Few college football coaches have sustained more of a legacy or legend than Penn State’s Joe Paterno. Despite being run over by one of his players in preseason drills, the cantankerous 84-year-old Brooklynite will again be on the sidelines, as he has every year as head coach since 1966 (and for 15 seasons before that as an assistant coach) when the Nittany Lions open their season against Indiana State University on Sept. 3.
To coincide with the 2011 college football season, Philadelphia Inquirer veteran sports writer Frank Fitzpatrick, one of the most respected college football writers in the country, has authored Pride of the Lions (Triumph Books), a new biography on the Hall of Fame coach, that takes us from his roots in New York to his arrival in State College and through the ups and downs of his amazing career.
It is the third time around for Fitzpatrick with Paterno: The Pulitzer Prize finalist also penned The Lion in Autumn: A Season With Joe Paterno (2006) as well as a look at the history of the program through its players, Penn State Football.
Big Lead Sports: Joe Paterno has never been a media friendly coach, yet, this is your second book about him. How were you able to get access needed to do the book?
Frank Fitzpatrick: You’re assuming I had access. [But] because of the quick turnaround and Paterno’s rigid schedules, he had no time for me – again. So as with The Lion in Autumn, I had to work around his reluctance.
BLS: What will surprise readers the most about this bio versus all the other things written about Paterno?
FF: I guess I’d have to say his relationship with coach Rip Engle, who brought Joe to Penn State and without whom Paterno almost certainly would have been a Boston lawyer.
BLS: State College is a pretty closed environment. Would Paterno’s style have worked at a school like Notre Dame, USC or Alabama?
FF: Good question. I hate to equivocate, but, yes and no. I think the successful template for a college football program he established at Penn State could have been successful anywhere, maybe even more so at those higher-profile places. Recruiting would have been easier. He’d have had a bigger megaphone with which to criticize the game’s excesses. And he’d have had all the resources he needed.
On the other hand, the increased scrutiny at those places might have done irreparable damage to his image. He was always able to sweep problems under the carpet in remote happy valley, something that would have been far more difficult in the South Bend or Tuscaloosa environments. That said, I’d love to have seen Joe, the quintessential pushy Northeasterner, in laid-back Alabama.
BLS: Has the game of college football, and/or the business of college football, passed Paterno by?
FF: Honestly don’t think so. the essentials of the game remain very little changed from when he was winning national titles in the 1980s. He’s gone to the spread offense. He’s revised his defense several times. He’s made the adjustments.
As for the business end of it, Penn State, like most schools, has delegated those responsibilities elsewhere. And Penn State has been extremely successful raising athletic funds. where he hasn’t kept pace as successfully is in recruiting. Penn State simply doesn’t get the players it once did and part of the reason is that Paterno hasn’t changed his style, his tone. When he’s dealing with today’s athletes and their parents, he’s as likely to come across as a hopeless old fart as a legend.
BLS: What is his greatest legacy in his opinion and in yours?
FF: He’d certainly say it’s the ex-players who have gone on and led successful lives after football, regardless of their fields of interest. If he could have molded all the thousands of youngsters who played for him into renaissance men he’d have been delighted. As it is, he’s produced quite a few. For me, though, his legacy is in having shown that a successful coach can virtually transform an entire university, from academics to athletics, to fund-raising, to image-making, Penn State bears Paterno’s imprint.
BLS: Does he have any regrets about his career? if so, what are they?
FF: Again, in getting back to what i just said about his legacy, It would be the kids he failed to reach, or the kids like Kevin Baugh (who starred as a returner on the 1982 championship team but was killed during a drug dispute in 2004) who he believes he failed to help enough.
BLS: What do you think will be the biggest takeaway for readers about the book?
FF: I hope it will prove to be an interesting, informative and stimulating narrative of an interesting, informative and stimulating man’s long life and career.