Tuesday, August 3, 2010

On JoePa, and How Coaches Speak

I guess you could say the first "real" event I ever covered in my journalism career was the Big Ten football media preview. We were in college, working for our school newspaper, and five of us would pile into a barely functional company car in early August, sweating McNuggets residue, and drive twelve hours from central Pennsylvania to Chicago, only to spend a couple of days listening to overzealous coaches drone on about nothing at all. We'd take copious notes and transcribe what we'd missed, because this is what you do when you're young: You presume that the stale platitudes of someone like Gary Barnett* carry some sort of deeper meaning that you don't yet have the sophistication to fully comprehend. I suppose this is why football coaches act like football coaches do: Because youth is easily swayed. Because we are not yet cynics.

Last night on the Big Ten network, I watched the coach of the Minnesota Golden Gophers, Tim Brewster, address the media. I have no reason to believe that Tim Brewster is anything but an extremely decent and earnest man, but every time he opened his mouth, I thought of Eric Taylor. Brewster said he'd talked to his quarterback over the summer, and he'd been assured that his team had a uniform commitment to winning; Brewster said, with all due respect to his Big Ten brethren, that Minnesota now had the greatest football stadium in America; Brewster said every position on his team's roster was up for grabs, and that he'd told his players the story of Wally Pipp to assure them that he was serious. Every one of these statements sounds like the thread for a Friday Night Lights episode, except the producers would probably dismiss it as cliche.

But Brewster was not the reason I turned on the Big Ten media day replay last night. The reason I watched was for the man who succeeded Brewster on the podium, an especially suntanned octogenarian who spent much of his brief session in front of reporters addressing his IBS. On the surface, Joe Paterno looked great; he was thin, and he was bronzed, and nothing seemed different about him until he opened his mouth. And then, you could hear it; everyone could hear it. David Jones, the excellent columnist for the Harrisburg Patriot-News, could hear it, too. "How often do you infer a person’s intents, thoughts and condition based not on what they say, but how they say it?" he wrote.

In a back hallway, Jones tried to ask Paterno if he was taking any medications, if the slurring in his voice could have been a side effect. Paterno refused to answer. 

None of this means that Paterno is finished. He's bounced back so many times that to count him out now would be ignorant of his history. In fact, if you look back, there is a moment in every single decade of Paterno's career when it appeared as if he might be down and out, and he's endured. This is the signature of Joe Paterno: He endures by refusing to embrace the cliche. He still believes in the Grand Experiment. He is both intractably stubborn and surprisingly pliable. He went 6-6 his first season in the 1966, and people wondered; he endured some disciplinary problems in the mid-to-late '70s, and people wondered; he endured more disciplinary problems in '83, and people wondered;** he had his first losing season in 1989, and people wondered; the program briefly fell off the national radar in the late '90s and early '00s, and people wondered. The magic of Paterno's career is that he always finds a way to adjust to the times, that he has a wondrous ability to reinvigorate both himself and his program, to somehow decipher the next generation of youth while preserving his own body. And you hope maybe he has one more renewal left in him. And you hope that maybe his body and his mind will bounce back once more. But every time, it gets more precarious.

As I was writing this, I got an e-mail from my oldest friend in the world. I've known him since the first grade. We grew up in State College, and Joe Paterno has been a constant presence in our lives. "Did you see Joe last night?" he wrote, and I said I had, and I said this was the first time I felt palpable concern about when and where and how this whole thing might end. He wrote me back right away, a two-word response.

"Me too," he said. 

*Expect Victory!

**I'm told you can read more about that era in here 

(P.S. Here's hoping there's still more of this Joe left.)

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