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Jim O’Brien: We can learn so much from Joe Paterno’s words

January 23, 2012

Jim O’Brien: We can learn so much from Joe Paterno’s words                          

Pittsburgh sports author and Valley Mirror columnist Jim O’Brien

Joe Paterno always liked being Joe Paterno.  He played the part so well.  It’s like the way Mike Ditka plays the part of Mike Ditka.    Once they were so serious and then, as they got older and wiser, they learned to smile and poke fun at themselves and the image they projected.  Paterno had his disheveled part down to perfection.

         Paterno started playing the part of Joe Paterno the way Peter Falk played the part of Colombo, the way Redd Foxx played the part of Fred Sanford in Sanford and Son.  When it was his turn to speak at an awards dinner or some kind of testimonial, Paterno was never slick.  He always appeared to be, like his hair, in complete disarray.

         He could be dead serious and still smile at what he said.  There was a gleam behind those thick eyeglasses.  There was a light in the attic. 

         Paterno liked to pontificate.  I have been accused of doing the same.  Maybe that’s why Paterno appealed to me.  I paid attention when Paterno spoke, and I always came away with a few gems, something to think about, some thing to try and do.  For most of his 85 years, Paterno placed the bar high and expected us all to reach for the sky.

         I saw Paterno’s picture on the front page of both the Sunday daily newspapers, and read that he was growing weak, and that he wanted his family to be with him to say goodbye, that his doctors weren’t optimistic.  But I didn’t know that he had died when I went out to Robert Morris University in the early afternoon on Sunday to see a high school basketball classic and to participate in a Hall of Fame induction ceremony conducted by the Pittsburgh Basketball Club.

         I was in good company, getting honored with some outstanding coaches, former players, sportswriters and contributors to the game.  It was Jerry Conboy, who had coached with distinction at South Hills Catholic High School and Point Park College, when those schools were known by those names, who told me that Joe Paterno had died that morning.

         My heart ached to hear that, though I knew it was coming.  I knew it was coming from the moment the Penn State hierarchy fired him as the head football coach at State College, and when they piled it on with more hasty decisions and punishments, and when the word got out that he had lung cancer, and had fallen and broken some bones at his home on the campus.

         Joe Paterno never wanted to quit coaching because he feared that he would die if he didn’t have something meaningful to do.  His friend Bear Bryant had died soon after he retired as the football coach at Alabama.  That’s why Paterno wouldn’t step aside, even when it was time to do so.

         I recall being with Jimmy Cannon, the great New York sportswriter, when he was covering a fight in his early 60s.  A writer from England approached him and asked, “Jimmy, when are you going to retire and rest on your laurels?”

         Cannon was outraged.  “Maybe I don’t have as many laurels as you do,” he responded with a snarl.

         Cannon roared at me.  “Who the hell is that hump?”

         Joe Paterno might have died on Sunday simply because he had gotten old and frail.  My father-in-law, Harvey Churchman, died when he was 85.  I’d sign a warranty right now if someone could guarantee that I’d live till I was 85.  But it hurt to hear the news just the same.

         Randy Cosgrove, the athletic director at Ambridge High School, was doing the public announcing task at RMU on Sunday and before one of one of the games he asked the audience to stand and observe a moment of silence in memory of Joe Paterno.

         Then a man named Joe Tucci sang “God Bless America.”  Joe Paterno always enjoyed hearing that song, and singing along with it.

         I believe I will always remember that setting and that solemn salute when Joe Paterno’s name comes up in the conversation.    

         On Sunday night, after watching the National Football League’s championship games, I went to my files and pulled out the Joe Paterno folder, filled with newspaper and magazine clippings, yellow legal pads with interview notes scrawled from top to bottom, and I pulled out some books I had on Joe Paterno.

         The team that should have won lost in both NFL contests, and I thought about how Paterno probably would have been watching those games if he had been alive and well.  Life is often about difficult losses.

         I think there are at least 18 books about Paterno and others in the works at this time.  There’s one in the works that will deal with the Jerry Sandusky sex scandal that ripped apart the University in recent months.  Joe Paterno was one of those at Penn State who did not deal with that issue properly, trying to sweep it under the carpet so the Penn State image as a school and football program would not suffer any setbacks.

         The cover-up, as in so many situations, ended up worsening the situation.  Joe Paterno became one of its victims.

