I’ve been saying for years that while Joe Paterno is chronologically 83 years old, he only gets called old when his detractors have a criticism. JoePa hasn’t been old since the Orange Bowl win in 2006, but it seems to some he is getting old again. I’m finding it increasingly difficult to find an article on Penn State football that doesn’t reference Paterno’s age or start bringing up examples. I’ve heard these sorts of rumbles before; a cornucopia of rehashings of four years ago when JoePa sprinted off the field in the middle of the game at Ohio State because he had to go to the bathroom. Then’s there’s two years ago when his bad hip wouldn’t allow him to stand on the sidelines.
These calls of “Joe is old” always come from those who have wanted the elder statesman of college football to step aside; those calls peaked in concert with Penn State’s struggles at the beginning of the decade, waned with the resurgence of the Nittany Lions in the middle of the decade, and his incapability of walking the sidelines for games is now furthering them. Paterno’s defenders, such as myself, point out that Penn State is coming off consecutive 11-win seasons for the first time since 1985-1986, and is facing a schedule in 2010 making Penn State the first team to face three teams that won BCS bowls (Ohio State, Iowa, and Alabama) in the previous season. That doesn’t look or sound like the doings of an “old” man.
Then I saw Paterno at the Big Tweleveten’s annual media day.
I was literally shocked at what I saw.
Since the Blue-White intrasquad scrimmage in April, there has been a seriously noticeable decline in JoePa’s health. Paterno fought a couple of health issues over the summer; he had a dental infection that required antibiotics, and he had a reaction to those medications. Normally, those tend to be minor issues, but they seemed to take a major toll on an 83-year old. Media day was his first public appearance since the intrasquad game in April, and he seemed so much more like an “old” man then he ever has.
I get that he looked “old” a few years ago when he was being shuttled on a golf cart or ambling about with that cane, but that was when he was in obvious pain from an arthritic hip and/or a knee taken out by a Badger tight end. Then, he wore the frown of a tough guy fighting pain. Now, he shows no pain at all. Nor does he show his usual disdain for media events. Rather, his speech was slow, slurred, and featured none of JoePa’s usual sharp wit or incisive commentary. In fact, he seemed a bit of a doddering old man who just rambles on about whatever pops into his head. “Old” or not, that’s never been Paterno’s style.
Paterno’s modus operandi has always been one of incredible energy; energy that has always outstripped what it seemed his slight frame could contain. Before the knee injury he suffered during the Wisconsin game in 2006, Paterno was the only octogenarian I knew who ran from the tunnel onto the field every Saturday with his team. Paterno press conferences were at once an exercise in humility and a display of Paterno’s sense of sarcasm illustrating his disdain of the pointless and silly. Nobody could rip apart a reporter asking an inane question and still seem grandfatherly like Paterno. Now, he just seems like a grandfather.
That’s not an insult; nor am I suggesting that it is time for Joe to go. Rather, I would ask you to think about the cherished elders of your own family. The memories you hold most dear are when they were at their most vibrant. If you are my age, everybody’s house had a picture of one or both grandfathers in uniforms from World War II. If you are my age, you’ve never seen a sunrise under which Joe Paterno was not the head coach at Penn State. And if you are like me in your belief that Joe Paterno may be the single-most important figure in the history of college football, you were so busy watching him quietly become a larger-than-life figure that you missed the gradual downslope, especially since it was masked by so much success in the past few years.
As much as I would like it to be, there aren’t two Joe Paternos; there is not both the legendary coach who in the minds of all true Penn State fans can still ride into your town on a Harley, take all your women, drink all your beer, and still find time to destroy your football team who then morphs into the kindly-yet-stern, occasionally temperamental grandfather. Even if there were two Paternos, they would both be made of the real Joe, which sadly is not immortal unlike the legacy he will ultimately leave.
And it is that legacy that compels the “Joe should go” crowd to, for lack of a better term, shut the fuck up. A lot of the squawking you’ve heard this week hasn’t really been about Paterno’s health at all. Instead, it is coming from a collage of self-centered boosters, fans, and alumni echoed by some reporters who care only of the won-loss record, and not for the man who built that which they cherish.
When Joe Paterno first arrived in State College as an assistant coach in 1950, Penn State was a “cow college” of which nobody had ever heard stashed away in the coal-mining and logging hills of central Pennsylvania. Now, The Pennsylvania State University is one of the pre-eminent research universities in the world and boasts one of the largest football stadia in this country; Joe Paterno played a major role in building both of them. As he built the football program into one of the best in the land, he was paid handsomely. However, with that income, Paterno in turn has donated millions to the university; so much so they named a library for him. You can’t swing a dead cat in a BCS conference without hitting a statue of an immortalized coach, but it’s hard to fire a guy whose name is on the library.
The man may have slowed down, but the program is still riding a wave of energy Paterno has been building for 60 years. It is easy to forget when Paterno started, television barely existed, and therefore was not a factor. In fact, when television began its relationship with college football, there were coaches and NCAA officials who were worried it would kill attendance. It is that same energy that makes what he has accomplished in the latter part of his career possible. Paterno’s Nittany Lions have won at least nine games each year since 2005; three times they’ve notched at least 11 victories, and have been to the Rose Bowl once. Remember that all of this came after the dark years at the beginning of the decade when the “Joe should go” chants were the loudest.
Given all that success, one of the most impressive things Paterno has done is keep his coaching staff largely intact. People always talk about “coaching trees,” as in how many of a coaches’ disciples move on to head coaching jobs of their own. For example, even though Pete Carroll left town before Southern Cal landed in the NCAA’s doghouse (somewhere a Paterno team has never been, by the way…), he opened the doors for many of his staff to join the head coaching ranks. Lane Kiffin, Ed Orgeron, Steve Sarkisian, and Norm Chow (to name a few) all had their careers furthered by their association with Carroll. What better career builder could there possibly be in college football than having “Paterno” on your resume?
Don’t forget having “Paterno” on a resume means being associated with not only a living legend, but more bowl wins than anybody, two national championships (which should be at least three, and most likely four, but I don’t want to get into that argument here), five undefeated seasons, scores of All-Americans, a Heisman trophy winner, and a sizeable number of Hall-of-Famers, both at the collegiate and professional levels. Oh, and don’t forget JoePa is on the verge of 400 career wins, a number reached by nobody at the Division I level, and only reached by fellow legends Eddie Robinson of Grambling State (408) and John Gagliardi of St. John’s (Minnesota) (471).
What does this all mean? Simply stated, it means Paterno doesn’t need to be patrolling the sidelines, he doesn’t need to be on Twitter, and he’s doesn’t need to be in every living room on recruiting trips. He built the Penn State program into what it is; in fact he played a major role in building the whole damn university into what it is. He’s built a resume that no coach will ever again build, and anybody who is foolish enough not to relish the opportunity to draw water from the deepest well of knowledge in the history of the game isn’t worthy of wearing Penn State blue.
In short, as long as JoePa is JoePa, he should be revered and treasured for what he has done for Penn State and college football in general. I’m more than willing to admit that Joe may be showing the signs of age, but he still remains as the most important figure in the history of college football.
If Joe Paterno wants the end of his run to come on the sideline, or in the press booth, or in the president of Penn State’s office, he’s earned that right. Meanwhile, you assholes who have been surfing the wave of success in the ocean Paterno created while saying he is no longer fit for the job need to shut your mouths until you get the gravitas having a library named after you brings.
Until then, shut your mouth or I will come to your house and shut it for you, most likely by hitting you in the face with a shovel.