Leaving His Legacy
Throughout his career, Paterno has not been without his detractors, many of whom in recent years called for him to step down, due in part to his age and in part to the losing seasons of 2000 and 2001. He has also come under scrutiny for holding closed practices and not allowing fans to watch. But Paterno is a private individual, and he has never been a big fan of media attention.
What he has done for the university, the community, and his players, however, often silences the critics. Dick Frasca, a pizza shop owner on College Avenue in Pennsylvania, told Sports Illustrated, "Before Paterno they couldn't get city kids and suburban kids to come here. Look at how he's grown the place." Indeed, he has been a key factor in Penn State's enrollment increasing from just over 12,000 in the year he signed on as head coach to over 40,000 today. Beaver Stadium (Penn State's football stadium) now holds over 100,000 fans on Nittany Lions game days.
Indeed, he has taken the idea of a college football player and made it something special. Paterno's program consistently ranks in the top tier, if not #1, for preparing football players for the NFL. But it also prepares them for an MBA, or any other graduate degree they want to pursue. Paterno stresses academic excellence, and thus far the Nittany Lions have produced 21 All-Americans in addition to their nearly forty first-round NFL draft picks. He is critical of athletes who arrive at college for the sole purpose of playing a sport. "We've lost a generation and a half of people who were potential lawyers, doctors, teachers and what have you," he told Sports Illustrated, "because they were all caught up in bouncing a basketball and running with a foot-ball.…We were supposed to be educating those kids. Instead, we conned them for 15 years and then, when they were through playing pro football or pro basketball, they knew they'd been conned; they knew they'd been had."
He also cares for his players—though it may be a form of "tough love" that keeps many from getting too close to him. Nonetheless he has their best interests at heart. "I don't care if my players like me," he told Sports Illustrated, "I want them to like me when it's important they like me, when they're out in the world, raising families, using their degrees. I want them to like me when it hits them what I've been trying to say all these years."
During their lackluster 2000 season, Penn State cornerback Adam Taliaferro was hit hard during a game at Ohio State. The accident frightened Paterno, who had a similar scare years earlier when his son hurt himself on a trampoline. After Taliaferro, who might have been totally paralyzed, made a miraculous recovery, the athlete told Sports Illustrated's Rick Reilly that "You see this man on television.… but you don't know him. I know him now. His caring isn't an act."
Paterno also cares about the school, giving of himself both donating millions to the school (a new library wing was named after him) and raising millions more for academic programs, all the while living a rather humble life. He "lives in a home far below what he can afford," writes Reilly. "He takes no salary for his weekly TV show. When the Paternos give one of their regular dinner parties for 40 or so, there's no catering. For two days Sue [Paterno's wife] cooks manicotti and lasagna and freezes it all."
In an uncharacteristic style, Paterno has of late taken issue with some of the officiating he has seen in college football. After a recent game against conference rival Michigan in which a Penn State receiver was called out when the replay clearly showed him in bounds, Paterno, according to Michael Bamberger of Sports Illustrated, had Penn State athletic director Tim Curley write a letter to the Big Ten commissioner "calling for a top-to-bottom review of conference officiating." He later told Bamberger, "In 50 years I've never been in the position I'm in now, in a controversy over whether a guy is a good official or a lousy official and who is appointing them."