2 Years Ago: My Evening With Joe Paterno and Our “Official” Visit

The first weekend in December is a big “official visit” date for Penn State: finally, the red-carpet is rolled out for all of the recruits and their families. Prior to that, NCAA rules prohibit any expenses paid out on behalf of recruits for meals or lodging. THIS weekend is all about the wow-factor…nothing but the best. Free lodging in the Nittany Lion Inn, free meals, and meetings with the coaches and academic staff.

Who would have ever in a million years that in just two short years that all could end so tragically? Joe Paterno has been systematically scrubbed from Penn State. While the purpose of this post is to take a peek behind the scenes at a recruiting weekend when Joe ran the show, I will say that not even mentioning him this year at Beaver Stadium was kind of a joke, right? I mean, really…if you can’t give a tribute to Joe Paterno in the safest place in the world to give one…wow. Still ticks me off at what a bunch of PC-cowards are in charge down there.

Okay. What was it like?

Heidi and I arrived at the Lasch Football Building at around 3:30 PM on Friday afternoon. We were signed in and taken with the other recruits and their families to Holuba Hall (the h-u-g-e indoor practice facility) to watch the team practice. Within a few minutes, we had our first JoePa sighting.

There he was: this little, hunched-over Italian guy wearing a coat that looked two sizes too large, wandering through the middle of the field staring at some notes he was holding. At first, I felt bad because he looked like he was reading those notes like he needed directions to his office or something. I would find out later that Joe always carried his hand-written notes around with him to keep himself on task. He made his way over to us, introduced himself – like THAT was needed – and made a little joke about us bringing the cold weather with us from Erie. I soiled my pants right there.

Later on, we had dinner in the team dining room with the players and the coaches, and the evening ended with a trip on one of the blue buses to Beaver Stadium. The entire ride was narrated wonderfully by a former player, who stood on the steps by the driver:

“When you turn this corner, you’re going to look out of the window and see thousands of people tailgating in the fields around the stadium.”

“When you turn THIS corner, you’re going to see this 85 year-old alum who hasn’t missed a home game in 50 years…he came to see YOU play today.”

“When you turn THIS corner, the crowd is starting to swell…you’ll start hearing the sirens from the police escort in front of you.”

“When you turn THIS corner, you’re going to feel the bus start to shake from the fans that are running next to it and pounding on it.”

“And finally…you’ve arrived at Beaver Stadium, where 3,000 fans are waiting to see you get off the bus. The quarterback is the first one off, which is the symbol that on game day, it’s his team now. Joe exits the bus second, followed by the starting offensive team.”

When we walked into cavernous Beaver Stadium on that cold and clear December evening, they had the stadium lights on, the scoreboard lit up, and crowd noise being piped in through the sound system. It was quite a sight, and quite a feeling to walk through that tunnel. If your tongue is hanging out right now, yes – it was as cool as you would think it would be.

Our long day was over, so we met with the other parents at the bar in the Inn…lot’s of fun meeting each other and sharing stories.

Saturday was spent with academic advisers with the football team, a meeting with your son’s coordinator (ours was Larry Johnson, one focused dude is he) and finally lunch downtown with professors from your son’s declared major. But…the best was yet to come.

Saturday evening was a dressy affair at the Nittany Lion Inn. Coaches and their wives, the recruits and their families, and, of course…Joe.

If I took one single thing away from that weekend, it was this: When Joe Paterno stood up to speak, the room went quiet. Not “any” quiet…Catholic church quiet. Dead silence.

Respect. That’s just the way it was.

Joe thanked all of us for traveling to State College, made a few remarks, and said he was looking forward to seeing us later at his home for cocktails and hors d’oeuvres…he spoke so softly, but was as sharp as a tack. He finished with stating, “That was a pretty good speech…I usually get paid a buck for that. Of course, a buck used to be worth a lot more a few years ago.”  Cute.

At that point – I will never forget this – Jay Paterno shouted out something about Bush being a moron. It was like the most inappropriate thing I ever saw in my life, and may ever see. I watched all of the assistant coaches nervously look at each other and roll their eyes as in…w-o-w. C’mon, Jay…REALLY?  In fairness, Jay DID handle the aftermath of the Sandusky mess with dignity, so maybe his dad kicked his arse so hard that night that he learned his lesson.

Insider information: when you looked around the room, you could have been at Harvard. ALL of the coaches wore navy-blue blazers, striped ties, and shined shoes. Short haircuts, and no facial hair. The wives were decked out in silk dresses, lots of very nice jewelry, very high heels, and had professionally styled hair. It was quite a scene.

Okay,  into the white van driven by our chaperon for the weekend: Mr. Mike McQueary. I am NOT kidding. But, we’re on our way to “Joe and Sue’s.”

Sue Paterno greeted us at the door, welcomed us in, and told us to help ourselves to the food…which she had prepared herself. Now, things get interesting.

