SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Joe Paterno has his own take on Mark Twain’s “Life on the Mississippi” and the challenge a riverboat captain faces trying to navigate the waters of a mighty river. For Paterno, it’s a little bit like coaching college football.
“He wrote that a captain has to learn more than anybody should ever have to learn, and then the next day he’s got to learn it in a different way. That’s pretty much what coaching is all about,” Paterno said. “You’ve got to know more than anybody ought to have to know.”
The 81-year-old Paterno, entering his 43rd season as head coach at Penn State, has shown through the years he knows more about maneuvering through the coaching waters than just about everybody, which is why he will be enshrined with 19 others into the College Football Hall of Fame on Saturday night.
“I don’t know anyone more deserving than Joe,” Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said.
Others in the class are 1984 Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie of Boston College, 1990 Lombardi Award winner Chris Zorich of Notre Dame and 1989 Maxwell Award winner Anthony Thompson of Indiana.
JoePa was supposed to be enshrined into the hall a year ago along with Bowden, but when the induction ceremony in New York rolled around in December 2006, he was still recovering from a broken leg sustained along the sideline during a game. So it was put off for year.
He goes into the hall with a career record of 372-125-3, placing him a victory behind Bowden, the all-time major college leader. Paterno said he isn’t worried about that, though, saying competition is what motivates him, not wins and losses.
“My feeling has always been that when you’ve got to play somebody good, I think that makes you hustle a little more, it makes you pay a little more attention to details, it gets you a little bit more fired up, because of the satisfaction that comes when you do beat a good football team,” he said.
Paterno’s Nittany Lions have beaten a lot of good teams. Included among those victories are national titles in ’82 and ’86, and five undefeated seasons. He’s been voted coach of the year by the American Football Coaches Association a record five times.
He has seen a lot of changes since taking the job in 1966. He’s gone from a time when most Americans were still watching television on black-and-white sets with just a few channels to choose from to a day when most homes have computers and fan web sites critiquing every move a coach makes abound.
He’s also seen a lot of changes in teenagers. He believes they face a lot more challenges today, citing problems such as guns in school, teenage drinking and a report earlier this year that some girls in Massachusetts made a pact to get pregnant.
The basics of coaching, though, remain unchanged. The key is to teach athletes how to become better football players and knowing how to read each player to know how to get the best out of him. That challenge is what keeps Paterno in coaching.
It was a message Paterno’s disappointed father stressed when he learned his son was going into coaching rather than going to law school. Paterno’s father had one message for him: “Have an impact.”
“That kind of stuck in my craw,” Paterno said. “I think a way to have an impact on the place is to have an impact on the people — the people around you and the people you coach.”