In his pressed green cardigan and thin blue tie, it’s hard to imagine Joe Paterno as someone who was ever poor. Here he sits, talking to the media about what it means to win 408 games. He has done this weekly press conference hundreds of times. It might be hard to imagine him as poor; it’s even harder to imagine him as a young Brooklyn boy, even though he hasn’t seemed to age more than a couple years in his 84 on this earth.
But there was a time when he was both poor and young, a time when he didn’t have a pressed green cardigan and a thin blue tie. A well-known Paterno story recalls how he once walked into a fraternity party as a student at Brown in an old white sweater because he had nothing else to wear and he was poor. They laughed at him. How could they have known how great he would become?
Seven years before the beginning of Paterno’s life, another great man would be born in the middle of Mississippi to parents whose occupations were relics of the era of slavery in the United States. The father, a sharecropper, worked a white man’s fields for little profit of his own to support his son. His mother, a housekeeper, scrubbed, dusted, and swept to provide some money on the side. If Paterno was poor, they were dirt poor. Fittingly, dirt made up the field their son would hold practice on years later.
Their son, Eddie Robinson, would grow up to become one of the greatest college coaches of all time. How could anyone have known how great he would become?
How could anyone know how great they would both become? But here they are; and after Saturday’s contest with Northwestern, the two might have 816 wins between them. With a win this Saturday at Northwestern, Joe Paterno has a chance to tie Eddie Robinson’s coaching career win total at 408. Of course, some discredit Robinson’s win total, saying that it was done in the "small time" and that Robinson would have never been able to do it at the next level, like Joe has.
Maybe this is true, but in his time, African Americans were not allowed on many squads, let alone allowed to be their head coach. Robinson was just working in the system afforded to him by his era -- and he worked very, very hard. According to a 1985 Sports Illustrated article, the Grambling athletic department was so poor that Robinson had to "mow the football field, mark the lines, drill the drill squad, tape ankles, drive the injured to the doctor and write the game story for the local papers."
Robinson built his program quite literally with his bare hands; Paterno, with wins. Paterno’s 35-7 record in his first four years led to the first expansion in 1969, and then again in 1972, and again in 1976, and so on, until the stadium was more than double its original size. Their hard work to win and build a successful program was not all they had in common, though.
Robinson spent his entire coaching career at one place, just like Joe. Robinson coached 56 years at Grambling; Paterno, 62 at Penn State. Paterno was once the athletic director at Penn State; Robinson was essentially the athletic director at Grambling, coaching multiple sports, making schedules and tending fields. Both were men with big ideas: Paterno, with his "Grand Experiment" at Penn State to prove athletes could be students just as well as athletes; and Robinson, with his tireless work to create a place where African Americans could play football and get an education in the Jim Crow south.
Paterno has even won the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year award three times. If you didn’t know it, they could be twins. Of course, one is black and the other white; but that doesn’t take into account that in Paterno’s book, Paterno: By The Book, he stated he wished he was black so he could fight more effectively for the equality of his African American players.
Both Paterno and Robinson worked to further the civil rights movement. At many schools, African Americans were not allowed on the squad, let alone get playing time. It took Alabama until 1970 to allow its first black player on the team -- Eddie Robinson had been coaching black players at Grambling for 29 years before that. Paterno had faced discrimination of his own in Brooklyn as an Italian, and because of this, he identified with the plight of African Americans during the Civil Rights movement. Paterno’s mother instilled the attitude necessary within him that would help him build up his black players. "If you came home and someone had called you a Wop," Paterno once said, "she used to say, ‘Every knock’s a boost.’"
The two even had similar feelings when reaching milestone wins. When describing his feelings on passing Bear Bryant’s career win total of 324, Robinson told his players, "This is a record made of players. It’s a record made up of men like you for the past 40 years." Humble to a fault. Paterno, after winning his 400th, similarly said that, "I've been very, very fortunate. I've had some great kids. When I say great kids, I mean not only my own and my grandkids, but the guys that have played here have just been great."
If we learn nothing else from the stories of Joe Paterno and Eddie Robinson, we learn that greatness can come from anywhere. It can come from dirty old Flatbush, Brooklyn; it can come from Nowhere, Mississippi. It can be built on cow fields and it can be built on dirt fields. All it takes is the will to do it and hard work.
Here Joe sits in his thin blue tie and his pressed green cardigan, a rags to riches Brooklyn boy who has risen to the absolute apex of his profession. What does he think of another poor kid who did the same?
"He was a delightful person. He obviously did a fantastic job at Grambling. When you think about when he started, he was 24 years old when he was a head coach. He was really a great guy. When there was no place for the black athlete, what he and Jake Gaither did with Grambling and Florida A&M was something special. I think Eddie was a great guy," Paterno said.
Here’s to you, Mr. Robinson. May you rest in peace.