Paterno defies critics — again

According to the United States Census, well over 65 percent of the country is under 44 years old. Walking down an average street in an average town, you’d find better than six out of 10 people that weren’t born when Joe Paterno started coaching at Penn State.

Paterno has spent better than half of a century at Penn State. He’s won more games than any other major college coach — and all of them came at the same place.

Perhaps it may be hard to understand what Paterno means to Penn State, and the entire state of Pennsylvania. By merely being around for as long as he has, he’s a legend. When he was hired, college sports didn’t have the ‘win now’ mentality that pervades big-time collegiate sports today. So, even if Paterno wasn’t successful, he would’ve stayed much longer than he could have in today’s climate.

But he has been successful: two national championships, five undefeated seasons, 327 career wins.

He’s also been an advocate for academics. Paterno demands academic success from his players, and leads by example. His multi-million dollar donation to the university helped build a new library. Not surprising, since he graduated from Brown University with a degree in English Literature.

There is a noticeable lack of scandal. Only twice in recent memory has a Penn State player made headlines for the wrong reasons: Curtis Enis buying a suit that was paid for by an agent, and Rashard Casey’s skirmish with an off-duty police officer in North Jersey.

Geography also plays a part. By contrast, Virginia has two schools that have major college football teams, and both have their fans in all parts of the state.

Pennsylvania, meanwhile, has three major college football programs: Penn State, Temple — which doesn’t count, given their status as perennial doormat — and Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh, the city and the university, is located in the southwest part of the state. Consequently, few people in the east care about the Panthers.

That leaves Penn State as the program for Pennsylvania, which has a population of just over 12 million people. In addition, nearly 400,000 Penn State graduates are scattered across the country, with better than half of them in Pa. — the Nittany Lions try to play other teams in regions outside of the northeast and midwest. That gives PSU alumni a chance to see their team without heading to central Pennsylvania.

Almost everything about Penn State football is in demand. There’s Paterno bobblehead dolls, life-size stand up cutouts of Paterno, and even coffee mugs with Paterno’s mug.

Tom Bradley, the Nittany Lions’ defensive coordinator, once told a Pa. alumni club that he was inundated with requests to speak at other alumni gatherings, from San Diego to Houston.

Back in 1950, when Paterno started as an assistant under Rip Engle, none of this was imagined.

Many times, critics have written Paterno off as being too old –myself included. “The game has passed him by,” we said. “It’s time for a change, some new blood.”

Each time, Paterno has rebounded, not unlike this season. After starting off 0-4, Penn State has won five of its last six contests — not unlike a more familiar team to this area, the Washington Redskins.

A win against U.Va. on Saturday makes the Nittany Lions bowl-eligible — unthinkable three months ago.

Whenever asked about retirement plans, Paterno is always mum. He says he enjoys getting up for work each day, he enjoys working with the kids, etc. Like another old-school coach, South Carolina’s Lou Holtz, Paterno is fond is saying he’s not looking forward to the next big event after retirement.

That’s all par for the course for someone who has their phone number listed in the local pages — even more testament to someone who, as great as a coach as he is, is an even better person.

Brian Hunsicker is a staff writer for the Potomac News & Manassas Journal Messenger. Reach him at (703) 878-8053 or via e-mail at [email protected]

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