Joe Paterno was three years younger than my father and JoePa outlived dad by almost two years. I admired both men greatly, partly because of their decency which may have been responsible for their moral naivete. Recently Angelo Cataldi became indignant over Paterno’s remarks to the Washington Post that even if the report to him about Jerry Sandusky’s antics in the shower were more specific, the head coach wasn’t sure what he would have done because he did not know what man-rape was. Angelo could not imagine someone being that ignorant in the ways of the world. I can. My parents and parents-in-law were of the same generation as JoePa, the so-called “Greatest,” a demographic of Americans not reared on HBO and totally lacking in knowledge of gentlemen’s clubs and lap dances. Of course, Angelo knows all about the black side of sexual conduct because his regular guests are strippers and he admits to surfing for porn in off hours. But that doesn’t prevent Angelo from being outraged over JoePa’s innocence. This is where we are culturally — those who know the perversions tarnish the reputations of those who don’t. (And can anyone imagine the human resources officers at Penn State calling in JoePa at the age of 75 to attend a seminar on man-boy relations?)
My dad died a Penn State fan but it took him a while to warm up to the Nittany Lions’ head coach. The problem was JoePa’s reaction to the 1969 National Championship game. To put that incident in perspective, I resort to a story at ESPN:
The Nittany Lions went 5-5 in 1966, and Paterno responded not only by designing a new defense, but by shifting his best talent to that side of the ball. In the third game of the 1967 season, Penn State almost upset No. 3 UCLA, losing 17-15. The Nittany Lions fell to 1-2. However, they didn’t lose another game until 1970.
Penn State won the last seven games of the 1967 season, tied Florida State, 17-17, in the Gator Bowl, and went 11-0 in each of the next two seasons. In 1968, Penn State finished second to undefeated, untied Ohio State. In 1969, the Nittany Lions finished the regular season ranked third behind No. 1 Texas and No. 2 Arkansas, who played on Dec. 6. President Richard Nixon not only attended the game, but after the Longhorns won, 15-14, with a dramatic late-game touchdown, he declared them national champion.
In his career at Penn State, Paterno, a Republican, befriended almost every Republican president. He gave a nominating speech for George H.W. Bush at the 1988 Republican Convention at the Louisiana Superdome, the same building where Penn State had won Paterno’s first national championship six seasons earlier. The Penn State media guide included photos of Paterno with Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
But after the 1969 season Paterno had little regard for Nixon. Paterno’s most famous line regarding a president came in his commencement address at Penn State in 1973, as the public had begun to realize that the Watergate scandal had reached the Oval Office.
“How could Nixon know so little about Watergate and so much about football?” Paterno asked. A year later, Nixon resigned from the presidency.
In 1973, the Nittany Lions went 12-0 but finished only fifth in the nation. Disgusted with the polls, Paterno declared that “the Paterno Poll” had named Penn State No. 1 and had national championship rings made for his players.
That kind of self-congratulations did not sit well with Jay Hart. Nor did Paterno’s dismissal of Nixon. Although my parents had not voted for Nixon in 1968, they were law-abiding Americans who respected the president as something that came with being a citizen.
Over time, the Harts warmed to JoePa and Penn State. How could you not with a coach that played by the rules, worked to make his students study and graduate, and won on top of it all? JoePa had a work ethic, sense of duty, and integrity — despite coming from the wrong Christian faith — that even fundamentalist Protestants could admire.
I am sad that JoePa is no longer among us. My father and I shared too many good times cheering on the Nittany Lions for me not to think that I have embarked on an era of life, begun by dad’s death and now underlined by JoePa’s, that will be marked by the absence of the Greatest Generation. They certainly had their faults. But they were better than we are. For that reason I am glad that JoePa will be spared further assessment by that Generation’s ungrateful, disrespectful, and morally bankrupt children.