“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”
When I visit Joe Paterno’s gravesite, as I have done on occasion over the last two years when I’m in need of some ethereal inspiration or peace, I’m always struck by the above line from Robert Browning on his headstone. The message speaks to the profound impact of Paterno as an academic visionary, and there’s a specific moment that comes to mind when I think of it.
It was just days after the school’s first football National Championship, and Joe Paterno was invited to speak at the Board of Trustees meeting. Most people were expecting him to ask for more funding for football resources or to talk about the successful season. Instead, Paterno delivered a speech critical of the Board’s reactionary and conservative governing style (as much as things change…) and pushed the trustees to launch a serious fundraising campaign to strengthen academic units and bring in world class professors. It was a bold move for a football coach — at his first Board meeting ever no less — to call out his bosses to use the momentum from football’s recent success to build a better university. This speech led to “The Campaign for Penn State” and the fundraising excellence we have today.
As a friend of mine put it, the vision and passion at work in reality can be so striking and so rare that we end up creating legend to describe them later, because from a distance it seems like they were otherworldly experiences—so rare were they amidst the ‘Sleepy Hollow’ that forms most of our daily lives. In some paradoxical cases, mythical greatness is first born of actual greatness.
I bring this up today because, as you probably know, it is the two year anniversary of Joe Paterno’s death. It also happens to be the anniversary of, in my estimation, one of the most important speeches in Penn State history. Rather than write another column — it’s been done already, of course — I’ll let Joe Paterno’s words from 31 years ago today stand for themselves.
As visionary as they were at the time, they’re still relevant as ever today.
Joe Paterno’s Speech to the BOT following his first National Championship
Delivered January 22, 1983 (29 years, to the day, before he passed away)
“I very much appreciate those words. You know this is the first Board meeting I have ever been to in 33 years so if I look a little shocked and scared, bear with me, I really do appreciate this. I would hope maybe on this occasion since I’ve never addressed a Board meeting, to maybe share some thoughts with you as to where we are and what I hope we can get done here at the University. It pleases me, obviously, to happen to be part of the Number One football team. I am pleased also that it happened at this time in Dr. Oswald’s career that he could leave feeling that he finally got it done. Having been a former coach, he knows how tough it is to get on top of the pile and everything else. It pleases me in a lot of ways. But after having said that, and I’m going to be very frank with you, and I may say some things here that maybe I should not, but it does give me an opportunity to tell you how I feel and what I want to do and what kind of contributions I’d like to make to this institution as I stay on. You know, obviously, all of us are disappointed in the newspaper reports that some of our academic departments are not rated very high. That bothers me. It bothers me to see Penn State football be Number One and then to pick up a newspaper several weeks later and we find we don’t have many of our disciplines rated up there with the other institutions in the country. I want to share just a couple of things with you and I hope you’ll understand where I’m coming from.
“I think this is a magic time for Penn State. Dr. Oswald has said this, and I have felt it, and I think he is probably more attuned to it than anybody. There has never been a time when Penn State has been more united or proud. Now maybe it’s unfortunate that it takes a Number One football team to do that. I don’t think we can lose the opportunities that this moment presents to us, and I don’t mean in athletics. I’m not even concerned about the athletic aspects of where we are, I think we can handle that and make sure that we can maintain the kind of teams that you people like to see and you can be proud of and identify with the type of students and the type of football players we get. But I think we have got somehow to start right now. I think Dr. Oswald came to us at a time that we absolutely had to retrench in some areas and he has done a magnificent job for us. I for one want to thank him for what he has done for intercollegiate athletics. We would not be Number One in athletics if it had not been for his cooperation. Every time I ever went to him he never said no to me. I’d like to be on record as having said that. Maybe once in a while there has been somebody in between us that has not presented my case accurately, but anytime I have had an opportunity to sit with him and discuss some things that we needed, he’s never said no to me. I don’t think we’d be where we are if it hadn’t happened that way. But I go back to a fact that we are in a national situation that I have never felt as I have felt now.
“I have been all over the country in the last few weeks. I have been in Florida, been in California, I’ve been in airports in Chicago and Atlanta, you name it, and I’ve been there recruiting and doing some other things trying to capitalize on the position that you have when you’ve had success and trying to make some corrections in what we have and the abuses of the intercollegiate program. Some of the thoughts that I have expressed–and I don’t mean to make this a testimonial of Dr. Oswald–but he was one of the people that came up with the ideas that we had to raise the level for scholarship. He was one of the Council of the American Council of Education, one of the select committee, that came up with the standards that we proposed out on the Coast and I’ve gotten a lot of publicity for having made some speeches out there, but it was Dr. Oswald and some other college Presidents who got together and proposed those standards. But everywhere I’ve gone I’ve heard nothing but, ‘boy, Penn State, Penn State, what a great bunch of people, what a great institution,’ and all of those things.
