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January 23, 2012

Paterno treated as rock star on recruiting trail

MORE: Forde | Wetzel | BlueWhiteIllustrated

The legend of Joe Paterno, the coach, will be forever etched in the record books but also debated amid the scandal that rocked Penn State over the final months of his life.

However, the legend of Joe Paterno, the recruiter, is one that is less visible but nonetheless is very intriguing. Since the Penn State icon, who died Sunday at age 85, stopped hitting the road to recruit years ago, some of the stories are dated. But they still paint a picture of the man few got to know up close and personal.

Paterno was always battling negative recruiting from other schools regarding his age. For years, other programs would harp on JoePa's age to recruits, telling them there is no way he would be there for all four or five of their college years. One such incident occurred while Paterno was on a recruiting trip to a high school in the Northeast. When he walked into the basketball gym, he was greeted by his recruiting target telling him that other schools had been saying Paterno was too old to coach and that he would be retired by the time he graduated.

That talk had the prospect concerned.

Paterno didn't say a word, according to the prospect. He simply took off his jacket, grabbed the basketball out of the kid's hands and challenged him to a game of one-on-one. Needless to say, Paterno didn't win but he also didn't embarrass himself, and then asked the recruit, who retold the story on the condition his name not be mentioned, if he still felt he was too old to lead him onto the football field. A month later, the prospect signed with Penn State over offers from Miami, USC, Florida, Tennessee, Michigan and others.

The past dozen years, prospects would share their concerns with Paterno that he wouldn't be around for them during their college years. Before the years when Paterno became labeled as an old coach - and before recruiting became the crazy circus it is today - there were the legendary December official visits to Penn State by recruits, which would end with JoePa leading Christmas Carols with his wife, Sue, at his house. According to some college coaches, Paterno's singing became known in recruiting circles as one of the best closing moves in college football. Players and parents would leave Happy Valley committed and still humming "Silent Night".

After those glory years, Paterno constantly battled two things on the recruiting trail, a trail he essentially stopped traveling back in 2008 due to ailing health when he did his last in-home visit with a highly touted Western Pennsylvania quarterback named Terrelle Pryor, a player Paterno lost to Ohio State. Obviously, the first and biggest recruiting hurdle was his age. The second? His apparent lack of a sense of humor. Most recruits were intimidated by Paterno because of his legendary status and no-nonsense approach, and fellow coaches would tell recruits about JoePa's "old school" approach and his avoidance of fun. However, another recruiting story shows the lighter side of the legend.

Back in the mid-2000s, Paterno was making an important in-home visit to try to secure one of the highest-profile prospects in the country. The prospect retold the story to me shortly after the visit, but did not grant permission for his name to be used. Paterno arrived at the home with one of his long-time assistants and spent hours answering questions from the player and family alike regarding Penn State. After departing, Paterno left behind something astonishing and arguably the one thing that people associated him with - his infamous glasses.

The family was dumbfounded and didn't know what to do. Here they were left with this piece of history, the coke bottle-thick spectacles of the legend himself. They called Paterno's assistant and left a message, hoping they would catch him before they got too far to turn around. And then they did what any of us would have done - they tried them on.

The family took turns trying the glasses on and taking pictures, giddy in their chance to wear something so iconic and legendary. JoePa and his assistant got the message, doubled back to get the infamous specs and the family 'fessed up. They even admitted they tried on the glasses and took some pictures, unsure of the reaction they would get. To their surprise, Paterno laughed about it with them and asked for copies when they were available. He then posed for more pictures with the family and went on his way. The player, of course, signed with Penn State and went onto an All-Big Ten career in State College and is currently in the NFL.

Photos are also a part of the Joe Paterno recruiting legend. When he was active on the recruiting trail, he was a celebrity when he walked into a school, forced to pose for pictures with everyone from the player to the head coach to the principal. On one of his final recruiting trips in 2007, Paterno stopped at a small school in Delaware and was mobbed at the entrance by students, teachers and the like. One witness said it was like the Pope arriving - it was that big a deal. Paterno took it all in stride and patiently posed for pictures while making his way toward the head coach's office to actually meet with the recruit.

Paterno was an icon and even players that didn't choose Penn State still have photos with the legend. In fact, a former five-star prospect from 2004 that ended up signing elsewhere randomly texted me a photo of himself, his mother and Paterno posing together at his high school in remembrance. Eight years removed from the recruiting process and yet the photo is still at his fingertips. That's the kind of impact that meeting Paterno had on players.

Over the last few years, interactions with Paterno were much more rare and only on campus as he was unable to do in-home visits as his competition. The use of Skype helped lessen the disadvantage a bit, but if you wanted to meet JoePa in the flesh you had to travel to Happy Valley to do so, and you'd eventually end up at the Paterno household. One signee from a recent class remembers being at the Paterno home and the phone ringing. Sue picked it up and it happened to be former Nittany Lion and NFL great Franco Harris on the other end, checking in to see how JoePa was doing. Innocently Sue offered the phone to the recruit, who was excited to get a chance to talk to one legend while visiting the house of another.

Before the phone exchange occurred JoePa jumped up, grabbed the phone and exclaimed "that would be a violation!" and quickly ushered Franco off the line. He didn't move like an 80-plus-year-old man then and his adherence to the rules impressed the recruit, who eventually signed with Penn State.

Even during those last few years when he wasn't the same JoePa all the time, numerous prospects remember him as very sharp, energetic and enthusiastic. It wasn't until this past recruiting year did prospects begin to remark about his failing health. Yet, still top recruits were committing to the Nittany Lions on a regular basis as always, looking forward to suiting up for a legend.

Joe Paterno will be remembered for many things. The records, the wins, the contributions to Penn State and college football overall. He'll also be remembered for not doing enough during the worst scandal in college football history. But in recruiting circles, at least to those who have been around long enough to follow him during his vibrant days, he will be remembered as a legend whose appearances at schools and in homes, including his own, were viewed as a brush with greatness.



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