Friday, April 12, 2019

Interview: Jay Paterno says his father, Joe, made sure an athlete "would leave Penn State a better person"

Editor's note: This interview was originally published in February 2017.

Story by Joseph Ford Cotto

Not much -- if anything at all -- has yet to be written about the Penn State scandal. From its eruption in late 2011 until the trial of its perpetrator ended almost one year later, it dominated headlines.

The sexual perversion and beastly, let alone predatory, nature of Jerry Sandusky shocked the United States, then eventually the world. Nowhere was the gruesome surprise more acutely felt than in the unassuming borough of State College. Nestled among the rolling mountains of north-central Pennsylvania, its metro area is one of the safest in America.

Indeed, State College is so far removed from the trials and tribulations of Philadelphia, Allentown, Harrisburg, and Pittsburgh that trouble there often comes from activist professors who brandish a most unique lethal weapon -- annoying those around them to death.

Amid such a tranquil environment -- bad as the professors might be, one can hardly compare them to gang-bangers who shoot innocent bystanders for wearing the wrong colors -- the Sandusky story was far from anticipated. That it came out of a landscape Norman Rockwell would have painted makes the situation even more terrifying.

Perhaps nobody was more horrified than Joe Paterno, Penn State University's legendary football coach who had Sandusky at his right hand for decades on end. When Sandusky was indicted, allegations flew at the entire Penn State administrative body. Singled out beyond all others, even President Graham Spainer, was Paterno.

His near-half-century tenure could not withstand political scrutiny and the media firestorm which fueled it. As with most emotionally-charged situations, folks wanted someone to blame, and Sandusky was not enough. Paterno was fired from his post in November 2011 and died just over two months later.

He never did get the chance to comprehensively counter the public sentiment which rose against him -- the general feeling that he had some idea of what went on but stayed quiet so his team could go about its business.

Paterno's son, Jay, has devoted much of his time to clearing the air which permeates his father's legacy. A successful coach in his own right, he is the author of Paterno Legacy: Enduring Lessons from the Life and Death of My Father. Jay recently spoke with me about many topics pertaining to his father's life. Some of our discussion is included below.


Joseph Ford Cotto: Your father was a very famous man who, despite his notoriety, was very approachable and 'down to Earth'. How did he strike this balance in his dealings with other people?

Jay Paterno: I don’t know that he necessarily tried to strike a balance other than just being himself. Despite success and despite being someone who spent time at things like state dinners at the White House he never really forgot what he learned growing up in Brooklyn. He always remembered the poem If by Rudyard Kipling where it states “If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,  Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch”—he just never lost the common touch.

When you think about some of the places where we went to recruit student-athletes some of them came from really tough inner-city backgrounds. When he raised his own children he and my mother raised us to have a deep belief in the innate goodness of man, to believe that all men and women deserved to be treated equally and with respect and with dignity.

Those basic values just came through when he met people and when he dealt with others.

Cotto: In a nutshell, what was at the core of his coaching philosophy?

Paterno: The core of his coaching philosophy comes down to something he shared with me a number of times. He stated that every student-athlete who came to Penn State to play football was raised by their family—it could be both parents, or a single parent or a grandmother or whatever. Those people trusted that young man to us to see that the years of work and effort they put into raising him would not be wasted. We had to ensure that the student-athlete they handed off to us would leave Penn State a better person, with a meaningful education and prepared to be a productive member of society.

It may sound quaint, but that was the core foundation of the program.

That said there was a core philosophy of attention to detail, and high standards on the field and in the classroom that lead to on-field success. Our best teams were always the smartest teams.
Cotto: Do you think that his coaching philosophy can be replicated by others if they carefully study his life, or was it unique to him as an aspect of his personality?

Paterno: There was something very unique in his coaching philosophy. This was a man who quoted Mark Twain, Lincoln, Ernest Shackleton and Hamlet to his team. This was a man who drew inspiration from the classics like the Iliad, the Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid so he was first and foremost a teacher.

But I have been to see other team’s practices and I’ve been in team meetings where I’ve seen others doing similar things trying to make better men in their programs. They may not be quoting classic literature but they are striving to impact and bend the arc of each student-athlete’s history towards a brighter future.