By Spike Eskin
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – In 1982, Ray Didinger wrote several articles about Joe Paterno and Penn State football that ran in the Philadelphia Daily News, including a five-part series entitled “The Real Joe Paterno.”
Many of the articles stretch to nearly 3,000 words, and offer a look inside Paterno’s program, and how he interacted with players, friends and family. The picture it paints isn’t an especially pretty one.
In part five of “The Real Joe Paterno,” Didinger writes about a time in 1979, when Paterno was hosting a party for the media.
It was in this spirit that, three years ago, someone asked Paterno, then 51, if he had any plans to quit football and enter politics.
“What . . . and leave college coaching to the ( Barry ) Switzers and ( Jackie ) Sherrills?” he replied.
To Paterno’s horror, the quote leaked out. It appeared in The New York Times, then flashed across the country. Paterno apologized to Switzer. Sherrill claims he’s still waiting.
“I don’t know whether I did or didn’t ( apologize to Sherrill ) ,” Paterno said coolly. “I really don’t care.”
No matter. The off-guard quote reflected the best and worst of Joe Paterno.
It reflected his arrogant, self-righteous side, his sense, as Athletic Director Jim Tarman once described it, “of living on Mount Olympus.”
When the Freeh Report was released, it cited Penn State officials’ desire to protect the football program by covering up the actions of Jerry Sandusky. Didinger notes that Paterno passed up a chance to coach the New England Patriots, in part because he felt like he could not control the media in such a situation.
In January 1973, New England owner Billy Sullivan offered Paterno $1.3 million to take over the Patriots. Paterno accepted, then called Sullivan the next morning to tell him he had changed his mind.
Paterno’s decision came at a time when American idealism was in short supply, what with the Watergate mess and all. As a result, this college football coach became a symbol for principle winning out over greed.
“I want to stay with the kids,” Paterno said, while the hosannas rose in the background.
Of course, there are those who cite other reasons why Joe Paterno is reluctant to leave Happy Valley.
They cite the fact he makes good money (a reported $75,000), not to mention all the fringe benefits that come with being a tenured professor at a state university.
And they claim that beneath that caring, Ivy League exterior beats the heart of an autocrat, a man who craves power and control.
Surely, nowhere else could Joe Paterno have the muscle he has at State College. He is the czar of the athletic department. His brother, George, serves as the color man on the school’s TV network and no one even suggests that that’s unusual.
Joe Paterno’s world is cut deep into the Allegheny Mountains, far removedfrom the big city, so he can operate without the scrutiny, and criticism, of the news media.
In “Paterno An Ogre On The Field,” Didinger writes about Paterno’s relationship with players, which is painted as one that on the football field, could be scary.
For the past 17 years, his image has been that of a knight dispatched from Camelot to clean up our athletic programs, reaffirm our academic principles and put the chalice of idealism back on America’s mantlepiece.
Paterno has been glowingly profiled on “60 Minutes” and lauded in scholarly magazines. He is seen by most people as a hallowed figure in an Ivy setting, a combination of Mr. Chips, Don Quixote and Eleanor Roosevelt.
According to his players, Paterno is short-tempered, abrasive, egocentric and unsympathetic on the field. That doesn’t make him a rotten person, it just makes him a big-time football coach, no better, no worse than Bryant, Sherrill and the rest.
The players see Paterno in that light, unlike the masses, particularly the Penn State alumni, who are so eager to spread bouquets at his cleated shoes.
“There are two sides to Joe Paterno,” said Dayle Tate, the former Penn State quarterback, now a chemical salesman in the Philadelphia area.
“There’s the side you see on the field, then there’s the side you see the rest of the time. Off the field, he’s a pretty good guy. He is concerned about your grades. That part is all true.
“But on the field . . . I can remember him screaming at me in front of the whole team. I remember the sound of his voice the way I remember the sound of my bones breaking.”
Matt Millen is one former player who has drawn criticism for not being critical enough of Paterno over the last several months. In 1982, he had less of a problem doing so.
Matt Millen, an All-America tackle, talks about having numerous run-ins with Paterno on the practice field. Paterno would shout at Millen and Millen often would shout back.
A few times, players claim, Paterno ordered Millen off the field and Millen refused to go. He’d get down in his stance and keep on practicing. Paterno would look on, and fume.
“A clash of egos,” Millen, now a Los Angeles Raider, called it. “I wasn’t right, but Joe wasn’t right, either . . . I didn’t like the way he handled people.”
Another former player said that it was difficult to convince people that Paterno was anything but perfect.
Why don’t more players criticize Paterno while they are at Penn State?
“Nobody would listen,” said Bob Rickenbach, a lineman in the early ’70s. ”Joe is a master politician. He molds everyone, so they wind up thinking the way he thinks.
“It took me four years before I could get my own parents to see what was going on. They couldn’t believe I was getting screwed. They said, ‘Aw, Joe would never do that.’ “
Another of Didinger’s articles was titled “Paterno’s Saintly Image Tarnished.” It’s important again to note that this was written 30 years ago. It talks about Paterno’s relationship with his son, David.
David is Joe Paterno’s oldest boy. Five years ago, when he was 11, David suffered a serious head injury in a trampoline mishap. Joe missed the Syracuse game to stay at his son’s bedside. It was touch-and-go for a while.
David pulled through and those close to the Paternos claim Joe’s coaching has mellowed a bit since then.
“I think that one incident, more than anything else, put Joe’s life in perspective,” George Paterno said. “I had bugged Joe for years, ‘Hey, don’t drive yourself so hard. Stop and smell the roses once in a while.’
“He didn’t listen, he just kept going. Recruiting, coaching, making speeches. But, when David got hurt, Joe’s world stopped and he had a chance to get his priorities in order.
“I’m sure Joe would never admit it,” George Paterno said, “but he has to feel, even if he never wins another football game, he’s a lucky man to have his son alive and well.”
The full articles can be found at the newspaper’s archive, at this location.