Is there a common link between Joe Paterno, the longtime Penn State University head football coach who passed away last month at the age of 85, and John Wooden, the UCLA head basketball genius who captured a record 10 national championships?
Yes, and it’s they believed firmly that athletes were also students. Paterno, dressed in a white or blue button-down shirt, khaki pants rolled up at the ankles, and black horn-rimmed glasses, patrolled the sideline with vigor and purpose, like Wooden shared a similar belief you win with integrity.
Paterno and Wooden demanded their charges attend class, graduate on time, and make a significant mark on society.
“The reason people want to talk to me is they think I’ve done something special because my teams won,’’ Wooden often said. “I know that. I’m proud of what those teams accomplished. Some even went on and played in the NBA. But I’m just as proud of the players who went on and became successful doctors, lawyers, businessmen and clergymen.”
Like Wooden, Paterno, who was named “Sportsman of the Year’’ by Sports Illustrated in 1986 after winning a second national title, placed an emphasis on ethical and moral behavior.
That Paterno was released from his post last November shouldn’t reflect negatively on a man whose good deeds throughout his life dwarf one, albeit large, mistake.
Paterno, a Brooklyn, New York native who worked at Ebbets Field, guided the Nittany Lions to five undefeated seasons and 37 bowl appearances with a record 24 victories, initially had his eye trained on the legal profession.
In time, his calling wouldn’t be in a courtroom, but on a football field. Paterno’s stay at Penn State began in 1950 when he was an assistant coach under Rip Engle.
Paterno graduated from Brown where he played quarterback and cornerback, and took over the program in 1966 until he was pushed out after a sexual abuse scandal involving under-age boys by Jerry Sandusky, his defensive coordinator.
The pressure to dump Paterno, the all-time Division I Football Bowl Subdivision leader with 409 victories, became too much, and rightly or wrongly, was axed.
Paterno, who was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 2007, informed his immediate supervisor about the alleged acts, but later admitted he should have done more.
Can a head coach watch over an entire football operation given the number of players and assistant coaches involved? It seemed a tall order even for one as astute and fair-minded as Paterno.
Matt Millen, who played linebacker for Paterno, and later starred with the Oakland Raiders and San Francisco 49ers, had kind words for his one-time mentor.
“Joe Paterno made me the man I am today,’’ he said. “Next to my father, he was the most important man in my life.” Many others felt the same way.
Paterno’s teams placed in the Top 10 of the Associated Press and Coaches’ poll 29 times, and finished second in the AP twice and Coaches’ once.
“His legacy as the winningest coach in major college football and his generosity to Penn State as an institution and to his players, stand as monuments to his life,’’ said Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett. “His place in our state’s history is secure.”
Rick Assad has been a sportswriter for more than two decades. He has a political science degree from UCLA, a journalism degree from CSUN, is a staff writer for diamondboxing.com, and is a columnist for socalboxing.wordpress.com. You may e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.