The Grand Experiment at 50--Lessons for Today

Penn State Alumni Association Lake Erie Chapter --August 6, 2016

It is nice to be here in Erie and I want to say a special thanks to Anthony Lubrano for being here tonight. Since Joe Paterno died a lot of people suddenly got brave and said a lot of things about him that weren’t true because he couldn’t defend himself.

 

What they did not realize that there are many others who have come forward to defend him and the truth and Anthony has been one of those people so for that we all should thank him and give him a round of applause.

 

Erie is just lovely this time of the year…..January is another story I am sure. I went out this afternoon to Presque Isle State Park and attended 4:30 mass at St Paul Catholic Church—founded in 1891 to serve the Italian Community of Erie. On my way home I am stopping to load up on Smith’s Hot Dogs as well!

 

Watching the videos of so many great moments was emotional…and rather than talk about games and individual moments I want to talk more about what was behind all those great moments. Tonight let’s talk about the lessons that can be learned.

 

First thanks so much for this tonight. The University has not really recognized Joe Paterno’s contributions publicly so this chapter and tonight is really the first time something like this has happened so I thank you for that.

 

I was asked to come up and specifically reflect on the 50th anniversary of Joe Paterno’s first game as head coach. On September 17, 1966 was the unveiling of the on-field edition of The Grand Experiment--a hard-fought 15-7 win over Maryland that included 3 safeties. The last win was another shootout a 10-7 win over Illinois. Some call it winning ugly….call it what you want but call it what it was –Winning.

 

But it was about so much more than what happened on the field.

 

The Grand Experiment—was a challenge, a belief that honor and excellence could be achieved with student-athletes who came to college to compete in the classroom and on the field. The idea was to have young men leave Penn State with more than just a football experience—the goal was for them to get a world-class education.

 

It was a belief that the journey, the struggle to achievement and excellence was best accomplished by blazing your own path, on the road less taken and that would make us different.

 

Joe Paterno’s ideals lasted for decades and what was accomplished at Penn State by so many who shared a common set of values is what this story is really about. You see those values became something that was ingrained into every sport at Penn State—it was visionary leadership that propelled Penn State both athletically and academically to a level that transcended our Commonwealth.

 

The Penn State name and reputation for excellence in everything had a value that was recognized not just here at home, and not just nationally but internationally as well.

 

The Grand Experiment after 50 Years has created a Golden Legacy that is something to be admired.  

 

Nike Co-Founder Phil Knight wrote “Simply, he was the Gold Standard by which all other football programs were measured.”

 

One thing I do know would be that Joe Paterno would be uncomfortable with anyone talking about him or the 50th anniversary. He would tell you that the journey was only possible because of the student-athletes, the coaches, the administration, the medical and strength staff as well as professors, alumni, fans and friends who all bought in to the idea of doing things the right way.

 

One professor told me what happened when he called the house to ask Joe what they should do about a player in class who was failing.

 

Joe asked “What would you do if he wasn’t a football player?”

 

“I’d fail him” the professor answered.

 

“Then fail him.” Joe answered.

 

For all the false negative things written and said in the months and years since Joe Paterno died—this unassailable fact remains—like all men he was imperfect but the integrity of the man and the program never wavered.

 

That is the mark of consistency that was unchanged across the decades.

 

Through all the investigations of Penn State football—millions of documents including e-mails, memos, files, text messages and depositions not once did anyone uncover academic fraud or major NCAA violations. No documents or correspondence were found that was sent from a coach, to a coach or seen by a coach that showed any knowledge of wrongdoing or attempt to conceal it in any area.

 

Talk to a player from 1968 or 1978 or even 2008 and you’ll find that they learned the same lessons, they were given the same bedrock values as the foundation for success on the field in the classroom and in life.

 

As I look around college football today there are places where those lessons are needed now more than ever.

 

There are coaches pandering to a generation of recruits who have been raised on self-promotion, self-indulgence and selfies over the ideas of selflessness and team first. We’re playing to a recruit’s basest instincts, to the lowest common denominator.

 

Everything is about what will get the best recruits according to some arbitrary rankings and what will make that 16 or 17 year old happy. What things can we do or say on social media? What do we add to our football facility to show we have the coolest stuff?

 

How about challenging them to make sacrifices to be part of a team? How about explaining how the world really works?

 

The Lasch Building was built so that the players would understand that they were coming into a professional environment. There was a method to the madness.

 

Even the locker room had a purpose. On the floor in the middle of the carpet used to be an “S” to remind our players of the past, to remind them that once there were young men who played with an S for State on the front of their football uniforms.

 

It was to remind them that the facilities they had, the support they received and the stadium that stood proudly on the hill was built by generations of those who came before them and paved the way.

