Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2010
By Frankie O
Growing up outside of Philadelphia, there was only one college football team that I rooted for. It wasnt like college basketball, and the Big Five, where as a kid, my rooting interest could change from year to year, depending on who was making a run. No, where I was from, there was only one team: Penn State. And that team was, and still is, dominated by one man: Joe Paterno. Joe-Pa. He has been wearing his white socks and short pant-legs on the Penn State sidelines since 1950! Hes in his 61st season, first as an assistant, then as the head-coach since 1966. In an age of carpet-bagger coaches and a win-at-all-costs sport, he is a constant reminder of how it used to be, make that, how it should be. One of the frequent questions I get at the bar, since I did some time at PSU, is: When is Joe going to retire? To them, its like hes in a race that is already over. I always smile, and say, Whenever he wants to, which means: NEVER. I then add that hes earned the right to do whatever he wants. He has built the program to what it is: One of the most storied programs in college football that has over 107,000(!) devout followers in Beaver Stadium every time they play. But its more than that, way more. For those of us that follow the program, he does represent a connection to our pasts, because hes been there so long, but he also is a testament to doing it right. The thing about Joe is that he has never been shy about voicing his opinion.
Much like my parents, when I was younger I didnt always get where he was coming from, (Im sure he has a few players that feel the same way.) but as I have gotten much, much older, he makes more sense every day. I think the term, old school values, would fit him, and our perception of him, very well. His being where he is, in every sense of the word, is one of the few constants of my life and one that I treasure. (I want him on that wall. I need him on that wall!) So for me, Joe can stay as long as he likes, no matter what his record is, which of late, is pretty darn good: In the last 5 seasons PSU is 57-16, with a 32-13 record in the Big Ten and a 4-1 mark in bowl games. Not bad for someone too old to do his job. But like I said it is more than just his record.
Like anyone else that follows college football, I was very interested in seeing Joe get win number four-hundred. If someone has to reach that plateau, it should be him. Of course, in what has been a recurring theme for me sports-wise lately, the game did offer some conflict. My new guilty-pleasure in college football has been rooting for the Northwestern Wildcats. Since Ive lived in Chicago, they have risen above their well deserved history as football laughingstocks. The thing that has really gotten my attention though, is that they seem to be doing it the right way. Especially since Pat Fitzgerald has taken over. Hes a local that went to NU and starred as a 2-time All-America. He then wanted to coach at his alma mater. That is where he wants to be. Although he got the head-coaching job a little sooner than anyone would have liked due to the tragic passing of then coach Randy Walker, he was where he belonged. That he publicly rebuffed Notre Dame during their last head-coaching search only endeared him more to me. Hes a hot commodity in coaching circles, but wants to stay where he feels he belongs. He kind of reminds me of a young you-know-who. I guess it was fitting then in Joes quest for 400 that he would be standing across the field. Talk about the past versus the present, who writes this stuff? But thats the fun of sports and life. Sometimes the stars align in ways you never imagined.
It was a great game. It was loaded with action, back and forth and the energy from the stadium leapt out from the TV screen, a great fall afternoon of Big Ten football. But oddly enough that wont be my lasting memory, or the image that stayed with me. That occurred after the game, when both head-coaches met at the center of the field for the post-game congratulatory hand-shake. It started as a hand-shake, then a semi-embrace, then a connection of foreheads as Fitz congratulated Joe, then Joe began to talk, and talk. The respect and affection that they shared for each other was more than obvious. In fact, it was one of the coolest TV moments I can remember. Could you imagine being a young head-coach and having one of the gods sharing his thoughts with you, in what is supposed to be his moment? Can you imagine being near the end, and at the top, and sharing with someone whom you feel is worthy of carrying on? It was a moment of clarity for me, Mr. Cynical, about the goodness that can come from the big-business that has become college football. That you can still compete, but not have to sacrifice everything you stand for to do so. So as I watched their exchange, I felt good that the legacy of Joe was being passed on. That it is being passed on to someone who represents another team, makes it even better.