Paterno Stops To Reflect On Hall Of Fame Career

If Joe Paterno must go, he would prefer the end come right at the 50-yard line

Dec. 3, 2007

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) - If Joe Paterno must go, he would prefer the end come right at the 50-yard line.

"Drop dead at the end of the game after you kick the winning field goal," the Penn State coach joked when asked about the perfect ending to his career. "They carry you off the field and everyone's singing, 'So long, Joe!"

Hold on, JoePa, there's another distinction to tack on the already-crowded resume: his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame on Tuesday night in New York.

"I really am indebted to college football," said Paterno, who turns 81 this month. "I appreciate what college football has been able to do for me."

His qualifications are unquestioned: a record 42 seasons (and counting) as head coach; two national titles and five undefeated seasons; 371 career wins, second only to Florida State's Bobby Bowden among major college coaches.

It seemed fitting for the Hall to give Bowden and Paterno membership in the same class in 2006, though Paterno had to delay induction by a year after breaking his left leg last season.

That didn't deter him from returning to the sideline this season in his signature rolled-up khakis and smoky, thick-rimmed glasses.

Now, as Penn State gets ready for the Alamo Bowl on Dec. 29, its 34th bowl appearance under Paterno (also a record), the coach is taking a brief break to return to his native New York for the induction ceremony.

"My kids all want me to take them around Brooklyn. I haven't got time for crying out loud," Paterno said. "They all want to know where I grew up and see some of things, and I'm going to do that someday."

Perhaps when he retires, though Paterno maintained he is still concentrating on what's next for his career - the next play, the next game, the next season.

Still, the Hall of Fame induction is such an honor for Paterno he recently allowed himself 90 minutes to talk to reporters about his storied past.



Paterno held court in a Beaver Stadium lounge, his seat offering him a view of the cloudy, late fall sky from the ceiling-to-floor windows. To his back was to a wall full of images of assistant coaches past and present.

He has outlasted many of the men photographed on the wall, including recent notables like Jerry Sandusky and Fran Ganter. Others have died.

"Obviously, I'm flattered and it's nice to be in the Hall of Fame. But I hope people understand, nobody gets there by themselves," he said.

He speaks from experience when he talks about his assistants. Paterno started as an assistant himself. At 23 he was coaxed by Rip Engle, his former football coach at Brown, to work with him when Engle moved to Penn State in 1950.

"I had no intention to coach when I got out of Brown," said Paterno, who had been planning to go to law school. "Come to this hick town? From Brooklyn?"

The "hick town" of State College turned into his home. Paterno was the only other new hire Engle was allowed to bring to his staff.

"In those days, he kept everybody except me," Paterno said. "'If you're loyal to this place, this place will be loyal to you.' That kind of thing."

It took three or four years before Paterno felt entirely comfortable about coaching as a career. His father, Angelo, thought his son would someday become president.

So when Paterno called his parents to relay the news that he was hanging onto his whistle and stopwatch, his father passed the phone to his mother.

He said her response was, "We made all these sacrifices, and you're going to coach?"

Sure did. Paterno took over as head coach in 1966 after Engle retired.

Paterno says the biggest disappointment of his career was the 14-7 loss to Alabama in the national title game at the 1978 Sugar Bowl, a defeat that nearly led him to leave Happy Valley.

He was so upset he went home to Brooklyn to think about his future. He decided to come back and the elusive first national championship came four seasons later.

But Paterno's contributions went beyond football. He has contributed at least $4 million to the university. He may perhaps be the only coach in America who has a campus library, and not a stadium or athletic facility, named after him.

"He's not only been a great football coach, but he's done so much more for this university," athletic director Tim Curley said Sunday.

The football program consistently graduates players at high levels, federal statistics show. The latest rate of 74 percent trails only Northwestern in the Big Ten (80 percent) and is 19 points higher than the Division I average.

Football, though, is what Paterno is most known for and what has made him perhaps the most recognizable man in Pennsylvania. He has developed such a storied program that when Penn State struggles, as it did mightily in the early part of this decade, even sports novices take notice.

Some blue-and-white die-hards back then weren't shy about wanting Paterno to retire. Paterno has said he rebuffed a request to step down by school administrators following the 2004 campaign - Penn State's fourth losing season in five years.

The Nittany Lions responded by winning the Big Ten title and the Orange Bowl in 2005. They've had respectable winning seasons since, though for some fans, anything less than being in the national title hunt won't do.

Paterno's contract is up in 2008, but Paterno said he feels as if he can coach at least another three years, if his health allows.

When asked about Paterno's contact Sunday, Curley said he planned to meet with the coach to review the program as they typically do following each season.

In the short term, Paterno hopes the Alamo Bowl can be a springboard for 2008, when he may have as many as 19 starters returning. He is optimistic he can clean up the off-field legal problems that plagued the team this season.

So it doesn't look as if retirement is coming anytime soon.

"Deep down, I feel I've had an impact. I don't feel I've wasted my 56 years," he said. "If I did, I would have gotten out a long time ago."