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Paterno: How Brooklyn kid became top coach

FILE - In this Jan. 1, 1983 file photo, Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno takes a victory ride from his players on the field at the Superdome after winning the Sugar Bowl and national championship in New Orleans. Penn State football coach Joe Paterno say he plans to retire at the end of the season, his long and illustrious career brought down because he failed to do all he could about an allegation of child sex abuse against a former assistant. FILE - In this Jan. 1, 1983 file photo, Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno takes a victory ride from his players on the field at the Superdome after winning the Sugar Bowl and national championship in New Orleans. Penn State football coach Joe Paterno say he plans to retire at the end of the season, his long and illustrious career brought down because he failed to do all he could about an allegation of child sex abuse against a former assistant. (AP Photo/File)
By Eddie Pells
AP National Writer / November 10, 2011

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He was a Brooklyn kid, an Ivy League graduate, a young man with designs on becoming a lawyer. Joe Paterno reluctantly went to Penn State to coach football and stayed 61 years.

Paterno turned those halting beginnings into a career and an industry that produced hundreds of wins, thousands of good citizens and millions of dollars for causes he believed in. He built a program on his personality and an idea -- that you could achieve big-time success in big-time sports while still getting a good education and without selling your soul.

The homespun idea concocted in the Norman Rockwell town of State College by a man affectionately known as "Joe Pa" unraveled this week when a sex-abuse scandal involving his former assistant, Jerry Sandusky, exploded, costing key administrators their jobs and forcing Paterno's exit to come far from on his own terms. Paterno was fired late Wednesday via a phone call.

His legacy -- once seemingly untouchable -- is now in peril. But his record, the raw numbers at least, cannot be touched.

The path to a record 409 victories began at 23, when Paterno was coaxed by Rip Engle, his former football coach at Brown, to work with him when Engle moved to become Penn State's head coach in 1950.

"I had no intention to coach when I got out of Brown," Paterno said in a 2007 interview before being inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. "Come to this hick town? From Brooklyn?"

Paterno always thought life as a lawyer would be nice. His father, Angelo, thought his son might one day become president.

Instead, the gridiron became Paterno's home and offers from Al Davis in Oakland and the ownership in New England couldn't root out Paterno from his adopted home in Happy Valley.

Three years after turning down Davis, who in 1963 offered to triple his salary to $18,000 to become the Raiders' offensive coordinator, Paterno took over as Penn State's head coach.

When Engle and Paterno arrived, Penn State had gone through three coaches in three years and had an offense made up mostly of walk-ons. Engle never had a losing season at Penn State, but when Paterno took over in 1966, the Lions still were considered "Eastern football" -- inferior to the Alabamas and Oklahomas and Southern Californias that dominated the game in those days.

Over the years, though, the program got onto even footing with those power schools. All the while, Paterno's fans insisted it was more than simply about football and winning.

"He teaches us about really just growing up and being a man," former linebacker Paul Posluszny, now with the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars, once said. "Besides the football, he's preparing us to be good men in life."

Paterno was a frequent speaker on ethics in sports, the self-appointed conscience for a world often infiltrated by scandal and shady characters. He made sure his players went to class.

As of 2011, Penn State has had 49 academic All-Americans -- 47 under Paterno -- the third-highest total among FBS institutions.

The team's graduation rates are consistently ranked among the best in the Big Ten. In 2010, Penn State's 84 percent rate trailed only Northwestern's 95.

In an ESPN special, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said Paterno had been able to "change how you teach ... without changing the values of how you teach."

Until this week, hardly anyone questioned Paterno's values.

"Deep down, I feel I've had an impact. I don't feel I've wasted my career," Paterno once said. "If I did, I would have gotten out a long time ago."

A year after he began his head coaching career, Paterno began a 30-0-1 streak fueled by players such as Jack Ham, who went onto fame with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

But the Nittany Lions fell short in the polls, finishing No. 2 in 1968 and 1969 despite 11-0 records, and No. 5 in 1973 despite a 12-0 record.

In 1969, Texas edged out Penn State for the title with help from an unlikely source: President Richard Nixon declared the Longhorns No. 1 after their bowl game.

