Paterno eager to restore Penn State's luster

New contract extension in hand, Penn State's Joe Paterno is in search of one more great Nittany Lions team.

Originally Published: May 27, 2004
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Joe Paterno doesn't have a computer and doesn't read e-mail. But he knows what is being said about a 77-year-old coach who received a four-year contract extension after a 3-9 season, the worst of his 38-year career.

"There's a lot of people out there who would like to see me get out of here. I mean, I'm not na´ve," the Penn State coaching legend said Thursday morning, sitting at the conference table in his expansive office.

Joe Paterno
Joe Paterno feels Michigan State is cream of the crop.
He knows what is being said to the recruits he needs to restore the national luster he brought to Penn State. Paterno has been fighting rumors of his retirement going back to the 1980s.

"I've got to be honest with them," Paterno said. "At 77, can I tell them I'm going to be here in five years? You could have a heart attack, a stroke, and I tell them that."

But he is just as plainspoken about what is driving him to continue.

"I'd like to have one more great football team," Paterno said.

Even the resident legend at Penn State acknowledged that the contract extension, announced on May 13, is a necessary Band-Aid to stanch the flow of questions about his future. Every profile of Paterno for the last 20 years has remarked about how he has the drive of a much younger man. But when you're 77, and you look and act 10 years younger, is that young enough?

Well, in 1994, Paterno coached Penn State to a 12-0 record.

"How much juice did I have 10 years ago?" Paterno asked aloud. "I don't know. I may be more fired up now than I was 10 years ago. I don't know. I know that I wake up in the morning excited, ready to go to work. I like my team. We got a lot of work ahead of us. But it's not like I'm coming in [and saying], 'The roof is going to cave down. What's going to happen?' I'm not like the Secretary of Defense these days."

Paterno is old enough to point out that he saw Donald Rumsfeld wrestle for Princeton in 1954. He is old enough to look at the framed photo of the 1949 Brown team he quarterbacked and point out teammates who have died.

"I bring recruits in here and ask them what's different about this picture," Paterno said.

"They look at it and say, 'No brothers.' I tell them, 'We weren't very fast, either.' "

Four years removed from the 50th anniversary of his college graduation, four years removed from the last time he had consecutive winning seasons, Paterno has been around too long to panic. And he has an answer for anyone who thinks he has been around too long.

"The way I feel," Paterno said, "I'm committed to getting Penn State back to where it belongs. I'd like to have one more great football team. And I think we have the basis. We have a really good, solid, young squad. It isn't going to be quite that good this year. If we can convince a couple of kids who can make some plays [to sign], I figure we're going to be right in there again.

"Does that mean I'm going to be here five years? I've got a contract that goes five years. I'm planning to be here five years. I'm not going to lie to you. I can't promise you anything."

I'm committed to getting Penn State back to where it belongs. I'd like to have one more great football team.
Joe Paterno
That undefeated 1994 team rose out of the squabbling of a team that two years earlier finished with five losses in its last seven games. Paterno reacted by clearing out his schedule to spend more time with his players. He undertook a similar self-assessment since the end of last season, and discovered similar results.

"One of the problems that you get the longer you're in it, the more friends and kids, and people who count on you," Paterno said, "and your time away from coaching gets more and more significant. People have funerals, players have kids who need a hand, the whole band of people you're involved with stretches. Every year it stretches a little bit more. That's when you start to get swamped. You keep thinking, it won't hurt here, it won't hurt there. You wake up one morning and you have a crappy organization."

Off the field, he orchestrated a restructuring of his staff, taking longtime offensive assistant Fran Ganter off the sideline and putting him in charge of operations.

"That took a whole mess of things off my back," Paterno said. "I come in in the morning, I had 15 things I had to do. Maybe I got three now."

Paterno sat and analyzed the video of all 12 games from last season. He saw a team with no game-breakers, a team that didn't know how to win the fourth quarter, a team with no effective special-teams play. The Nittany Lions scored 37 points in the fourth quarter last season, and finished last in Division I-A in kickoff returns (15.3 yard average). A lot of the problems had to do with inexperience -- there wasn't enough of it.

"We had some people let us down, older guys that were probably not as good as we thought they were," Paterno said. "We had a couple of younger kids that I should have started to stick in there and give them an opportunity to do some things."

The high-pitched Brooklyn accent has acquired a huskiness, and the gait is a little more hunched than it used to be. Paterno is old enough to remember when disciplinary problems were solved by a phone call from the campus chief of police. There is no such informality these days. But the latest one left him smiling. One of his players, whom he wouldn't name, has been cited for illegally downloading music through his computer.

"What the hell do I know about downloading music?" Paterno said. "I can't download a jar of peanut butter."

One constant criticism of Paterno in recent years is that too many of his players have had run-ins with the law. Paterno estimated that "six or seven" players have been cited for underage drinking. In light of the controversy at Colorado, the NCAA is considering tougher rules for recruits and their student-athlete hosts.

"The problem is," Paterno said, "how do we address the fact that kids don't know how to drink? ... People are talking about having some kind of curfew. Well, how do you do that? That sounds good. That sounds like we're being responsible. If somebody could tell me how to do it. What do you do, bring them in at 12 or 1 o'clock and then you sit there with them?"

Colorado has already announced it will cut official visits from two days to one. Paterno believes the official visits should go from two days to three.

"The biggest problem I have in assuming responsibility for a kid coming onto this campus is they don't let me get to know the kid," Paterno said. "The head coach can visit once. The only time I get to spend a little time with them is when they come up for their official visits. That's 48 hours. Some people say they should get more exposure to classwork. That's fine. Give us another day. But give me a chance to be around them."

Paterno is equally disappointed with the legislation recently passed tying scholarships to graduation rates.

"Let me tell you, if I'm the president of Whatsamatta U., and we specialize in Italian cooking, and I got a guy in there who is a heck of a football or basketball player, and he can't figure out two grams of salt or garlic, I'm going to put him in a you-fry-the-pizza curriculum," Paterno said. "We're going to end up with people in a lot of Mickey Mouse courses because they can't handle the other things. But we've got to graduate them because if we don't graduate them we gonna lose scholarships.

"I'm proud of our graduation rate, but that doesn't mean that everyone who graduated got a meaningful education."

Paterno has always trafficked in common sense, and he continues to do so even as he protests, "I'm too dumb to feel old." He has been saying for years that he continues to coach because he doesn't play golf and he doesn't fish. He said it again Thursday. Three days after the birth of his 14th grandchild, he said, "They're great -- for awhile."

In the two weeks since he agreed to the contract extension, he has been gratified to hear from alumni and fans who appreciate what he has done. In an age when Nebraska fires Frank Solich for winning nine games, Paterno received a vote of confidence after losing nine. All of those coaches who have said for years that he is going to retire will be right one day.

But not any time soon.

"I also just happen to mention that all these years when everybody was telling kids they're not going to Penn State because Paterno won't be there, about 700 of those guys are gone," Paterno said. "I mean coaches. I just happen to mention that."

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com