Friday, January 27, 2012

JOE PATERNO: 1926-2012

I wish I could say that I grew up at Penn State, but I can't. I did, however, grow up WITH Penn State. And that meant that I grew up with Joe Paterno.

My parents went to Penn State. My brother went to Penn State. Me? I only wish I had, but I had another calling from an Ivy League school in West Philadelphia that to this day, gets confused with Penn State. Yes, there really are "Not Penn State" t-shirts available on the Penn Campus. That never bothered me when I attended Penn; I knew the difference, even if the students at Penn hated that we were confused with a "football school." What they didn't know is that Penn State was a lot more than a football school.

But football at Penn State only set a tone for the school. It created a dynamic that drew you towards the University, even as a young boy.

Saturdays in the fall are still one of my most vivid memories of growing up. My dad and I would drive off to the local farmer's market, where we'd pick up 3 sides of beef that we would wrap up for the freezer later in the day. Always on that car radio was Penn State football, the voice of Fran Fisher calling names like John Cappelletti, Chuck Fusina, and all those Bahr brothers. Joe Paterno had recruited and coached the players that made Penn State football an experience. We loved Penn State football, even if, in the days before the federal lawsuits that opened up broadcast rights, you only got to see your favorite team play live on television once or twice a season.

But that was okay, because Sundays were time for the Penn State Football Show. The one-hour package of that weekend's Penn State football game was such required viewing in our house, that my dad and I would watch separate broadcasts on separate channels over the course of those Sunday mornings.

Listening to and watching all those Penn State games, I'd like to say that my father taught me to love and respect coach Joe Paterno. But he didn't. He didn't have to. You only had to watch Paterno, and listen to Paterno, to love and respect Paterno.

I admired JoePa so much that I bought whatever cause he was selling. Joe said there should be a playoff in college football. That worked for me. Coaches should graduate their players? I couldn't have agreed more. Plain uniforms without names on the back? Fine with me. Joe once said he didn't want to leave college football to the Barry Switzers.

Well, I didn't need Joe Paterno to tell me about Barry Switzer. It was easy to see what an ass he was.

When you went to a live Penn State game, there were two things you wanted to see. The players might come and go, but you knew that you could see, and wanted to see at every game, Joe Paterno and Mount Nittany.

Rising miles beyond the stadium, but seemingly as close as that coach in the khakis on the sideline, was Mount Nittany. As stoic as Joe himself, that big hill set the tone for the beautiful valley over which it rose. Much like Joe set the tone for an entire academic community.

He wasn't just Joe the coach of the football team. He was the coach of the entire school. He was everyone's coach, and could have been everyone's grandfather. More powerful than any administrator, move loved than any professor, more a symbol of the school than the mascot, Paterno's influence was not bounded by Beaver Stadium. Joe's contributions to the library -- there's a wing in the name of he and his wife Sue -- his "grand experiment" of combining athletics with academics, and his ever-faithful position as teacher and mentor to the Penn State community, is what set the tone for the campus.

Remember the last time Joe publicly spoke to the student body? You've probably seen the video of Joe on his lawn, addressing the shocked students in the wake of his dismissal from the 2nd great love in his life, as coach of Penn State football. Remember what Joe told the students gathered on his lawn? Told them to go back and study.

Joe didn't drill the academics down your throat, mind you. He didn't have to. He wanted his players to graduate. Well, heck, if the dumb jocks can get a Penn State degree, so can I. He gave his money not to build a new athletic facility, but to a library. And on the worst day of his Penn State life (with apologies to 4th-and-1 in the Sugar Bowl) he told the kids to go study.

That's the kind of man I wanted as the coach of my favorite football team. Or to coach my own son. In fact, when my boy was born less than two years ago, I said in my Sports Bar Newsletter that I hoped my son would grow up to play for Joe Paterno. I was only half-kidding; the thought that Joe would ever not be the coach at Penn State was almost unimaginable. I would not have been surprised to see JoePa still coaching the Nittany Lions when my boy got there in 18 years.

I guess my boy won't grow up to experience what a great man was Joe Paterno. But he will learn it from me.

Eventually, I had the chance to go to Penn State. Took the summer before my junior year at Penn to be a real Penn State student, if only for one summer. Penn State wasn't a place I *wanted* to go to, it was a place I NEEDED to go to. I had to feel that experience of being a part of Penn State. Studied hard, got all A's and a B that summer. Our dorm won the softball intramural title, playing the title game in the shadows of Beaver Stadium. We'd might as well have been playing in the shadows of JoePa himself.

I look forward to taking my son to Penn State, to show him where his dad won the softball title, and the library where his dad studied every night.

And when we do visit Penn State, Ryan will know Joe Paterno had been there as well. He will see it in the library, he will see it in the magnificent stadium and athletic facilities that exist because of Paterno. And my boy will know who was responsible for it, because I won't let him forget it.

But while Joe set the tone for the Penn State experience, he is maybe getting too much credit. You've heard it said that Joe was the embodiment of Penn State. That he *was* Penn State. Angelo Cataldi on WIP sports radio said the university "Would not exist" without Paterno.

Okay, so that might be just so much sports-radio-host hyperbole. Whatever the case, I think this part of the accolades of Joe Paterno's life is unfair to Penn State. Penn State was a great place before Joe got there, and would have been a great place without him. The academics, the alumni community, and the beautiful college town that sprang up around it, are all top notch. Penn State has more fundraising than I think you could find on any college campus. THON, the former Sy Barash Regatta, the Lady Lions Pink Out for breast cancer. You might not have heard about this philanthropy, but trust me, everyone connected with Penn State has.

So there is lots to admire and love about Penn State, and it would have been there without Joe Paterno. JoePa just made it a better place than it ever could have been without him.

We will miss you, JoePa. GrandPa. CoachPa. Penn State, college football, and the lives of an entire educational community were a lot better off because of you. I look forward to telling that to my son.


-- Brian, somewhere near Penn State

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