Friday, October 23, 2009

Paterno Tribute

Joe Posnanski (SI) has written an open letter of sorts to Angelo Paterno, late father of Joseph Vincent Paterno.

Angelo, look at the way your son's eyes darken now. Look how he balls up his fists and uncrosses his legs, as if he's uncomfortable, as if he suddenly remembered someplace he needs to be. Look how the smile on his face—the smile that punctuates all the stories he tells, like the one about Bear Bryant wanting a lane of traffic cleared for his team (the Pennsylvania governor said no), or the time at a coaches' convention that Dan Devine mentioned an unnamed loudmouth coach at Oklahoma, and Barry Switzer shouted, "Switzer!" and raised his hand—look how that grandfatherly smile twists into a grimace. Madonn'! Someone is asking Joe Paterno about the wins record. Again.

The wins record. What the hell can Joe say about the wins record? That he doesn't care about it? That he does? Angelo, that record is like a noose around his neck ...

And now? They still don't see him. They see that wins record. That's how so many people define your son, Angelo. After beating Minnesota 20--0 last Saturday, he has 389 victories, five more than Bobby Bowden (at least for now; the NCAA wants to take away 14 of Bowden's wins, but Florida State's appealing) and more than any other Division I coach ever. People act as if that's what it's been about. As if that's why he still coaches. "What am I gonna tell you?" Joe asks. "I try not to pay attention to it. But it's there. I don't want the record. I say that, and I know people say, 'Oh, who are you kidding, Paterno, with that humble pie?' But humble pie's got nothing to do with it. What am I gonna do with that record?"

People have been telling Joe to quit for more than 40 years, going back to the time in '67 when he went for it on fourth down in the Gator Bowl against Florida State. The Nittany Lions didn't get the first down, the game ended in a tie, and on the plane ride home a joker on that team, Jack Curry, walked back to the coach, who was sitting with his head in his hands.

Joe looked up to see his player's face. Curry said, "When you started the game, people didn't even care who the coach was at Penn State. But after you went for it on fourth-and-one, the whole country went, 'Who the hell is the coach at Penn State?'"

As for being out of touch ... Joe relentlessly pleads guilty. He will tell you (and tell you and tell you) he doesn't have a cellphone, and he doesn't have a computer, and he doesn't know anything about all the social networking. ("What's that thing called, Facemask?" he asks.)

Angelo, methinks the coach doth protest too much. That's the Brooklyn in him. That's the you in him. Let them underestimate Joe. Let them think the world has passed him by. Let them think the old man has gone soft. Nobody needs to know that during the off-season Joe called all his coaches together for their usual meeting.

And, first thing, he said, "Gentlemen, we need to start Twittering."

Maybe he did lose faith for a while, Angelo. Friends saw something flicker in him a few years ago. For more than 30 years, nothing had changed at Penn State. Teams won. Players graduated. Joe taught football and life.

A friend says, "I think after Adam [Taliaferro] got hurt, Joe had a crisis of faith. I think he wondered in a small way if [coaching] was worth it."

In 2002 his brother died. They were so close, Angelo.

Toward the end of the '04 season, before Penn State played Indiana after a six-game losing streak, Joe canceled practice and held a team meeting. He said, "We're so close. We're going to win our last two games, and then we're going to win the national championship next year." His players looked at him, stunned, unsure if they were listening to a prophet or a madman.

"Nobody else believed," Adam says. "Nobody. Not even people in the program. Only Coach Paterno believed. And then ... everybody believed."

"He got what I meant," Joe said. No, Joe has not gone soft yet. People will talk about the wins record, Angelo, and make no mistake, Joe Paterno in little State College, Pa., wants to win every single game. But, even now, he hears your voice over the cheers: Are you making an impact? He is still trying.

"If all my life has been about is winning football games," Joe says, "then my father is
rolling around in his grave."

More Vintage Paterno photos here.

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