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Joe Paterno and The Interview: One Coach, 22 Years, 581 Questions

by on January 25, 2012 1:50 AM

This week, Mike Poorman is writing a series of columns chronicling the impact of Joe Paterno over the 34 years Poorman has written about and been
a part of Penn State.

Tuesday: Joe Paterno & The Penn State Students

Wednesday: Joe Paterno & The Interviews

Thursday: Joe Paterno & The Paterno Class

Friday: Joe Paterno & State College

It was a late Friday afternoon in late February 1984.

Joe Paterno was 58 years old and had already won 170 games and a national championship.

Yours truly was 23 and a recent Penn State grad with a newspaper job paying $11,000 a year.

That day Paterno granted me 30 minutes for a question-and-answer for “The Penn State Football Annual,” a start-up preseason magazine devoted solely to the Nittany Lion football team.

Question No. 1 was about fans’ growing interest in recruiting – remember, this was 28 years ago. Joe’s answer then ...

“I think recruiting has gotten out of whack completely. I think that it’s almost become another season. And the problem is, nobody knows who won.”

... and it still would have been his answer a week ago.

                       * * * * *

That was my first one-on-one interview with Joe Paterno. Nineteen more followed over the next 21 years. In all, the 20 Q&A’s filled 133 pages, covered 581 questions and went into magazines published by four different companies for magazines that went by five different names from 1984-2005.

The first magazine cost $3.95 and was 64 pages. The last was $8.95 and 144. The experience was priceless.

Joe was the constant. I was along for the ride.

The interviews were like getting my masters in Joe Paterno. And they served as great background for a third of a century covering Penn State football and four years of teaching a course called “Joe Paterno & The Media.”

I think Joe consented to the first Q&A because I was fresh out of college and knew him from covering Penn State for more than three years for The Daily Collegian. Then he said “yes” the next year. And pretty soon we were off and interviewing. Same Joe, Next Year.

There were days when he wasn’t too excited to see that I was on his calendar. I get it: People a lot less accomplished than Joe Paterno aren’t too happy when they learn they have to spend 60 minutes with Mike Poorman (ask my students … and my three teens).

But I know why Joe did it. He was, at heart, a good guy. His administrative assistants were great allies. And he knew a thing or two about branding before Ad Age did: The magazine was a way for him to connect with the fans and recruits in a glossy format. Back when we started, few schools boasted of “their” own preseason mag. He often had some previous years’ issues on a table, and I unabashedly felt good about that.

Eventually, as he got older, I think I got grandfathered in. (Makes sense, since he was actually a grandfather.) I knew I was lucky to get up to an hour of his time alone every spring, usually in May, sometimes June. I just never knew how lucky. As that old guy on the deck said to Jimmy Stewart when he hee-hawed about kissing Donna Reed in “It’s A Wonderful Life:" “Ah, youth is wasted on the young.”

I figure it was the better part of 17-18 hours with Joe, just him and I – and my tape recorder. Actually, it was the best part.

                       * * * * *

It was rare for a member of the media to get one or two of these with Joe, let alone an annual date. I know, of course, for a Fran Fisher or a Steve Jones it was no big deal. And all the staff and the coaches and the players through the years – thousands of them – they saw much, much more of Joe than I did.

But I do remember what Fran Ganter said a few years ago, and Tom Bradley reinforced to me last fall: Being alone with Joe was a gift and a rarity, and even though they worked with him for decades, they treasured their time with The Coach when there was just the two of them on the road, in a car, recruiting.

I understood what they meant. In those 1,000 or so minutes, with just Joe and I, I learned some timeless lessons, many of them about journalism – and a few about the coach.

Joe could be smart, witty, sarcastic, harsh, antsy, philosophical, political, charming, evasive, humble, cocky, irritable, enchanting and entertaining -- and always interesting. And that’s just over the course of an hour.

