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When Paterno was on top of the world

Exactly 25 years ago today Joe Paterno ascended to a level of public esteem previously reserved for the Schindlers and the saints.

Joe Paterno looks at himself on the cover of Sports Illustrated in December 1986. (G. Paul Burnett/AP)
Joe Paterno looks at himself on the cover of Sports Illustrated in December 1986. (G. Paul Burnett/AP)Read more

Exactly 25 years ago today Joe Paterno ascended to a level of public esteem previously reserved for the Schindlers and the saints.

On Dec. 22, 1986, Sports Illustrated honored the Penn State coach as its sportsman of the year, the Nobel Peace Prize for jocks. With that official canonization, less than two weeks before a second national title in four years, it seemed unimaginable that Paterno's life could ever veer toward tragedy.

But today, a quarter-century later, Paterno's reputation is being tested as severely as his victorious Nittany Lions were tested by Miami in that long-ago Fiesta Bowl.

Should this man who accomplished so much so well continue to be revered? Or should he be criticized and reviled for what, to some at least, seems an enormous ethical lapse?

Whatever the answer, on this day after his 85th birthday, the former Penn State coach, dismissed last month in the wake of a child sex-abuse scandal involving a longtime aide, seems a beleaguered Lear.

His once-sunny world has been wracked by storms, his power eroded, his legacy uncertain. In fact, ravaged by ill health and ill fortune, the aged and infirm Paterno brings to mind a lament from the tragic Shakespearean king:

"Men must endure their going hence, even as their coming hither: Ripeness is all."

The ripe Paterno pictured on that 1986 SI cover was a relaxed and obviously contented man, his jacketed arms folded, his pursed lips betraying the slightest smile, his PhotoGray-shielded eyes typically focused.

And why not?

Writer Rick Reilly's 4,100-word portrait of praise cemented the image of JoePa that henceforth would be etched in America's consciousness - a coach as concerned with GPAs as AP polls, as committed to probity as the pass rush, as upright as a goalpost.

Paterno had proven, Reilly wrote then, "that you can look like Bartleby but coach like Bryant, that you can have your kids hit the holes like 'Bama's and the books like Brown's, that the words 'college' and 'football' don't have to be mutually exclusive."

Jerry Sandusky, his one-time heir-apparent who is at the heart of the current scandal, is not mentioned in Reilly's SI piece.

Still, it is intriguing, even morbidly interesting, to reread that story now in search of a clue, some portent of what might have precipitated such a stunning fall.

Most fascinating, perhaps, in light of the alleged athletic department cover-up in the Sandusky case, is Reilly's repeat of a comment Paterno had made when he was Penn State's 1973 commencement speaker.

"How could Nixon know so little about Watergate," Paterno asked that year's graduates, still sore about the president's anointing of Texas as 1969's national champs, "and so much about football?"

Substitute Paterno for Nixon and Sandusky for Watergate, and you have the same question that some of the coach's critics - those who believe the coach should have done and known more about Sandusky's alleged behavior - are now asking about him?

How much did he know? And when did he know it?

But the SI profile contains other now-interesting passages which, depending on one's point of view, are either curiously ironic or merely coincidental. Among them:

On Penn State's remoteness and his secretive nature:

 "Some people never come around to liking him. His critics deplore the secrecy of his program - closed practices, names of recruits not being released, freshmen not listed in the press guide. It's hard to get inside the program. In fact, it's hard to get to State College period. Paterno has a personal gridiron Camelot that's a three-hour drive from anywhere.

"Further, he doesn't exactly face a caldron of media heat. No wonder they call it the Happy Valley. . . . How would the NCAA look investigating Penn State? Paterno could suddenly decide to turn Penn State into State Pen and nobody would notice for four or five years."

On coaching too long:

 " 'I don't want to stay too long,' Paterno says. 'Bear Bryant maybe stayed too long. I don't want to linger.' . . . He says he'll probably stay right where he is for 'four or five more years,' which is the same quote he issued for public record in 1973, '78 and '82. 'He wants this job to be perfect for the next guy,' says assistant coach Bob Phillips. But it's not just that, is it? 'Well,' says Phillips, 'I know he believes that one national championship is not enough. He wants at least one more.' "

On believing in his grand experiment:

 "Over the last three decades, nobody has stayed truer to the game and at the same time truer to himself than Joseph Vincent Paterno, JoePa to Penn State worshipers - a man so patently stubborn that he refuses to give up on the notion that if you hack away at enough windmills, a few of the suckers will fall."

On his devotion to detail:

 "Paterno is a born brooder, a fanatic about detail, a hopeless notemaker. His bed is a precarious place of lurking pencils. He is in it by 11:30, out of it at 5 - and rummaging about his den 'God knows how often in between,' says Sue, his wife."

On NCAA rules:

 " 'It's time to start from scratch,' [Paterno said.] 'Appoint three committees and redefine what recruiting is, what an amateur is, what alumni should be allowed to do. . . . There are so many rules now that you might be breaking one and not realize it. I think we run a clean program, but I could not positively tell you that we're not breaking a single rule somewhere."

On peripatetic coaches:

 " 'Guys who jump all over the place deprive themselves of having an impact on their institution. One thing I'm proud of is that. I think I've made a mark here.' "

Songs for JoePa

About two dozen fans gathered briefly outside Joe Paterno's home in State College, Pa., Wednesday night to wish the former Penn State coach a happy 85th birthday and sing a Christmas carol.

Paterno's son, quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno, thanked the crowd on behalf of his father. He said his father was feeling a little weak from chemotherapy so he couldn't come outside.

Joe Paterno is undergoing treatment for what his family has called a treatable form of lung cancer.

"Happy birthday, JoePa, happy birthday, JoePa ... and many more," the fans serenaded several times to the tune of the traditional birthday song during their seven-minute visit. Most in the gathering, which included a few children, stayed on the sidewalk and just off the Paternos' property, about 30 feet from the front door.

- Associated Press