         Some of my best friends feel that Paterno did what he had to do, but I don’t agree with that.  Joe Paterno was one of the most powerful people on the campus and I think he didn’t do enough.

         It points up how one can lead an exemplary life and make one wrong choice, one wrong step, and smear a lifetime of good works.  It only takes one bad moment to mess up a life well lived.

         When I worked as the assistant athletic director for public relations at Pitt in the mid-80s, I had a wise secretary named Bea Schwartz.  She was something else.  But she was smart.  And funny.

         “If someone steals your Cadillac,” she once told me she had told one of her sons, “you can replace it.  But if someone steals your reputation you can never get it back.”

         He was called Joe Pa and he was called St. Joseph.  He was a practicing Roman Catholic and Paterno took pride in his religious bearing and upbringing.  He preached that they were doing it right at Penn State.

         In the book, For The Glory: College Football Dreams and Realities Inside Paterno’s Program, written by an old friend, Ken Denlinger, I read where Paterno and his staff used to reassure parents of prospects by saying “You can trust us with your son.”

         When I read that, and saw references to Jerry Sandusky, the man who coached the linebackers and was regarded as a defensive genius in the college ranks, it took on a whole new meaning from the way it was written back in 1994.  Who knew that Sandusky could not be trusted with anyone’s sons?

         There is a Penn State Hall of Fame on the campus and there is a framed letter that was sent to Paterno by President Gerald Ford, who had played football with distinction at the University of Michigan in his heyday.

         Ford’s letter had this line: “It thrills me to see how everyone loves and respects you.”

         That’s the life Joe Paterno enjoyed at Penn State.  When that was gone, I don’t think he wanted to be around anymore.

         When I was reading through all my Paterno stuff on Sunday night I came upon some quotations that had been culled from his lifetime of trying to teach us how to live.

         They are worth repeating.  Like Chuck Noll and so many of the coaches I’ve known, including those who were honored at Robert Morris University on Sunday, the best ones saw themselves as teachers.

         “Success without honor is an unseasoned dish; it will satisfy your hunger but it won’t taste good,” Paterno once said.

         Here’s a sampling of some of his sayings that apply to so many situations we encounter in our daily lives:

         “Publicity is like poison.  It doesn’t hurt you unless you swallow it.”

                                  *            *          *

           For salesmen: “You have to perform at a consistently higher level than others.  That’s the mark of a true professional.”

                                  *             *          *

          “Besides pride, loyalty, discipline, heart and mind, confidence is the key to all locks.”

                                   *              *          *

           Talking about those bland Penn State football uniforms: “It’s the name on the front of the jersey that matters most, not the one on the back.”  So there were no names on the back of Penn State uniforms.

                                   *              *           *

             “Believe always down in your heart that you’re destined to do great things.”

                                   *               *            *

             Here’s one that really strikes home in the wake of what has gone down at Penn State in recent months: “The minute you think you’ve got it made, disaster is just around the corner.”

                                   *               *             *

Here’s one that explains why Paterno was lost when he was no longer held in such high esteem: “Losing a game is heart-breaking, losing your sense of excellence or worth is a tragedy.”

                                   *               *             *

         Here’s one that the Pitt basketball team should hear: “You need to play with supreme confidence, or else you’ll lose, and the losing becomes a habit.”

                                    *               *             *

         “Set your sights high, the higher the better.  Expect the most wonderful things to happen, not in the future, but right now.”

                                  *               *              *

          “I still haven’t gotten that little something out of my system that I’m still not a little kid going to a football game.  I’m excited.”

                                    *               *               *

            “A mistake is always forgivable, rarely excusable and always unacceptable.”

                                  *                *               *

           A man who met Jerry Conboy for the first time asked him if he missed coaching.  Conboy, who is nearly as old as Paterno, didn’t hesitate in his answer.  “Yes, I do.  I’d go out on the court right now and show these kids how to do it, how to play basketball the right way.  I don’t think you ever lose the desire to coach and teach.”

         Keep some of Paterno’s sayings in your night stand and refer to them once in a while.  If you adhere to them you will sleep better.


         Pittsburgh sports author and Valley Mirror columnist Jim O’Brien has written about Joe Paterno and other local sports legends in his Pittsburgh Proud sports book series.  His website is

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