There was no dodging Joe. He never did the interview sitting behind the desk. He usually sat seemingly inches away; his favorite pose was leaning over, his knees apart, his hands clasped, his head leaning in. He dominated space.

As a 20-something, I spent hours preparing my questions, having them down cold so much so that I rarely looked at my notebook. I tried to go with the flow, follow where Joe was going and keep him there with a nod. “Really?” was my best question.

The scariest moment came early in an interview following a poor season, and I was probing what had gone wrong. Joe Paterno was pissed. He pointed to the tape recorder and said tersely, “Last year’s over. Any more questions like that, and we’ll end it right here.”

I gulped – knowing I had seven magazine pages worth of a Paterno Q&A to fill. So next season it was.

Eventually, I asked less about the team leaders and the backup left guards and more about books, philosophies, history and people skills. Better questions yielded better answers.

                               * * * * *

The first time I asked about retirement was in 1984, and he replied he had hoped to quit in four or five years – 1990 at the latest. For the next 21 years, I asked the same question. And for the next 21 years he gave me the same answer.

There were some gems among the 581 responses, though. What I remember most about Joe – actually, I called him “Coach” – were the conversations before and especially after the interviews. That’s when he:

Told me to get my hair cut.

Lamented about Bear Bryant: “I could never beat that S.O.B.”

Gave me parenting advice.

Gave me advice about working for a challenging boss.

Kicked me out of his office so he could meet with a recruit.

Shared that his toughest personnel decision was picking Todd Blackledge over Jeff Hostetler.

Followed our interview with a Q&A with two gorgeous coeds -- done as a favor to his son Jay, a Penn State undergrad at the time.

Was, mostly, a regular Joe.

                               * * * * *

Most years, Paterno bounded into the football offices fresh from a walk from home, upbeat and breathless, ready to go. He looked funny in his old-fashioned plain white sneakers. Sometimes, he did the walk with his wife Sue. Once, when he drove over to the office, he was late by about 10 minutes and came in as angry as I’d ever seen him, and that includes running through the end zone after a referee.

“Everyone’s always parking in our football lot. Professors, people across campus,” he growled. “Can’t we do anything about that? I can’t even find a spot! I drove around and around!”

And then he stomped off. No, really: he pounded his feet onto the floor as he went to his office.

It was such a show that I started laughing – after he left.

“We tried to get him a reserved parking space out front,” the receptionist said, shaking her head in support of my giggles. “But he won’t let us do it. He doesn’t want to be treated any differently than anyone else.”

                                     * * * * *

Paterno was at his best tossing out one-liners, even in a one-on-one setting. An audience of one was just fine. To wit:

“I liked Bear (Bryant), I really did. And he liked us … since he beat us so often.”

“Everybody told me I had to go see ‘Titantic,’ so Sue and I went. It was too long. Too much water.”

"There are times where I'd like to say, 'We're a lot better football team. We're going to kick their ears in.' But instead, I may hem and haw."

“I got a phone call from someone in the administration a year or so ago, and they talked to one of our secretaries. And this person wanted to know, ‘Why doesn’t Joe answer any of his email?’ I probably had a couple hundred thousand emails in there. I said, ‘Geez, I didn’t even know I had an email.’ ”

Me: “I’m not going to ask who will be the starting quarterback…” Joe: “Good, because I don’t know.”

Me: “Do you know about ‘Seinfeld’ and are you going to watch the last episode?” Joe: ‘Steinfeld?’ No. But a lot of coaches see it all the time. And they talk about it every once in a while. Dick Anderson says he never misses.”

Last question, last answer, last interview, 2005:

Me: “How do you feel about the fact that a newspaper is trying to find out how much money you make?”

Joe: “I don’t care if people know. They’ll be shocked when they find out…”

Me: “…Well, you’ve been here for a few years.”

Joe, laughing: “Well, those 5 percent raises start adding up after awhile. After 55 years, 4 and 5 percent raises mean something.”

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Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for StateCollege.com since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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