Brown alumnus and football legend Joe Paterno ’50 died on Sunday from complications related to lung cancer. Though primarily a fixture of Pennsylvania State University, Paterno started out as a bookish, isolated undergraduate at Brown, where he served as quarterback for the Bears and graduated with a degree in English. JoePa’s successful football program at Penn State bolstered his reputation as a Ivy League-educated, Virgil-quoting scholar-coach, but he never forgot his experience at Brown, and spent his career trying to catch up to the WASP society that excluded him.
Distinguished by Italian features and a thick accent, Paterno was quickly sorted out of Brown’s social scene. Some fifty years later, as Frank Fitzpatrick details in his 2005 biography of Paterno, the nationally recognized football coach still remembered the slight:
“I walked into a calm sea of blue blazers, sharkskin suits, and Harris Tweeds,” [Paterno] later wrote, “I knew I had blown something when all those cool-eyed faces turned toward me and my sweater, slowly, so as not to tip and spill their stemmed glasses that seemed to hold nothing but clear water, except for an olive in each. I heard somebody whisper, ‘How did that dago get invited?’ . . .”
His exclusion from Brown’s patrician society was apparently so wounding that Paterno almost let his residual anger steer his coaching career. An offer from owner Billy Sullivan to train the New England Patriots for 1.4 million dollars—enough to buy some WASP respectability—tempted Paterno to defect from Happy Valley:
The prospect of owning a vacation home somewhere along that sixty-five-mile-long, hook-shaped sliver of sand where the New England Brahmins had summered forever held a powerful allure . . .
That’s why Sullivan tempted him so. It wasn’t just the salary he knew he could demand. Or the piece of the team he’d been promised. It was all that being wealthy in New England implied. Paterno had grown up living in rented homes. Now he could own not just a home, but the Cape Cod retreat that ‘every rich Yankee kid I’d met at Brown assumed was coming to him, the same as inheriting his dad’s club membership.’
That was 1972. He wound up staying. After taking Penn State’s trifling salary (some 100,000 dollars), Paterno was confirmed as a hero of small-time sports. The success of his Nittany Lions would be the only match for Paterno’s celebrity.
Predictably, his newfound status assuaged his resentment toward his Brown classmates. “As his prominence grew,” Fitzpatrick writes, “old classmates began to contact him or bring their children and grandchildren to visit him in State College. The coach suddenly became an active and involved alumnus.”
By the time graduate assistant Mike McQueary reported Jerry Sandusky in 2002, Paterno had accumulated a treasure chest of recognitions from his alma mater:
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