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Old Man River

Wednesday, October 24, 2007


By Peter Mackie

Like "Old Man River," Joe Paterno just keeps rolling along. The 80-year old Brown Bruin turned Nittany Lion, now in his 58th year of coaching at Penn State, shows little indication of slowing down. A broken leg sustained on the sidelines last season delayed his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame until this December, when Paterno will join seven Hall of Famers with Brown football connections. Among them is his Brown coach and Penn State mentor, Charles A. "Rip" Engle, who was inducted in 1973.

The story of how Engle left College Hill for Happy Valley in 1950, taking Paterno with him for what Joe thought would be an interlude of "a couple of years" before law school, is a familiar one. Rip had learned early on that young Paterno was a born coach, before ever formally being named one. Joe's leadership, brilliance as a play caller, and ability to inspire others caused Engle to comment, "He was like having another coach on the field." After watching his quarterback dissect Harvard's defense in Brown's 28-14 victory in 1949, Engle reflected, "I've coached better runners and better passers, but I've never coached a more heady quarterback."

Joe Paterno's college career began in the fall of 1946, when the skinny Brooklyn Prep graduate entered Brown with his younger brother, George (the elder Paterno had served in the military briefly at the end of World War II). The brothers had torn up New York area gridirons, earning the nickname "Gold Dust Twins" in the New York press.

At Brown, Joe was initially used as a halfback, but Engle moved him to a backup quarterback role in 1947, where he played behind Brown Hall of Famer Ed Finn for two seasons. Paterno initially made his mark via his defensive prowess, helping the Bruins' record to improve dramatically (7-2 in his junior year). In particular, one quick thinking Paterno play helped pave the way for a last second 23-20 win at Princeton. With under a minute to play, and the score tied, the Tigers punted from their four-yard line. The alert Paterno called for a fair catch, a rarely used tactic in that era, stopping the clock, and enabling the Bruins to move in for a last second field goal by Joe "The Toe" Condon.

Princeton evened the score in 1949, however, when, as Paterno tells it, "A skinny sophomore nobody had ever heard of threw a perfect pass over my head, the score that beat us." That sophomore turned out to be Dick Kazmaier, the great Tiger All-American and Heisman Trophy winner. That game was the only blemish on the 1949 record, causing this team to fall just short of the slogan coined by Athletic Director Paul Mackesey, "Nine for nine in 49."

It was in 1949 that Joe Paterno truly came into his own as a complete two-way player. The '49 team, which became an Eastern power, was blessed with a large number of fun-loving rough and tumble veterans. However, in their final game against underdog Colgate on Thanksgiving Day, things were not going according to plan.

The Bruins trailed the Red Raiders 26-7 with a little more than a period to play. Paterno saved his best for last, engineering one of the greatest comebacks in Brown football history. After telling Rip, "Don't worry coach, we'll get 'em," the fiery Paterno proceeded to challenge his team during a time out. The Bruins exploded scoring 34 unanswered points. Joe moved the team within striking distance with a 40-yard keeper, set up another score with a 45-yard interception, and passed for a third score. Final score: Brown 41-Colgate 26! It was a fitting ending to the Gold Dust twins' Brown careers as they accounted for 222 of Brown's 321 total yards of offense.

Joe Paterno's years at Brown helped pave the way for his remarkable achievements at Penn State. The man of whom the famed sportswriter Stanley Woodward wrote, "Paterno, the Brown quarterback -- he can't run, and he can't pass. All he can do is think and win." Now, more than a half century later, "Joe Pa," as he is affectionately known, is still thinking and winning. A true educator who places academics first, he has made an indelible mark on the game, serving as a beacon of integrity in the sometimes murky waters of "big-time" college football.

Now if he can only avoid those flying bodies while pacing the sidelines, he will be at the Waldorf-Astoria podium in New York on December 4th, not far from where his life began in 1926, just across the Brooklyn Bridge. Joseph Vincent Paterno will receive college football's highest honor, induction into the National Football Foundation College Football Hall of Fame. That proud moment will be shared by Bears and Lions alike.

Peter Mackie is the Brown Football Historian/Sports Archivist for the Edward North Robinson Collection of Brown Athletics