"I'd like to know, how could the president know so little about Watergate in 1973, and so much about college football in 1969?" Paterno said in the aftermath, showing off a wry sense of humor that mixed Brooklyn smarts with mid-American sensibility.

Elite status finally arrived in the 1980s. The Nittany Lions claimed national titles in 1982, with a 27-23 win over Georgia at the Sugar Bowl, and in 1986, intercepting Miami's Vinny Testaverde five times in a 14-10 win at the Fiesta Bowl.

In all, Paterno guided five teams to unbeaten, untied seasons, and he reached 300 wins faster than any other coach, making himself a legend before his career had even reached its halfway point.

The Nittany Lions have made several title runs since those 1980s championships, including the 2005 trip to the Orange Bowl and an 11-1 regular-season campaign in 2008 that ended with a spot in the Rose Bowl and a 37-23 loss to USC.

Paterno's longevity became all the more remarkable as college football transformed into a big-money business.

The school estimated there have been at least 888 head coaching changes at FBS schools since Paterno took the job. He is the all-time leader in bowl appearances (37) and wins (24). And he sent more than 250 players to the NFL.

On Oct. 29, Penn State beat Illinois 10-7, earning Paterno win No. 409, breaking a tie with Grambling State's Eddie Robinson for most in Division I.

All he wanted to do, he had said two days earlier, was "hopefully have a little luck and have a little fun doing it. I've been lucky enough to be around some great athletes."

He said the success came because "the good Lord kept me healthy, not because I'm better than anybody else. It's because I've been around a lot longer than anybody else."

So long, in fact, that it seemed there was no getting rid of him, even as age and injuries crept up and his famous resistance to modern technology -- tweeting, texting and other so-called must-haves of 21st century recruiting -- made him seem antique.

But just as much, it was a string of mediocre seasons in the early 2000s that had fans wondering whether it was finally time for Paterno to step aside.

Others questioned how much actual work Paterno did in his later years. He always went out of his way to heap praise on his veteran assistants, especially if an injury or ailment kept him from getting in a player's face in practice or demonstrating a technique.

"I'm not where I want to be, the blazing speed I used to have," he said last month, poking fun at himself. "It's been tough. ... it's a pain in the neck, let me put it that way."

Paterno cut back on road trips to see recruits. He ended his annual summer caravan across Pennsylvania to exchange handshakes and smiles with alumni and donors.

Still, the question persisted: How much longer was he going to coach?

It was, until this week, the biggest question to dog him over a coaching career that began when Harry Truman was president. That made him no different from the handful of coaching lifers who stay in the game into their 70s and beyond.

"Who knows?" Paterno said with a straight face in October, when he was asked how his latest ailments affected his future. "Maybe I'll go 10 years."

A little more than 10 days later, he was fired over the phone.

"This is a tragedy," Paterno said in an earlier statement, when he said he would quit at the end of the season. "It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more."

The terms of his departure could hardly conflict more with the reputation he built in nearly a half-century of turning a quaint program into a powerhouse with instant name recognition.

He made it to the big time without losing a sense of where he was -- State College, population 42,000, a picturesque college town smack-dab in the middle of Pennsylvania.

Paterno and his wife raised five children in State College. Anybody could ring up his modest ranch home using the number listed in the phone book under "Paterno, Joseph V." That house was the sight of something between a pep rally and a vigil as events unfolded this week. Hundreds of students stood outside chanting his name, paying homage to a coach who brought fame to campus.

In the weeks and years before the current drama, former players would parade through his living room, especially on a busy game weekend, for a chance to say "Hello."

He was as much a father figure to many of them as a coach.

As the events of this week swallowed him up, and many of his most loyal followers were forced to rethink the icon's legacy, the coach himself tried as hard as possible to keep the focus on the reason he got into the business.

"My goals now," Paterno said in the statement announcing his retirement, before he was later fired, "are to keep my commitments to my players and staff and finish the season with dignity and determination. And then I will spend the rest of my life doing everything I can to help this University."

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Associated Press Writer Genaro C. Armas in State College, Pa., contributed to this report.