors is expected to graduate, a rare accomplishment in big-time college football, but one consistent with Paterno's insistence that athletes be real students.
During his early years as Penn State's head coach, he talked frequently about ``The Grand Experiment,'' or his belief that football and classroom excellence were compatible goals. A dreamer, some thought. But to Paterno, the football field is his classroom, and the lesson taught is how to break barriers in effort and achievement.
The thought that best summarizes Joe's outlook was penned by Robert Browning: ``...a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?'' ``I literally lead my life that way,'' says the coach, who visited Boston to impart a bit more of his adopted philosophy. Fulfilling a commitment he'd made almost a year earlier, Paterno addressed a group of retail lumbermen on how to build a winning organization.
His talk, a delightful blend of anecdote and insight, drew on his coaching experience to make several key points. From his remarks, the recipe for Penn State's football success emerged. Among the main ingredients are loyalty, preparation, conviction, and performance.
Loyalty surfaces in many areas. A chief one, in Paterno's opinion, is loyalty to the group's privacy. As a major-college coach, he is in the public eye, but he wants those associated with the Penn State program to keep in-house problems in the family. Once you confide to the probing press, he figures, problems just increase.
Loyalty also leads to continuity, which is where the Nittany Lions have an edge over so many of their opponents. Paterno, who once turned down a million-dollar offer to coach the New England Patriots, has been at the school 37 years, 16 as an assistant under Rip Engle, who grabbed his former quarterback at Brown University before he could enroll in law school.
Joe looks for the same sort of loyalty in his assistants, many of whom stay on year after year. In fact, it was defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, a 19-year veteran of the staff, who has been given much of the credit (by Paterno) for the victory over Miami.
Preparation is a top priority in the Nittany Valley. Paterno says, ``The will to win is important, but the will to prepare is absolutely essential.'' Twenty years from now, Joe wants his players to remember him as someone who pushed them to the outer limits, not as Mr. Nice Guy. He expects his players to make sacrifices of time and energy on the practice field, and reap the benefits come Saturday and beyond.
Given Penn State's work ethic, the four weeks leading up to the Fiesta Bowl were the great equalizer against an awesome-looking Miami squad. ``Anytime you're an underdog, time is on your side,'' Paterno states. ``If we had had only one week to prepare, we couldn't have done the things we did against them.''
Conviction comes into play in drafting a game plan, and making sure everyone on the coaching staff believes it will work. Joe doesn't want any lukewarm converts, because he knows they make poor salesmen and teachers on the practice field. Once the staff is convinced it has the winning strategy, then the coaches have no trouble selling the plan to the players.
Judging from the plain-looking Penn State uniforms, Paterno is not one to put much stock in packaging or appearance, especially when it comes to gauging a player's true worth. ``You win with performance, not with potential,'' he's fond of saying. If any coach knows the value of heart, savvy, and determination, it should be Paterno, who ran on ``intangibles'' as a skinny college quarterback. Sportswriter Stanley Woodward once wrote of him: ``He can't run and he can't pass. All he can do is think and win.''