 

But there was more to it. The S was right in the middle of the locker room—and NO ONE walked across the S—NO ONE. NO EXCEPTIONS.

 

The shortest route to your friend across the locker room may have been right across the S but you took the long way. It required more effort—but you did not walk across the S because it represented our history our tradition of excellence dating back to 1887.

 

If you walked across it you had to do push-ups.

 

Once a recruit’s grandmother was touring the facility and forgot. She walked right across the S and our players politely informed her that she would have to do push-ups. Let’s just say she was a large woman. She and her husband loved that respect for the past—and her husband—a man of 70+ years of age did the push-ups for his wife.

 

But that recruit came to Penn State.

 

Another recruit—a very prominent recruit walked across the S. If I told you this player’s name you would immediately know who he is. Our players told him he had to do the push-ups and he refused, said something to the effect of Screw this place and walked out.

 

Needless to say he went to another school and got into trouble there after just one year—including violating NCAA rules.

 

You see that S saved us from possible problems.

 

There were other standards.

 

Joe Paterno had standards of personal appearance that we enforced consistently for his entire career. He wanted everyone on that team to have to give something up to be part of that team. He wanted everyone to understand that it was a privilege to play at Penn State.

 

He wanted them to know that Penn State stood apart—we asked them to do more. He knew that student-athletes who paid a higher price would fight harder to defend that which they paid a higher price to attain.

 

It was what Thomas Paine wrote:

 

“Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness that gives everything its value”

 

What we obtain too cheap we esteem too lightly…….

I know I am “old-school”. I know I am espousing ideals that some say are outdated but they could not be more wrong. The values of The Grand Experiment are time-tested and enduring and anyone who argues otherwise is short-sighted.

 

Human nature remains mostly unchanged across the centuries. Part of that human nature is the belief that our current times, and the circumstances we currently face and the particular set of issues we face are somehow unique and unprecedented and have no parallel in history.

 

Nothing could be further from the truth.

 

Over the years Penn State and Joe Paterno were constantly called out for not following the trends of the time. But trends come and go—class and consistency endures. In fact bucking the trend becomes your brand—it is what makes you stand out.

 

You need a differential and doing things the blue collar way built a mentally tough team and program that win or lose played hard and with great pride.

 

It was part of what Joe Paterno always talked about—“at some point in the game you have to make them say ouch.”

 

It was old school and it came from Joe’s belief in what football was about—he wrote in his notes once “Largest truths of the game: - Conditioning, Spartanism, defense and violence - as distinct from Brutality.”

 

Conditioning, Spartanism, defense and violence those are the unwavering core of Championship Football. “Old School”.

 

That “Old School” was what brought players from this area like Charles Rush, Drew Astorino and Brian Milne to Penn State.

 

“Old School” was our differential and it attracted certain players but it repelled others—and that is a good thing. Penn State was not for everyone.

 

Now everyone wants to have multiple uniforms—and you know what people say? “Oh they’re like Oregon”. Everyone wants to build flashy football buildings and you know what people say “Oh, their building is like Oregon’s building.”

 

You are never going to out-Oregon Oregon. You never win by following the trends. You never set yourself apart if you do what everyone else does, if you suppress that which makes you unique. 

 

Without a differential you become like anyone else.

The 50 year anniversary of Joe Paterno’s first game is a chance for us to think, to reflect and remember that for a long time we lived in College Football’s Shining city on the hill.

 

We lived in a place where win or lose we saw a bunch of young men who made us proud on and off the field in victory and defeat.

 

We lived in a place where when our team traveled to away games or bowl trips—everyone from flight attendants to hotel managers complimented our players’ professional appearance and behavior.

 

We lived in a place where we were proud when our players and coaches did interviews because they represented our school in a way that spoke volumes about the education they were receiving and spoke volumes about their humility and team first attitude.

 

We lived in a place where we spoke softly and carried a big stick.

 

We lived in an exalted place that was the result of decades of hard work and sacrifice. Nothing worthwhile is every easily attained.

And this all started with humble beginnings.

In 1966 in his preseason notes—Joe Paterno wrote these notes about the first day of Camp on August 29th:

 

  1. 1. J.T.—Chalk in Lines, hashmarks

  2. 2. Any player in before noon get physicals. Defensive and two-way players get preference.

  3. 3. Bob—Have equipment men ready to give out shoes, socks and shorts.

 

J.T. was Coach J T White—think about that—an assistant coach putting the lines down. Bob was Coach Bob Phillips—an assistant coach helping get the equipment ready to go. Now coaches don’t dirty their hands with menial tasks—they all have assistants and interns.

 

And in a look into his mindset Joe Paterno made sure that any scheduling conflicts in medical appointments went to guys on defense.

The team went 5-5 that year.

