How Joe Paterno helped to racially integrate college football

Former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, who passed away on Sunday morning at age 85, will have a very difficult legacy to define. While his coaching resume was nearly above reproach, it was his ouster that will remain fresh in the minds of the country.

“He fought hard until the end, stayed positive, thought only of others and constantly reminded everyone of how blessed his life had been,” Paterno’s family said in a statement released to the media. “He died as he lived.”

For 46 years as a head coach, Paterno was at the helm as the Nittany Lions became a perennial powerhouse, amassing a Division I record 409 wins, 38 winning seasons, 24 bowl victories, three Big Ten Championships, and two National Championships. Paterno was also a proponent of college football having a playoff and pressed for the Big Ten to become the first major college conference to have instant replay during games.

One part of his career that has been lost among his accomplishments, however, is that many of his early teams were at the forefront of racial integration in college football. When Paterno came to Penn State as an assistant in 1950, he was a part of one of the first major college programs in the country that openly welcomed black players on to the team, even if the town of State College was not as welcoming.

Penn State started admitting blacks in the 1940s. Running back Wally Triplett was the school’s first black Varsity player, starting for Penn State from 1946 to 1949, and was one of three blacks recruited to the school that eventually led to having one of the largest groups of black players in the country by the mid-50s.

Triplett and defensive end Dennie Hoggard were on the team in 1946 when Penn State was set to play at the University of Miami. At the time, Miami did not allow black players in its stadium.

Penn State met as a time and refused to leave Triplett and Hoggard behind, and forced Miami to cancel the game. The move began a movement among the southern colleges to oppose racial segregation.

The following year, Penn State was set to face Southern Methodist University in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. SMU begged the state of Texas to set aside its segregation rule to allow the game to go forward.
Since Dallas-area hotels were segregated, Penn State voted to stay at a nearby air force base in Grand Prairie. In the game, which ended in a 13-13 tie, Triplett caught the tying touchdown pass.

“Penn State was responsible, along with SMU, for tearing down the bias in the ‘40s,” Triplett, told the Dallas Morning News in 2010. Triplett went on to become the first Black player to be drafted by and play for an NFL team with the Detroit Lions in 1949.

When Rip Engle — Paterno’s predecessor and former college coach at Brown — took over in 1950, he and the coaching staff placed an emphasis on recruiting and starting black players. By 1953, Penn State had four black players in the starting lineup: Rosie Grier, Jesse Arnelle, Lenny Moore, and Charlie Blockson.

In 1954, Grier, Arnelle, and Moore became the first blacks to play a game in Ft. Worth against TCU (The team, thanks to Jim Crow, had to stay at a ranch 15 miles away). In 1959, offensive lineman Charlie Jannerette became the first black to play against all-white Alabama.

Paterno took over as the head coach in 1966 and ran into similar issues in 1969. With Penn State staring down a potential National Championship Cotton Bowl match-up, this time against the all-white University of Texas, instead of bringing his team down to Dallas again, the school opted for the Orange Bowl in Miami instead.

Paterno’s teams were long-regarded for their academic performance off the field as well as the high percentage of black players that graduated from the school. Penn State ranked number one in the New America Foundation’s Academic BCS teams in 2009 and 2011 — Paterno’s final season — graduating 80 percent of its football players in six years or less.

The rankings also showed no achievement gap between its black and white players, which New America noted is extremely rare for Division I-A football teams. The criteria of the rankings included the team’s graduation rate compared to the rest of university, the difference between the graduation rate of black players and the rest of the team, and the graduation rate differences between the black players and students.

While the details of the Jerry Sandusky scandal are unnerving and disturbing, and Paterno’s lack of action in what went on led to his dismissal after 46 years, he was apart of a program that helped change the landscape of college sports. Penn State, along with schools such as Michigan State and Southern California, was at the forefront in fully desegregating college football.

Unfortunately, the legacy of the late Joe Paterno will be greatly tarnished by the actions of Jerry Sandusky and the institutional cover-up that brought him down. It will also lead to stories such as his role in recruiting blacks to Penn State and his other accomplishments being lost due to the scandal.

Follow Jay Scott Smith on Twitter at @JayScottSmith

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