“So we do have a magic moment and we have a great opportunity, and I think we have got to start right now to put our energies together to make Penn State not only Number One, but I think we’ve got to start to put our energies together to make this a Number One institution by 1990. I don’t think that’s an unfounded or a way-out objective. I think we need some things. I talk to you now as a faculty member. I talk to you as somebody who has spent 33 years at Penn State, who has two daughters at Penn State, who probably will have three sons at Penn State, who has a wife that graduated from Penn State, who has two brother-in-laws that graduated from Penn State, and I talk to you as somebody I think who knows a little bit about what’s going on. Who has recruited against Michigan, Stanford, UCLA, who has recruited against Notre Dame, Princeton, Yale, and Harvard and who has had to identify some things that they have that are better than we have and has had to identify some of our problems. I talk to you as somebody that I think knows a little bit about what’s going on in the other guys, and I think a little bit about what’s going on here. We need chairs. We need money so that we can get some stars. We need scholarship money. We need scholarship money to get scholars who can be with the stars so that the stars will come in and have some people around that can stimulate them and they can be stimulated by the stars. We need a better library–better libraries would be a better way to put it–so that the stars and the scholars have the tools to realize their potential. We need an environment of dissent and freedom of speech and freedom to express new and controversial ideas. Basically, this Board is in a lot of ways reactionary because you are more conservative than anything else. That is not a criticism of you as individuals, but I think that’s a fair criticism of The Pennsylvania State University Board of Trustees for the 33 years that I have known them going back to Jim Milholland who was acting Chairman and President when I first came. We need more controversy, we need more freedom, we need more people to come to us with different ideas, we need more minorities. I am constantly fighting the battle, ‘we don’t have enough blacks; we don’t have enough minorities’ everywhere I go, and I don’t have the answers to it, but I’m giving you some impressions. We can’t be afraid, too reactionary to new and disturbing ideas; however, we can’t do some of the things all at once. I think that Dr. Oswald and the new President and Ted Eddy, our Provost, have got to sit down–I’m probably not speaking in turn, I’m probably way out of whack, I’m probably on a page that I probably shouldn’t be on but I feel so strongly about it I want to say it–to sit down and put down some priorities. We have some excellent departments. And I know because when I get out in the field we have some excellent departments that can be absolutely outstanding in a relatively short time. We also have some departments that are absolutely lousy and we have lazy profs who are only concerned with tenure and only concerned with getting tenure for some of their mediocre colleagues.
“Alright, now I’m telling you how I feel about it and I may be all wet. But I’ve dealt with all of them, and a lot of these latter groups. Some of these people in the latter group would make Happy Valley Sleepy Hollow if we let them. It’s certainly not invigorating. We’ve got a new President and I think that he and Dr. Oswald need to sit down and have to probably make some tough decisions.
“Pirandello, the brilliant Italian playwright–I suppose brilliant and Italian is redundant–wrote a play ‘Six Characters in Search of an Author’, in which the characters of an unfinished play come to life and then they try to finish the play. Well, I believe that Penn State has not necessarily all of a sudden come to life. That would be an unfair criticism of all of the great things that have been done here in the 33 years that I have been here. But I think it’s more alive today than at any time in 33 years that I’ve been here. I think it’s well organized, and I think it’s got thrust and wants to pursue. It’s alive but it’s looking. I think we are not looking for bricks and mortar–and most of you people are businessmen–and we are not looking for GSA money. I think we are looking for the soul of this institution. The soul may be an overstatement, but I’m not sure I’m overstating the case. I think we’re literally looking for a soul. Who we are, what we are, and I think that basically comes down to soul. We need to find out soul. We need vibrant, aggressive, brilliant teachers and scholars. We have some, but we don’t have enough of them and that’s why we need chairs. We need to give them the resources to grow and the freedom to challenge some of the old ideas and old conceptions that have made this country backward in a lot of ways, and have made this state the one with the highest unemployment of any state in the northeast part of the country.
“I’m a football coach. I sit down with my staff and I look at our schedule and our squad and we say this is what we want to do and this is what we can do. And then we set priorities and make decisions as to how we can achieve our objectives. We put a plan together and we stick with it. We don’t jump from one plan to the other and we bust our butt to get it done. And that’s what has to be done with Penn State in the ‘80s. We can’t wait. It would be nice to say we can wait and in three years put together a major fund-raising campaign. We can’t wait. I am only telling you that as somebody who’s in the field. We can only hold up our finger as Number One for six more months and then we have to play the game again and we may not be Number One. Six short months to capture this magic moment. We have got to raise $7 to $10 million bucks as far as I’m concerned in the next six months or we are going to lose some things and an opportunity we have. How do you go about raising $7 to $10 million is somebody else’s concern. I’m willing to help in any way I can. We need $7 to $10 million in the next six months to get us the impetus that we need because we don’t want to lose it. I think we’ve got to take this magic moment and stick it in a jar and we’ve got to preserve it until we open it up in 1990.
“Dr. Eddy, the other day at an alumni meeting down at Pittsburgh where we had over a thousand people in Allegheny County. Stan was there and some of the others were there and the next night we went to Westmoreland County where we had over 580 people and they turned away 300 people. There is a great group out there right now wanting to get involved in it. Dr. Eddy said it the other night better than I can. He said, and he almost sounded like a football coach, we have a great chance and challenge to make our University Number One in many areas and in coming together to do it we may find out we will have as much fun doing it as we had fun doing it in New Orleans. It was a very moving speech and it hit home. I have had a lot of people come to me wanting to know how they can help. I said to you I have given 33 years, two daughters, and probably three sons to Penn State. I am ready to help where I can to make “Number One” mean more than when we stick that finger up it’s only football. We are losing a great President; we’re starting a new era. As Jim Tarman said the other night, we are fortunate that where we are that we’ve been able to get there our way. We’ve not cheated, I mean not deliberately, you never know with that thick rule book. We’ve done it with people who legitimately belong in college. We’ve set a standard in one area that I think created a challenge for us to reach in all of our areas. You are the people who are going to have to help us do it. There are a lot of us that want to get on with it.
“So, thank you very much for this wonderful resolution. I’m moved. I think you know how much I love this institution and how much I appreciate what it has meant to me and my family for 33 glorious years. 33 years of a great love affair that I have had with this place in this town. I have no regrets. I’m only anxious to get on with some other things to make it even bigger and better, not in a sense of size, but in the context of quality and influence in this country and in some of the things that I think it’s important for a major institution of this size to do. So, thank you very much. I hope I didn’t bore you with it too long.”