 

After beginning the next season 1-2 the team went 31 games without a loss –they lost on October 7, 1967 to #3 UCLA 17-15 and did not lose again until late September of 1970 at Colorado.

 

But an ideal was born…..and the nation started to notice something at Penn State—something that pre-dated Joe Paterno’s first game as Head Coach in 1966.

 

In a letter to a recruit in 1952—when he was an assistant coach for Rip Engle Joe Paterno wrote:

 

“Always remember you can only play football a few years and if all you get out of college is four years of football you are getting cheated. No matter where you decide to go to school make sure you get an education that will enable you to live a happy and well-rounded life.”

 

19 Years later he spoke out against the lack of emphasis on education in a 1971 Washington Post Article—he stated:

 

"We can't be uptight about the pros when we don't care ourselves," he said. "The kid is grossly underpaid for being in the entertainment business if he doesn't graduate. If he does, he's got his money's worth."

 

After the 1972 season the idea that Penn State was unique grew exponentially.

 

In late 1972 and early 1973 The New England Patriots offered Joe Paterno a contract worth roughly $250,000 a year and 8% ownership in the team.

 

It was the largest contract ever offered to a professional sports coach. Keep in mind that the 8% stake would be worth $160 million or so now ..maybe more.

 

$160 million? Maybe he should’ve gone…….

 

He stayed.

 

In the era of Watergate, Vietnam and turbulent times in American history here was a man who stared at the payoff of a lifetime and ultimately decided to stay where he was for a lot less money.

 

He was making about $25,000 a year then and had 5 kids.

 

It reflected on his values certainly, but it also made a statement about Penn State.

 

Everyone around the country started to wonder what was so special about Penn State that could keep someone from taking the money.

 

What was special at Penn State?

 

It was a commitment by the administration and alumni and fans to be part of a program that stood for something bigger, that stood for Ivy League academic ideals in big-time college sports. This was a combination of the intellectual pursuits of ancient Athens with the disciplined approach to life of Sparta.

 

Joe Paterno was a student of the classics, the ancient Romans, the Greeks. He was a student of history and greatly admired figures like Lincoln. He believed in fate and he saw Penn State as his destiny.

 

It was a belief in Joe Paterno’s mind that everyone at Penn State stood on foundations established by people like Coach Bob Higgins and Coach Rip Engle but also great Penn State Presidents like Atherton and Eric Walker.

 

It continued to build with Athletic Directors like Jim Tarman and Tim Curley and with Presidents like Bryce Jordan, Joab Thomas and Graham Spanier.

 

It was a belief that the faculty, staff and administration could build a football program that could drive the reputation of the University ever skyward. It had happened at Notre Dame. College Football done the right way would be the front porch of Penn State University—a place featured on 3-hour television broadcasts.

 

It still matters now.

 

Don’t believe me? Look at how Alabama is leveraging their current football success. Applications are sky-high, SAT scores are rising, they now have a student body that is over 50% from out of state.  

 

I just spent a week at the Jersey shore and saw Alabama flags on houses, hats and t-shirts---and this is on the Jersey shore not the Redneck Riviera on the Gulf Coast.

In the 1970s Penn State had an amazing decade and a near miss for a National Title in 1978. But the near miss only drove the program to reach higher.

 

Penn State scheduled intersectional games for the 1980s against Alabama, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Miami, Iowa, Texas A&M, Texas and Missouri.

 

That approach led to the 1982 National Championship—the first team ever to win a National Title while playing the nation’s toughest schedule.

 

A few weeks after that National Title Joe Paterno addressed the University’s Board of Trustees and challenged them to push aggressively to increase endowments, fund raising and scholarships for worthy students.

 

It was a challenge to compete at a new level in Academics across the board at Penn State—to reach for a destiny to place the school among the Top Public institutions of higher learning not only in the country but also the world.

 

The seeds for Penn State’s first big fundraising campaign in the 1980s were planted that day.

Penn State’s endowment that year stood at $17 million. Today it is over $2 Billion.

 

It was a stand he was willing to take.

 

Taking stands was just part of his nature.

 

In 1983 while the NCAA was considering tougher academic standards for freshmen to be eligible to play college sports Joe Paterno was one of the few college coaches to argue in favor of TOUGHER standards.

 

On the floor of the NCAA Convention he called out the system. There were many who called the new proposal unfair because of its reliance on the SAT; a test labeled by some as culturally biased against Black students.

 

Joe heard that criticism but he stated it was time to challenge the high schools to start getting young men and women prepared for the challenges that awaited them in college. He stated that we had used an entire generation of black athletes and had not educated them.

 

He was criticized for that stand by some coaches who wanted to keep the laissez-faire status quo and others who feared tougher standards, He stood his ground. The legislation passed and now 30 years later it has proved to be a success.