Joe Paterno walks up to me – the Guy From Erie – and says, “Hey! It’s FRAN!” He proceeds to drag me around to all of the other coaches, saying “HEY! Fran’s here!” They all laughed, so I did, too. Who the hell was Fran?  It turns out that I have a remarkable resemblance to Fran Fisher, the Penn State radio guy for a thousand years.

As the evening moved on, there was a knock on the door and one of the singing-groups on campus – can’t remember their name – showed up to sing some Christmas carols. Sue invited them into the living room, and we watched as Joe got up and joined in. They finished with “Hail to The Lion,” “Fight on State” and the “alma mater,” with Joe right beside them. I’ll never forget it…here’s the video:

To quote Paul Harvey, here’s The Rest of The Story.”

I pulled Mike McQueary aside and asked him if it would be appropriate to get a photo with Joe. “Not tonight,” he said. “Joe will be at breakfast in the morning with us, and that’s the best time.”

Got it.

About 15 minutes later, Heidi and I were wandering around the house and ended up in the kitchen alone when in walks Joe. Call me an opportunist, but there was NO WAY I wasn’t going to take advantage of this moment. “Joe, can we get a picture?” “Sure.” I handed my camera to someone who was nearby and he snapped away.

The next morning at breakfast, there was a lot of buzz because Penn State just got the Outback Bowl bid at 11:00 PM the night before. It was a BIG deal…Joe comes to breakfast (blazer and tie, of course) and says, “Hey, thanks for coming …Penn State is a GREAT place to play football and get your education from. Hope to see you here as a player!”

That was it. He left.

No pictures. Not one.

In the end, I may have secured the last photo of Joe Paterno at the last “official visit” he ever conducted at Penn State, AND in his kitchen. Eleven months later, he was fired. A few months after that, he was dead.

After our wonderful weekend in Happy Valley, I wrote Joe a letter thanking him for the experience, expecting nothing in return.


About 10 days later, I got a letter from him…he had simply taken my letter and wrote his response across the top.

Somehow, someway…I lost it. Couldn’t find it. Tore apart every bin, drawer, and file cabinet in my house. No-go. For the last year and a half…looked everywhere.

And, today…I found it. It was like a Christmas present, a few weeks early.

I love Penn State, and I love Joe Paterno. His name will be cleared. Justice will run it’s course. He was a good man – not without flaws – but a good man.

And I was lucky enough to meet him.

Not sure if I’m on-board with the long hair and beards…but I understand the new coach had to do what he had to do. Bill O’Brien is like 45 years younger than Joe was, and things do change…but I always loved the Penn State “clean cut” look. It was iconic and set them apart. The day will soon come when you see dreadlocks flying out of a white PSU helmet…sigh. I am getting old.

Here’s a link from that weekend in State College. Lots of photos…I believe the murals/posters of Joe in the football building are gone now, like he never existed. What a shame.

I would have never written this post if the previous staff was still in place, out of respect. Coach O’Brien and his team are now creating their own traditions, as they should. I just thought that some of you might enjoy reading about what recruiting was like under Joe…I am not an expert. This was just my experience.


30 thoughts on “2 Years Ago: My Evening With Joe Paterno and Our “Official” Visit

  1. Like the article. Everything about it. I agree with you 100% about Jay. Was in his class at PSU. Good thing he had a nice father to give him a job, yet he did so much better when his father wasnt there to protect him. Look forward to seeing your son on the field soon. Keep up the good work.

  2. According to Freeh, you meant “Coach”, instead of Joe, right?..LOL
    Thanks for sharing, and I do hope he is cleared someday

  3. thank you for writing this. What a great insight into a PSU recruiting weekend, at least the way it used to be.

  4. BEAUTIFUL!!! Thank you for sharing. The biggest regret of my life is that I will never get to meet my one and only hero but reading all of the wonderful stories of others’ good fortune is the next best thing because your descriptions match so perfectly the way I’ve always imagined He would be. I can’t even imagine the horror of having the letter and not being able to find it. Glad you found it. WE ARE (because He was, is and forever will be) PENN STATE!!!!

  5. It was so nice to read this post. I find the way Joe Paterno was treated by the Penn State BOT nothing less than stunning, heartbreaking, and totally lacking class — the absolute opposite of what Penn State is all about. The whole recruiting experience you portray is wonderful and gives such a great glimpse into what the Paternos were all about.

    My father wrote to Joe years ago when my brother became basketball coach at Penn State — the sort of letter a father writes asking for someone to just look out for his kid because he (the kid) worries too much. Joe responded as he did to you, with a handwritten note on the letter. I found the letter in my dad’s stuff last year just after he died and just about the same time they threw Joe to the wolves. It would have broken dad’s heart to see what has happened, but I’m so encouraged to see pieces like yours that tell the real story.

  6. Thanks from so many of us . Hopefully justice will prevail for Joe Paterno and his 60+ years of success will be recognized.

  7. Just attended the Senior Banquet honoring the fantastic Senior Class. JOE’S SENIORS. Through out the night many awards were given then three people publicly thanked Joe-Jack Ham, Matt McGloin, & Bill O’brien. The crowd loved it.

