Ernie Accorsi spent more than 30 years working in NFL front offices. As general manager of the New York Giants, he hired Tom Coughlin as head coach and worked the draft day deal that brought quarterback Eli Manning to the team.
And whenever he needed advice, he consulted his old friend, Joe Paterno.
"I can't tell you how many times I called him and said, 'How do you think I should handle this?' " Accorsi said in a telephone interview Friday, five days after the passing of the former Penn State head coach at age 85. "He always had something good to say. He was right on the money every time.
"One night I was a speaker at a dinner with Jay Paterno [Joe's son]. I looked at Jay from the podium, and I said, 'There isn't a day in my career that I don't think of something I learned from your father.' "
Friends with Paterno for 42 years, Accorsi, 70, had become a bit incredulous over the last week when he heard people say that Paterno died of a "broken heart" because of the way he was fired last November by the board of trustees after child sex-abuse charges were brought against former assistant Jerry Sandusky.
"Broken heart, broken spirit, will to live . . . are you kidding me?" he said. "He fought to the last second. That was all confirmed to me by Jay. Jay said Joe was planning a second honeymoon this year with Sue. He fought to the very, very end. I don't believe any of that talk. He was the last guy that was going to be bitter. He calmed everybody else down."
Accorsi, who attended Paterno's funeral on Wednesday, left his job as an Inquirer sportswriter in 1969 to become Penn State's assistant sports information director responsible for the football team. It was then he met Paterno, going into only his fourth season as head coach.
The two hit it off, Accorsi said, because both their parents were Italian immigrants. Paterno said Accorsi's father reminded him of his own father, Angelo, and the coach would visit the elder Accorsi in his hometown of Hershey whenever he was in town to get his eyes checked at the local hospital.
Accorsi spent just a year and a half at Penn State before taking a job as public relations director of the Baltimore Colts, beginning an NFL career that included stops as general manager of the Colts, Cleveland Browns and Giants. Still, he and Paterno always stayed in touch right up to his final days.
Paterno would advise him, he said, on how to handle the different personalities among NFL front office types or negative publicity in the media. One specific example of Paterno's counsel came in 2000 when the Giants needed a quarterback and former Nittany Lion Kerry Collins, whose career was on the line because of alcohol abuse, was available.
"Joe really convinced me that this was a good man and a good person," he said. "It really was that link and bond with Joe that made me trust signing Kerry, and he took us to the Super Bowl."
Accorsi said he only inquired once if Paterno would have any interest in coaching in the NFL. That came in 1984 after the Browns fired Sam Rutigliano, and owner Art Modell asked Accorsi to "feel him out."
"Joe asked me, 'What's your job?' " Accorsi said. "When I told him I was the general manager, he said, 'If I take that job, you're working for me. I'm not working for you.' So I said, 'I'm going to make sure I talk Modell out of this,' and we had a big laugh."
Accorsi said he could "never get my arms around [Paterno's] vulnerabilities" as Paterno grew older. It wasn't until a Wisconsin player plowed into Paterno during a 2006 game and left him with a broken leg that Accorsi started to see a change.
"I never saw him age. I never gave it any thought," he said. "That was the first time that I thought he was mortal, not in terms of his life but in terms of his vibrancy. That really knocked him for a loop."
Accorsi said he sent Paterno a magazine article last summer about his old neighborhood in Brooklyn. The coach sent back a thank-you note that said, "Kid, come on up here so we can spend some time together for old time's sake."
"We never did," Accorsi said sadly. "That's such a regret for me. I last talked to him right before Christmas. I felt what they can do today with cancer treatment, that he would be OK."