Wednesday, September 16, 2009

On the Wisdom of Old Men

I have been to many press conferences in my life. To this day, I can honestly say I have never experienced anything quite like a Joe Paterno press conference. When he is at his best--as he was this week--Paterno is an alchemist, a wizard, a drill sergeant and a Borscht belt comedian. He can be sharp and self-deprecating one moment, defiant and hysterical the next. He can transition from a barely discernible and seemingly nonsensical tangent into Aristotelian philosophy into a Henny Youngman routine.

There are certain consistencies to a Tuesday afternoon Paterno press conference--he will no doubt refer to someone as a big strong kid (back in college we used to take bets, in fact, on how many times Paterno would use this phrase), he will identify the opponents' best players by their uniform numbers, he will mutter at least three completely unintelligible phrases in some kind of hybrid of Brooklynese and coachspeak, and he will bark, "I dunno," at a reporter whose question he finds unnecessary. He will also, if he is the right mood, go off on at least three irrelevant tangents. But then, it is in the tangents that Paterno shines.

For instance, this week, a reporter from the Collegian, the school newspaper, informed Paterno that Josh Hull has a mustache. Which wouldn't be such a big deal if Josh Hull were, say, a middle-aged electrician, or a private eye based in Hawaii, or a 24-year-old bass player for an alt-country band in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. But Josh Hull is a linebacker. More important, Josh Hull is a linebacker at Penn State, a position that does not generally invoke hipster imagery. But recently, after watching tapes of an old football game, Josh Hull decided to pay tribute to the visages of the past; maybe he also caught one of those showings of Semi-Tough on cable. Anyway, this led Joe to confess that he had no idea about Josh Hull's mustache, and didn't really care:

"Geez, you guys must think I go around... it's like that old MASH guy, the guy that was a major in MASH, call him out and have him review (the company) every morning.... If he wants a mustache, that's okay."

Now, I had no idea Joe Paterno was the kind of guy who watched MASH. I had no idea he knew how to turn on his television. That's the beauty of a Paterno press conference--he never goes where you think he's going to go. Whenever you think he might condemn, he backs off. Whenever you think he might answer with a soft cliche, he digs in deep. When someone asked him about whether he might be OK with Penn State someday naming its field after him, he used it to philosphize about the afterlife:

"I don't know that much about what it is to be dead.
How much do you know what's going on after you're dead?"

Later, another reporter informed Paterno that his team was ranked fifth in the country, which then turned into a rant about newspaper headlines, about reading newspapers in the bathroom, and finally about the impending death of newspapers. I recommend you read it all (or better yet, listen to it), but here's a key passage:

"I'd love to read the sports page, but to be very frank with you, I don't because so much of it is you guys have to base on what you are getting in an e mail, what you're getting because I've talked to a couple of guys about it."

"You're influenced by, what people are after you to say something because you're competing. It's like I don't even turn on the television set anymore, because one television station is anti Obama. The other one you like to have somebody have an impartial view of some things because they studied it and they know about it. And they're not being influenced by the guy that owns the paper or the guy that owns the radio station, so it's a different world and it's not the kind of world that I'm comfortable with."

It's kind of a crude critique, and as always, there are clauses that seem actively obtuse, but once it is run through the Paterno translator, it's actually quite astute. In one paragraph, a man who does not know how to open an Internet browser encapsulated the dangers of our accelerated culture and the cacophony of modern media.

And that's not even the best part. The best part was when, in the midst of this epic tangent, Paterno said this: "What you are today isn't what you're going to be tomorrow, all right? What you're going to be tomorrow is what you make happen tomorrow."

I'll be honest: I have no idea if he made that up, or when he made that up, or even what it really means. But that's Joe Paterno. It's a Joe Paterno who may have faded from view in the past couple of years, when he was dealing with the pain of a bad hip, with the uncertainty of his own future, with a group of players who seemed to lack the self-discipline to stay out of trouble off the field. I would like to think that he knows he probably made some mistakes, that he lost his way, that the next couple of years are probably all he's got left. And he's going to give whatever he has, which is why, in sixty minutes, the man managed to throw it all out there, his theories on politics, football, television, facial hair, newspapers, and death.

After all, there aren't a lot of tomorrows left.

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