    Thanks for the article.

  8. Thanks for sharing this, Phil. A vast majority of us alums believe as you do and refuse to “move on” until Joe is exonerated and honored.

  9. What a great article and just love LOVE LOVE!!)))) the video of Joe and Sue with the singers in their home, no less!! This is a keeper and will be sharing your story and video with everyone!! Thank you, Phil, for the early Christmas present!! Wonderful!! And yes, Joe will be cleared!

  10. Scientific research shows that an offensive lineman with a beard will block better than one without

  11. Wow. What a privilege and this article is such a great tribute. You have also captured many of my feelings on how the memory of Joe is being treated by the University, and moving on to support the current staff and players.

    I think the students and players will make sure the memory of Joe lives on, despite what the “officials” do. They can take down the pictures, haul away the statue, but Joe will always be there.

  12. Such a travesty what happened. Give the man due process. He deserves that. We all deserve that. At least, that’s what I learned at PSU.

  13. Thanks for posting,mthatbwas really nice! Didn’t realize how much I miss Joe until I saw him in the video!

  14. I love this!!! Thank you so much for sharing. I cried reading it. Joe was a huge part of my life. His beliefs and morals became mine. My heart, spirit, and support will always be with him.

  15. Thank you for sharing this. While I never had the same opportunity to meet Joe, I have admired him for as long as I can remember (circa 1967). I agree with you that the truth will not be denied the opportunity to shine through.

    Your found gift is now all of ours.

    Merry Christmas

  16. This is an awesome story. Thanks for sharing. JoePa WILL be vindicated someday AND the Lion will R-O-A-R ! ! !

  17. A wonderful story to share so close to the Holidays! We are so Penn State proud at our home and it is always wonderful to hear of others who will never forget what Joe has done for us! I do believe his name will be cleared because he would never have done something to hurt kids! He was a man of great dignity!

  18. Wow….thank you so much for sharing! It just re-inforces the love and admiration I have for the Paterno’s and the legacy he left us. I remember going to Penn State with my dad as a child….then taking my children and then my grandson….and we always looked for the one constant…..Joe Paterno. I loved watching the video…..I used to sing the songs to my daughter as a baby….it would always calm her down. There will never be another JoePa.

  19. All of your comments touched me more deeply than you will ever know. I had been chewing on this article for a few months, and when I saw that this past weekend was “official visit” weekend AND I found “the letter”…Alea iacta est…”the die is cast.” One of Joe’s favorite Latin phrases he used after the final practice before the big game. As bad as we all feel, I can’t even imagine the pain that Joe’s family is still going through…keep the faith, and thank you all. Rest in peace, Joe.

  20. Thanks for sharing. The video brings back memories. I had many contacts with Joe over the years as I spent 34 years working at the University. I recall many years ago, spending an evening similar to your’s at the Paterno home. Keep the Faith, WE ARE —PENN STATE

  21. Thank you for writing this – I cried, of course, at the video of Joe. I do agree with you, that “His name will be cleared. Justice will run it’s course. He was a good man – not without flaws – but a good man.” We alums were privileged to have known him.

  22. Thanks for sharing the video. I too was born in Erie but with great fortune, moved to State College in 1970(45 year season ticket holder!). There will never be another like our JoePa and I thank my blessings I was able to witness close up the wonderful qualities Joe and Sue have shown us thru the years. We should all strive to be like him. Thanks again!!

  23. Pingback: Meeting Joe Paterno | The Lion's Den

  24. I met JoePa at a local campus reception when Joe was in Wilkes-Barre to speak at a sports banquet. He posed graciously with my wife and I, and I have proudly displayed the photograph in our house since the day I received it. Joe was a non-assuming personality who always wore his heart on his sleeve. He was as good as his word – and that was ALWAYS good. My brother at a conference at Penn State was in a long line to pay for his breakfast at the Nittany Lion Inn when in walks Joe who picked up a newspaper and walked to the end of the line and waited his turn to pay for it. Here was a man who could have taken a paper without paying for it and no one would have batted an eye. But Joe not only had to pay for the paper, he waited at the line’s end to do so – even though many offered to let him go first. This is not the action of an arrogant man full of himself with a sense of entitlement or power. That simply wasn’t Joe. And no matter what the naysayers portray, I will NEVER be convinced that Joseph Vincent Paterno was anything but an honest and honorable man, incapable of knowingly doing that which by innuendo he is said to have done. The Trustees that fired him have done a miscarriage of justice in taking such drastic punitive actions so prematurely. The truth will surely come out, and JoePa will be cleared of the lies spread about him.

  25. What a heart warming story! Thanks for sharing with all of us tried & true faithful supporters of JoePa and the legacy he created at our beloved Penn State… I, too, believe that the truth will prevail & the “real” cover-up conspiracy will be revealed…

    We STILL Are… Penn State PROUD!!!

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