The greatest coach in college football history died Sunday.
Calling Joseph Vincent Paterno, who died of complications related to lung cancer, the greatest coach in college football history is not original. But it’s not a description many have used during the past few months.
Before the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal, the “greatest coach” distinction was occasionally tossed Paterno’s way. While broadcasting a game last fall, Urban Meyer, now Ohio State’s head coach, called Paterno the greatest coach in college football history. He wasn’t the only one.
Guess what? The description still applies.
Nothing Paterno did – or didn’t do – when informed of an incident involving Sandusky and a young boy by then-graduate assistant coach Mike McQueary, who testified that he left out the graphic details while telling Paterno, changes Paterno’s place in history. One alleged act of omission by Paterno shouldn’t significantly alter a glorious 61-year history at Penn State.
Paterno won 409 games as Penn State’s head coach, more than any major college football coach in history. The Nittany Lions won two national championships under Paterno, were undefeated several other times without being proclaimed national champions and appeared in 37 bowl games (winning 24) during his 46 seasons as head coach.
But numbers alone, regardless of how impressive they may be, don’t justify being called the greatest college football coach in history. Paterno earns that title because of what he’s done for the players who have come through his program, the university as a whole and the entire Penn State community.
There aren’t many coaches, if any, who have made such a positive impact on the young men who have come through their programs. I can’t think of any coach who has made as much of an impact on his university as Paterno.
The testimonials from former players have come pouring in since Paterno’s death. But those testimonials didn’t wait for his death. They were being made while Paterno was alive and coaching.
Paterno coached the sons of 26 former players. That’s all you need to know about Paterno. Twenty-six of his former players entrusted their sons to Paterno. They were there to be coached in football, but also to be coached in life.
A common theme in the comments of former players is that Paterno prepared them for life as well as football. Former defensive lineman Matt Millen said that football was merely a tool Paterno used to mold his players into better men and prepare them for life. That’s what a college coach is supposed to do.
The caring and nurturing Paterno gave, along with some tough love, to several generations of Nittany Lions would be enough of a lasting legacy to earn Paterno a place in the pantheon of great coaches. But Paterno did more than make a difference in players’ lives. He made a difference for the entire university.
Let’s start with the sports programs. Penn State football was operating well without any conference affiliation. But, even though there were opposing perspectives on its effect on the football program, Paterno supported Penn State’s move to the Big Ten because it was beneficial for the entire athletic program. The money from the 100,000-plus fans who flock to Beaver Stadium for football games also benefits the entire Penn State athletic program.
Paterno’s contributions, however, extend far beyond the sports fields. If there’s another library in the country named for a football coach, I’m not aware of it. But Penn State has the Paterno Library, built with direct contributions from Joe and Sue Paterno, as well as money they helped raise.
The Paternos have donated millions of dollars to Penn State. Their most recent contribution of $100,000 came in December, one month after he was ignominiously dismissed over the telephone by the Penn State Board of Trustees. In addition to his own money, Joe Paterno has raised tens of millions of dollars for the university. For his university.
Penn State is the university that JoePa built. There have been other influential people in Penn State’s growth, but nobody made a greater impact than Paterno.
Money doesn’t tell the whole story. In fact, it doesn’t tell half the story.
As Paterno raised Penn State’s football profile, he also raised the university’s profile. Penn State became a household name to people who never would have heard of it if not for the football program.
Paterno’s program projected an image of success, but it was also an image of integrity and honor. Penn State doesn’t cheat. Penn State players don’t do end zone dances and showboat. Penn State players go to class and graduate. That is the image the football program projected for the university.
The reality didn’t always live up to the image. Players got in trouble with the law. Sometimes the public heard about it. Sometimes the trouble was kept quiet.
The lesson is that nobody’s perfect. But the football program’s image, and the image it projected for the university, was based on the truth. There were standards at Penn State. Those standards were often more stringent than the NCAA’s standards, resulting in players forced to sit out games even though they were technically eligible. There aren’t many coaches who sit down good players who are eligible to play. Paterno was one of those coaches.
Paterno benched those players because he felt it was for their own good. Not as players, but as people.
The impact all of Paterno’s actions made on the university and the surrounding community can’t be overstated. The transformation of State College during Paterno’s tenure is staggering. Not all of the transformation from middle-of-nowhere small town to bustling center of academic and technological progress can be attributed to Paterno. But nobody did more to make that change possible.
Paterno is the greatest college football coach in history because he cared about more than the football program. He cared about his players. He cared about the university. And he cared about the community.
That’s why, even after Paterno’s death, he still is Penn State.
And he always will be.