WHEN my daughters asked me what I wanted my grandchildren to call me, I hesitated. I didn't want to be called grandpa or gramps. Those made me feel too old.
Instead, I decided I wanted to be called after someone I admired. So I chose PhilPa in honor of JoePa, as in Joe Paterno, the legendary Penn State football coach. JoePa is one of my two role models, the other being Robert F. Kennedy, whose passion for justice I so admired.
At my age, I feel funny admitting that I have a sports figure as a role model. But I decided to come out of the closet in honor of Paterno, who was inducted last night into the National Football Foundation College Hall of Fame.
By now you can guess that I went to Penn State. But to show you how long ago that was, Paterno wasn't yet the head coach. That didn't happen until the season after I graduated. He's remained there for 42 years, and is now in his ninth decade of life.
My fascination with Paterno is not because of his coaching record, though it is outstanding. He's won 371 games, two shy of current record-holder Bobby Bowden of Florida State. He's had five unbeaten seasons, 22 bowl victories, two national championships.
And he would've had a third if President Nixon didn't presumptively declare Texas the national champs in 1968 even though Penn State was undefeated. Watergate or not, that itself warranted impeachment.
Paterno is a role model because of the way he's gone about running a competitive winning program for such a long time. Under his leadership, Penn State has never been hit with a recruiting infraction. He stresses team, not individual. Nothing gets someone in Paterno's doghouse faster than when a player hotdogs after a touchdown or a key play. Players' names do not appear on the back of the uniform.
"It's the name on the front of the jersey that matters most, not the one on the back," he says.
His teams have always had among the highest graduation rates in the nation. Of the 64 teams in this year's postseason bowl, Penn State is again near the top: 76 percent over the last six years. Compare that to Ohio State's 53 percent or Louisiana State's 51. Or look at Georgia at 41 percent and Hawaii at 45. Then there's Oklahoma at 44 and Rutgers at 55, Michigan State is at 43 and perennial powerhouse USC is at 57.
Granted, a few schools like the Naval and the Air Force academies are higher. And, frankly, Penn State should have won a couple of more games this year and be headed to a more prestigious postseason spot than the Alamo Bowl. But I'd never want to dilute the team's academic record or compliance with NCAA rules for another victory.
And, yes, Paterno can be stubborn, at times arrogant and prickly with the press. But he's a role model, not a god.
I have heard Paterno wax eloquent in his Brooklyn accent about many non-sport issues, like his love of books and how he spent many afternoons as a youth at the Brooklyn Public Library. And he's put his money where his mouth is, donating millions to Penn State's library, which bears his and his wife's name.
On Oct. 27, 2001, I found myself in Paterno's house after the team beat Ohio State, and he topped Bear Bryant's all-time victory record. I'd gone to the game with a former fraternity brother who is a good friend of the coach's.
After every home game, win or lose, Paterno invites a host of people back to his home for dinner. My friend was invited, and I tagged along, enjoying lasagna and wine in Paterno's modest State College house as he mixed with the guests and told stories.
IWAS AS GIDDY as a schoolkid. Although I was the chief executive officer of the School District of Philadelphia, I felt like a student at the knee of the teacher.
For that's what Coach Paterno truly is: an educator. Football is simply the teaching tool he's used to show us how to live a winning life by being resilient, loyal, honest and value-driven while remaining young at heart and still relevant as time inevitably marches on.
So, from PhilPa to JoePa, congratulations on your Hall of Fame induction. You've made me Penn State Proud. *