Skip to content
Our Archives
Link copied to clipboard

Paterno brings in a crowd

His Hall of Fame ceremony gave family and friends a reason to celebrate with him.

NEW YORK - While Joe Paterno still hasn't voiced any retirement plans, a sentimental air hovered over his College Football Hall of Fame induction, a series of events that culminated with last night's black-tie banquet at the Waldorf-Astoria.

Maybe it was the emotional "This Is Your Life" reception Penn State held for him here Monday night. Maybe it was all the ex-players, old friends, relatives and school administrators who came. Or perhaps it was the proximity to Brooklyn, the boyhood hometown he'd hoped to show off to his children and the place where he'd retreated during a career crisis decades ago.

Whatever the reason and despite a lifetime filled with awards and glory, friends said Paterno seemed unusually moved by the Hall of Fame honor and especially by Monday night's reception at the Marriott East Side hotel.

It all seemed to take a toll on the 80-year-old coach, too.

At a Waldorf news conference on a frosty morning yesterday, Paterno, who rarely complains about physical ailments, admitted he'd awakened not feeling well. At one point, the Nittany Lions coach even displayed a trembling hand to reporters.

"It was great," he said of the reception. "So many of my former players were there. But I couldn't get to sleep. I couldn't calm down. I woke up this morning feeling a little shaky. . . . But I'll be fine. I don't want to screw [last night's ceremony] up."

Among the 300-plus guests at Monday's pre-induction affair - many of whom also returned for last night's banquet - were his wife, Sue; all five children and their spouses; classmates from his Brooklyn grade school, St. Edmund's, that he hadn't seen in nearly 75 years; Penn State president Graham Spanier; and a long list of Paterno's greatest players, including John Cappelletti, Franco Harris and Lydell Mitchell.

"I never dreamed that many would come," Paterno said. "They were so warm."

Many of them spoke and, at one point, Patrick and Candace Malloy of Key Largo, Fla., announced they have committed $5 million to create the Malloy Paterno Head Football Coach Endowment at Penn State.

The endowment is the largest individual gift in the history of Penn State intercollegiate athletics and is believed to be the first named and endowed head football coach position at any of the nation's universities

"Joe got really choked up when that happened," said Guido D'Elia, Penn State football's communications and branding director.

Since they don't know when Paterno, just finishing his 42d season as the Nittany Lions head coach, might finally step aside, the Hall of Fame ceremonies provided the Penn State community with an opportunity to formally thank the man who has led their football program and - some would argue their entire school - to prominence.

His congratulatory posse arrived from all over the country, the majority on several buses that left State College late Monday morning. They jammed the Marriott's ballroom Monday, attended the coach's morning news conference, and last night occupied several tables at the Waldorf.

The outpouring of affection appeared to surprise Paterno, who, in what has become a December routine, had been busy preparing for a bowl game - the Dec. 29th Alamo Bowl against Texas A&M.

"That's the one thing that makes this tough," said Paterno, who will make his 34th bowl appearance in San Antonio. "Everybody is here. Nobody is looking at Texas A&M" films.

Paterno was perhaps the best known of the 14 men inducted into the National Football Foundation's Hall.

The others in the organization's 60th-anniversary class were coach Herb Deromedi (Central Michigan) and players Doug Flutie (Boston College), Ahmad Rashad (Oregon), Richard Wood (Southern California), Chris Zorich (Notre Dame), Tom Brahaney (Oklahoma), Dave Brown (Michigan), Jeff Davis (Clemson), Johnnie Johnson (Texas), Rex Kern (Ohio State), Anthony Thompson (Indiana), Wilson Whitley (Houston), and Reggie Williams (Dartmouth).

Brown and Whitley, who are deceased, were represented by their widows.

"I apologize for being one year and 20 minutes late," joked Paterno, whose broken leg prevented his induction in 2006 and who showed up yesterday after the other Hall of Famers had been seated at the dais. "But I'm delighted to be inducted into the Hall of Fame with a great class like this."

Paterno is just the third active coach, after Florida State's Bobby Bowden and St. John's (Minn.) John Gagliardi, honored by the NFF, which was founded in 1947 by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, coach Earl Blaik, and sportswriter Grantland Rice.

The rules mandate that only those coaches over age 75 can be inducted while still active.

"I'm not downplaying this award, but the fact is how many people got you here?" Paterno said. "You can't come here and say, 'Here I am. I got here by myself.' "

Paterno's busy schedule prevented him from making the nostalgic journey he'd planned to Brooklyn, where he'd hoped to show his children his roots.

Despite more than a half-century in central Pennsylvania, Paterno has never lost his Brooklyn accent and still identifies himself as a New Yorker. Clearly, Brooklyn still occupies a special place in his heart.

He revealed that when his team's 1978 national title hopes were ended in a stinging Sugar Bowl loss to Bear Bryant's Alabama squad, he returned there to decide on his future.

"I'd said we were a better team than Alabama," he recalled. "They beat us. We had 12 men on the field. We shanked a punt. The whole bit. I blamed myself for that one. So I was thinking, 'Maybe it's time to get out of it.' I wanted to think about it, so I went back to Brooklyn and spent three days there."

He stayed, of course. And sometime early this morning, he'll get back on the bus and return to State College and the busy regimen that's sustained him through a 57-year career there.

"I get up very early in the morning," he said with relish in his voice. "I get a couple of hours work in before 7 o'clock. All the stuff I like to do. I look at some tapes, write some letters, things like that. I enjoy it. If I wasn't coaching, what would I do?"