I am only getting to my obituary for Joe Paterno now because I wasn’t sure what I could add to the thousands of tributes already out there. I’m going to try and fill in something that I think has been overlooked. That aspect was also a little hard to find online until late last week.
Paterno won 409 games, 2 undisputed national championships, had undefeated seasons in 4 different decades, won 3 Big Ten Championships, every bowl game that mattered and more than any one else for that matter. His on-field legacy is secure. His “Grand Experiment” of having football players who were students is unsurpassed in big time college football. Paterno’s football players graduated a rate higher than the Penn State population in recent years and probably over his entire tenure. The praise he gathered for that was well-earned.
An aspect of Paterno that I feel that may have been overlooked was his direct role in shaping the Pennsylvania State University. The fame that his successful football teams brought raise the profile of the university. Paterno would have been a memorable figure for that, particularly the the way he did it. However, Paterno did not settle for that and at the peak of his power and prestige, he decided that the Penn State could not settle for being #1 just in football. Following the 1982 National Championship, Paterno was invited to speak to the Board of Trustees. Instead of a pep talk, he outlined a vision for the university. Here is an excerpt from Paterno’s January 22, 1983 speech to the Board of Trustees, 29 years to the day before died (Google Doc):
So we do have a magic moment and we have a great opportunity, and I think we have got to start right now to put our energies together to make Penn State not only Number One, but I think we’ve got to start to put our energies together to make this a Number One institution by 1990. I don’t think that’s an unfounded or a way-out objective. I think we need some things. I talk to you now as a faculty member. I talk to you as somebody who has spent 33 years at Penn State, who has two daughters at Penn State, who probably will have three sons at Penn State, who has a wife that graduated from Penn State, who has two brother-in-laws that graduated from Penn State, and I talk to you as somebody I think who knows a little bit about what’s going on. Who has recruited against Michigan, Stanford, UCLA, who has recruited against Notre Dame, Princeton, Yale, and Harvard and who has had to identify some things that they have that are better than we have and has had to identify some of our problems. I talk to you as somebody that I think knows a little bit about what’s going on in the other guys, and I think a little bit about what’s going on here. We need chairs. We need money so that we can get some stars. We need scholarship money. We need scholarship money to get scholars who can be with the stars so that the stars will come in and have some people around that can stimulate them and they can be stimulated by the stars. We need a better library–better libraries would be a better way to put it–so that the stars and the scholars have the tools to realize their potential. We need an environment of dissent and freedom of speech and freedom to express new and controversial ideas.
Paterno was vice chair of the first “Campaign for Penn State” the raised $352 million from 1984-1990. He continued to raise money for Penn State for decades and with his wife, Sue, contributed over $4 million. He specifically raised money for the library which now bears his last name. The modern Penn State, a modern research institution with many nationally ranked colleges, schools and departments is his greatest legacy.