 

In 1988 two years after winning another National Title he stood on the floor of the GOP Convention to second the nomination for George H W Bush.

 

He talked about the people that had been left behind in this country, the people in our inner-cities—he talked about giving them hope to dream the same dreams his family dreamed.

 

He talked about “Quiet Dignified Confidence” as opposed to “Bravado”

 

Well 50 years after his first game the lessons of Quiet Dignified Confidence over Bravado are lessons to be learned all over again in college football.

 

This generation of athletes has been raised in the Era of “BIG ME”—it is an era of Selfies, Vines, Instagram, Snapchat and Periscope…all the pictures and videos starring “Me Myself and I”…

 

Bravado over quiet dignified confidence.

 

And college coaches pander to that. We build over the top facilities. Money and resources are thrown into bells and whistles not into the things that will give the student-athletes the best chance to train and compete.

 

It is smoke and mirrors, it is a hustle.

 

What, after all, do laser tag, bowling lanes, barber chairs and a miniature golf course have to do with academics or football? Those are things that will reportedly be included in Clemson’s Football facility.

 

The danger is that we create an existence, a fortress unto itself that further isolates the players from their fellow students. It can create an even bigger sense of the already outsized over-importance to the overall mission of football within an academic institution.

 

Recruiting has become an ends unto itself—and that only plays into the “BIG ME” mentality. And recruiting has become all-consuming and some say negative.

 

There are complaints about negative recruiting. But that’s always been around.

 

Throughout his career Joe Paterno was called many things by rival coaches in recruiting—everything from too old, too conservative, a phony and even a racist by one coach still in the game who was an assistant at another school who is now a head coach.

 

That was just part of it. We told recruits that we didn’t get into that stuff because we had too many great things to tout at our own school. Joe Paterno also argued that if a recruit was scared away by what we asked them to do—who wanted them?

 

It was just another example of self-selection in recruiting. This is who we are, this is what sets us apart, we are going to ask you to do more, to do things the hard way but the rewards will be greater.

 

That attitude attracted a caliber of young men that were willing to be part of the Grand Experiment and chased away others who did not want that challenge.

 

Yes times do change and yes maybe short-sighted people with no sense of history argue that those ideals are in the past and they are not what the recruits today want.

 

That is a blanket statement that generalizes all recruits and is a silly rationalization for ignoring tradition.

 

Over the last 7 years of his career—the Grand Experiment was still proving its worth. Penn State had the 6th-best record in the country but more importantly was the ONLY school in the country to graduate over 77% of our players and win over 77% of our games—THE ONLY ONE.

 

But look around college football---you know who is big into the Old School approach? Ohio State, Alabama, Michigan State, Stanford, Iowa.…don’t tell me that Old School is over..

 

But it comes back to what the Grand Experiment was about. It was "TEAM FIRST" over "BIG ME".  It was about men and women from coaches to professors who asked young men to grow up—rather than act like kids so the players would like them.

 

In Joe Paterno’s files was an article he kept that was written on parenting by a man who worked with young men who were in the juvenile correction system.

 

Two of the most important statements said:

 

“Don’t blow your class. Stay on that pedestal. Don’t try to dress or dance or talk like us. You embarrass us and you look ridiculous.”

 

“Call our bluff. Make it clear you mean what you say. Don’t compromise. And don’t be intimidated by our threats to leave home or drop out of school. Stand up to us and we’ll respect you. Kids don’t want everything they ask for.”

 

To Joe Paterno these points were a bullseye on what it meant to be a parent and a coach. It went back to what he once told me “When you become a parent you are only as happy as your least happy child.”

 

But a happy child is not made by pandering, not made by giving them all they want. Rather a happy child is the one who learns the lessons that will make it possible for them to attain excellence the right way.

 

Joe Paterno reminded me that every player was someone’s child and that child’s happiness was in our hands. We had an obligation to take that responsibility seriously and strive to educate these young men.

 

Our goal was to make sure they left Penn State as better people than when they arrived.

 

That ultimately was the aim of The Grand Experiment and 50 years later we can see the Golden Legacy of those 50 years---We see that the Grand Experiment was an astounding success.

 

Last night I spoke to some alums at Penn State and I got a question that I’d never heard before. A man asked me: “If the university ever honors Joe Paterno what do you think he would want them to do?”

 

It was a great question. My answer was that Joe would want to recognize all the people who did things the right way—student-athletes, coaches, professors, administration—so many people including all of you in this room. You were all part of the journey for him and he relished that.

 

Ultimately the Grand Experiment was the vision of a man named Paterno—a name that means Fatherly in Italian. The vision of that Father figure to his players and generations of Penn Staters was accomplished by the work of so many. It is time for that lesson to once again be recognized for the truth and as an example to everyone in college athletics as a way forward in changing times.

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© 2014 Jay Paterno