Joe Paterno remembered: 'The coach came by to see us?'

A meeting with legendary football coach Joe Paterno the day before a 1996 non-conference game provided a small picture into the man.

Courtesy of Pat Murphy
The writer meets then-Penn State football coach Joe Paterno in State College, Penn. in this 1996 photo.

Much has been written and said about Joe Paterno, the former Penn State head football coach who passed away Sunday.

Certainly, Paterno achieved a lofty status in college football annals for becoming the "winningest" coach in Division 1 last fall (409 victories), on top of two national championships, during 46 years of coaching the Nittany Lions.

But that status was tarnished by his lack of action in the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal that made national news this past November.

15 years before, it was his on-field success that came up during a short discussion I had with Coach Paterno in September, 1996.

At the time, I was working for WDRB-TV, the Fox network affiliate in Louisville, Kentucky, producing the University of Louisville football coach's weekly television program.

In that position, I traveled with the Louisville Cardinals football team to away games and the first one during that '96 season was Penn State. After making our way to State College, Penn., the official team travel party was brought to a local hotel for a reception late Friday afternoon.

As I recall, those among our group had heard that Coach Paterno would occasionally come to the hotel to greet in person the various opponent's school and athletic administrators who traveled with their team.

We didn't think much about the possibility until Paterno walked into the banquet room with his brother George, who was a member of Penn State's radio broadcast crew at that time (he's in the background of the above photograph).

Once Paterno got around the room to me, I remember complimenting the coach on the Lions' prior successes. Growing up a football fan in Massachusetts as I had in the late 1960s and 1970s, one certainly was aware of Penn State as a football power in the eastern US. That was symbolized by the Lambert Trophy, which the Nittany Lions have won 28 times, the last instance in 2009.

Coach Paterno downplayed his role in all of that, noting all the good players and assistant coaches he had worked with over the years. The year I met him, 1996, Penn State moved on and was a successful member of the Big Ten Conference (the Nittany Lions would go 11-2 in '96 and defeated Texas in the 1997 Fiesta Bowl).

As quickly as the conversation began, it was over.  Being a coach's TV show producer, I later wished I'd asked about his. But like the men who worked with and played for him, I was left with the indelible impression that Paterno was a humble, thoughtful, yet determined leader.

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