Sue Paterno married Penn State coach Joe Paterno in 1962. They met in the late 1950s in the school library, when she was a freshman at Penn State and Paterno was an assistant coach for the Nittany Lions.AP photo
Penn State football coach Joe Paterno is embraced by his wife, Sue, following Penn State’s victory over Texas in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas on Jan 1, 1972. The Lions routed the Longhorns 30-6.AP file photo
STATE COLLEGE — Here’s the story behind Joe Paterno’s rolled-up pants: Back in the late ’60s, his wife, Sue, suggested he raise the cuffs so mud wouldn’t get on his wool slacks while coaching.
That was no longer a worry once JoePa switched to his trademark khakis. “Then it became superstitious,” she said. “I don’t care if he rolls them up or not, I can just throw them in the washer.”
Sue Paterno’s influence at Penn State goes far beyond her famous husband’s wardrobe.
She has served as a tutor to players, a host for recruiting gatherings, a counselor to concerned parents — and as a prodigious fundraiser, though for more than athletics.
She is the coach’s ultimate sounding board — they have been married 47 years, after all — though football isn’t her best topic.
“What I know about football,” she said, repeating a question during a recent interview with The Associated Press at the family home, waving her hand over her head. “I know offsides in football, and I think I know pass interference.”
Leave the X’s and O’s to JoePa, the iconic Hall of Fame coach entering another milestone year at Penn State — his 60th season at the university: An assistant for 16 seasons and 44 as head coach.
He often doesn’t deliver over-the-top praise about his Nittany Lions, but he glows about his 69-year-old wife.
“I think people don’t realize how much she’s done for this place,” Paterno, 82, said in a separate interview at his office. “I’ve said many times that they won’t have any problems replacing me, but if they can find a coach’s wife like Sue, they’ll hit the jackpot.”
For all the touted players that he’s lured through the years, his biggest recruit is Sue.
They met at the library during her freshman year. The former Suzanne Pohland, of Latrobe, Pa., was the English literature honors student buried in research; Joseph Vincent Paterno was the assistant football coach who checked players in and out of study hall — a seemingly perfect fit for a man who once planned on going to law school after graduating from Brown University.
Was it love at first sight?
“No, he was telling me to keep studying,” she said. “I said, ‘Fine, mister, mister, mister.’ It took awhile.”
They were married in 1962, the year she graduated from Penn State.
And yes, Joe did most of the pursuing.
“Yeah, I was being recruited. I didn’t know it,” she said.
Sue Paterno taught 10th- and 11th-graders one fall at Bellefonte High School, just north of State College, before leaving after getting pregnant. Diana, the oldest of five children, was born in 1963.
Her family, she said, is her proudest accomplishment.
Her husband took over as head coach in 1966. The job required long hours at home and on the road, so she focused on providing stability for the children.
“I probably have the most invested in that, and they always come first,” she said at her spotless kitchen table. “They were willing to take a back seat sometimes when people are in the house.”
Feeling guilty that he did not spend enough time with his children when they were younger, Joe Paterno tried to rush home at least once a week for a family dinner.
His wife, though, said after one occasion that he was too stressed and that he didn’t leave work at the office. So Sue suggested that he take a 15-minute walk home, instead of driving, to decompress.
“Sure enough, when I started to walk home after a lousy practice, by the time I got home, I calmed down,” Joe Paterno said. “I think we’ve had as good a family life as you can have, and that’s thanks to Sue.”
Outside of family, Sue Paterno has played mentor to players as an English tutor. Through the years, some have come to the house for lessons, other times she goes to the team’s study hall.
Some players had been told while being recruited that they couldn’t attend Penn State unless they worked with her.
Former tight end Troy Drayton considers Sue Paterno one of his most influential mentors. Drayton left Penn State in 1993 after getting drafted to the NFL, but never finished his degree until last year — fulfilling a promise he made to Sue Paterno. The head coach told Drayton to come to the house after his graduation ceremony.
“When I first walked in the door, she said, ‘Let me see your graduation diploma,”’ Drayton recalled during a phone interview from Florida, where he now lives. “She was more excited than I was.”
The Paternos have lived in the same modest ranch home in a quiet State College neighborhood for 40 years. There is no fence around the front yard and no gates guard the driveway — though there is a golden door knocker in the shape of a lion’s head on the front door.
The doting grandparents have adorned the interior of their home with numerous family pictures, including ones of their 17 grandchildren. One recent day, 10-year-old grandson Robert had just arrived to do chores.
Bowl trips can especially be hectic. With much of the family in tow, the Paternos don’t mind that their grandchildren shuffle in and out of their hotel room.
“The cookies and candy are in our room,” Sue Paterno said.
Regular-season football weekends can be busy, with the Paternos’ home a hub of activity. During official recruiting weekends or donor visits, guests have often been treated to her delicious desserts.
Son Jay Paterno, the Penn State quarterbacks coach, said that while his mother has always been interested in charitable causes, she has devoted more time to them since her children left home.
Documents released earlier this year by the university showed Paterno made $1.03 million in 2008 in university salary and bonuses.
The Paternos have contributed more than $4 million to the university during his tenure, including $3.5 million in 1998 to endow faculty positions and scholarships, and support two building projects.
A campus library is named after the family, not the football building or athletic facility. Sue Paterno still works closely with the library to help raise money.
She champions Special Olympics, helping to organize the Pennsylvania summer games each June on the Penn State campus. This June, they pledged $1 million to help build a new wing at Mount Nittany Medical Center in State College.
“Even when we were kids, there was a sense that she wanted us to understand that there’s more to life than football, and more to life than what was in front of you,” said Jay Paterno, whose full name is Joseph Jr.
She’s a fairly recognizable figure in State College, though she attracts far more attention when she’s with her husband. The couple don’t go out as much anymore because of that extra attention. Strangers sometimes knock on their front door to talk with the coach or to get an autograph and Sue Paterno bemoans the loss of privacy through the years.
As for THE most popular question about her husband, Sue Paterno is quick to respond that she doesn’t know when he’ll retire. Joe Paterno just signed a three-year extension in December that ended — for now — speculation about how much longer he would coach.
“You know, I don’t ask other people, ‘How long are you going to teach or how long are you going to be a produce manager?”’ she said. “The blogs have had him retired 15 times by now ... so you know, life goes on. If he wants to retire, that’s fine with me. If he doesn’t want to, that’s fine with me.”
One of Sue Paterno’s most frequently used phrases is that she “adapts” to situations, whether it’s the pain she’s endured from her four back surgeries; her son David’s recovery from a near-fatal trampoline accident as a child; or her husband’s recent recovery from hip surgery.
And she said she’ll adapt to whatever happens five or 10 years down the road. The English tutor turned to a book analogy to explain her philosophy.
“I’ll turn the page each time,” she said. “I don’t look far ahead. Who knows? Life can change in an instant.”