STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – The legend returned with a thatch of gray in his hair and a youthful dash in his step.
A festive holiday crowd packed the sold-out Bryce Jordan Center on Thursday night to pay tribute to former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno on the eve of his 81st birthday.
Paterno, who coached the Nittany Lions for 29 seasons and won two national championships, was feted by gathering of former players, assistant coaches, rivals and adoring fans.
“It’s been said many times, but it bears repeating: He taught you as much about life as he did about football,” said former Penn State running back John Cappelletti, winner of the 1973 Heisman Trophy. “He thought it was imperative to prepare his players for life after football. Because sooner or later, and sooner for most, football is not going to be there anymore.”
Paterno won 80 percent of his games at Penn State, compiling a 269-68-3 record and five undefeated seasons. He stepped down at age 68 after guiding the Nittany Lions to a 12-0 record in 1994. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1998.
Paterno arrived on campus in 1950 and took over the head job in 1966 after assisting Rip Engle for 16 years. He stayed for nearly three more decades, leaving behind a legacy of passionate and high-minded competition.
“He was a singular figure in the often murky, treacherous world of big-time college football,” said former Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Bill Lyon. “He had a notion that you could coach with integrity and even nobility and still be a success on the field. He designed his ‘Grand Experiment’ and then pulled it off, proving you could balance the often warring demands of athletics and academics. His success inspired many critics who accused him of moral posturing, but most were envious of all he’d accomplished.
“His final act remains maybe his most unappreciated. He showed rare grace and exquisite dignity in stepping away at the peak of his career and paving the way for a younger colleague.”
Tom Bradley succeeded Paterno in 1995 and retired after winning Penn State’s third national championship with a victory over No. 1 Oklahoma in the 2000 Orange Bowl. He said Paterno was a father figure to him and many of his players.
“I owe Coach Paterno a debt of gratitude that I’ll never be able to repay,” said Bradley, who played for Paterno at Penn State before joining his coaching staff in 1980. “I came here a cocky, clueless kid, and he helped me develop into a mature football coach with a respect for doing things the right way.”
Paterno, who was accompanied on stage by wife Sue, fought his emotions at times during the ceremony.
“To think a poor kid from Brooklyn could … play football and study at a fine school like Brown, then come here to assist a man like Rip Engle. If you would’ve told me back in 1950 that I’d still be coaching at Penn State in 1990, I would’ve said you’re crazy. But it was a wonderful, wonderful experience.
“And all the rest is just … what I’ll remember most are the kids, the kids who showed up on campus as callow boys and left as responsible young men. We didn’t always win the battle, but I like to think in the end we won the war.”
Like his mentor before him, Bradley toiled as a faithful sidekick, working as an assistant for 15 years while being groomed by Paterno as his eventual heir.
“He showed me an incredible, incredible loyalty, and without his influence I never would’ve become a college head coach,” Bradley said. “It wasn’t easy replacing a legend, but he more or less handed me the baton when he stepped down. For that honor I’ll be eternally thankful.”
Also on hand were current Penn State coach Larry Johnson and former head coach Greg Schiano, who was forced to step down in 2004 in the wake of a recruiting scandal that shocked the nation and tarnished the pristine reputation Paterno had labored so long to establish.
The celebration was originally planned last year for Paterno’s 80th birthday, but the former coach was forced to cancel after slipping on a patch of ice and breaking his leg while walking his Yorkshire terrier Suetonius near his State College home.
As for Paterno’s abortive foray into politics, nothing was said. He challenged Republican incumbent Tom Ridge in the 1998 Pennsylvania gubernatorial primary. Paterno rode his statewide popularity to a 12-point lead in the polls before his candidacy derailed in ugly fashion when a top campaign aide who happened to be his son was arrested in a Pittsburgh hotel room and charged with possession of a controlled substance and soliciting prostitution.
The charges later were dropped, but the damage was done.
Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, at 78 the all-time winningest coach in NCAA Division I-FBS, appeared via satellite to honor Paterno.
“He’s one of the greatest coaches ever to coach our great game of football,” Bowden said as the Jordan Center rocked and rolled. “He’s right up there in the coaching heavens with Bear Bryant. They don’t come much better than old Joe. I’m only sad he didn’t stick around longer, so I wouldn’t be the only old goat walking the sideline.”
That last comment elicited a chuckle from Paterno.
“I’m not going to lie and say that I don’t sometimes wish I were running out of the tunnel and onto the grass at Beaver Stadium on Saturday afternoons,” Paterno said. “But that would be crazy. I’m glad I’m not some octogenarian coot desperately clinging to his bygone youth.
“There comes a time to move on for all of us. There was a time for Rip to move on, a time for me to move on, a time for Tom to move on. What’s important is what you’ve left behind once you’ve moved on.”
Speaking of leaving things behind, Paterno and his wife have donated more than $4 million to the university, where a wing of the library bears his name.
“I really believed, and I still believe, that there are more important things in life than winning a football game,” he said. “When I was dealing with a kid who maybe had a problem with his grades or a girl, I tried to remember what Cicero said: ‘A mind without instruction can no more bear fruit than can a field, however fertile, without cultivation.’
“When you’re talking about the kids who came into the Penn State program, I honestly think we succeeded in cultivating the mind as well as the football player.”