Tuesday, November 9, 2010

On 400

Shortly after Joe Paterno won the four hundredth game of his career, the scores of each of his victories began scrolling across the Jumbotron at Beaver Stadium. There were so many, rendered in such small type, that it was nearly impossible to read them from afar. And even then, it seemed like it might never end, like Paterno might not make it until the end of his own C.V. before bedtime.

I was standing in Section WG, Row E, in the same cramped metal bleachers from which I'd intermittently watched Joe Paterno coach for more than thirty years. I was there purely by chance, but I'm glad I was, because I realize it's going to end soon. That, for me, is the part that's most difficult to deal with; there are few things in life that last so long they seem like they'll never change. Joe Paterno is one of those things. But that night, there was a feeling that this was it, that at some point in the near future, Paterno will simply fade away, and that this was the last celebration* he will allow himself to indulge in. 

I won't sit here and spout platitudes; there are times when I think the cult of personality that surrounds Paterno is too overbearing. Maybe you think Joe Paterno is a self-righteous boor. Maybe you think his career has become one long octogenarian joke. Maybe you think all those years of beating up on East Coast weaklings render his records meaningless. That's your right. But what continues to strike me is that Paterno's uniqueness lies in his deft ability to tie his legacy to something more than the sport in which he coached.

One more thing: There's something ironic in the fact that all of this celebration of Paterno centers around the fact that no one can ever replicate what he did. Because one of the tenets of Paterno's Grand Experiment was that his program would set an example for all the others, that the marriage of academia and athletics was not an untenable proposition. And forty years later, we seem to be acknowledging that it is untenable. Which, if it's true, means that one of the two greatest coaches in the history of college football succeeded in impacting his university in unprecedented ways, but could not succeed in changing the way we view modern college athletics. Which means the Grand Experiment was an unqualified success, but it exists in a vacuum.

*Is there anything more lovely than Paterno beginning his 45 second victory speech by acknowledging the fact that most of the people in that stadium were thinking as much about the traffic in the parking lots as they were about the content of his address? How many other major college coaches would be able to separate themselves from their ego, if only for that moment, and acknowledge his audience's concerns about returning to the remote corners of the state from whence they came? In all, on what was supposed to be a celebration about him, Paterno spoke for less time than both Penn State's athletic director and Penn State's president.

(Photo: Centre Daily Times)

1 comment:

EPorvaznik said...

While reveling with local Penn State alums, jealous am I for not being there (and really needing a Beaver Stadium fix after three years away). Thank you, Michael, for waxing eloquent on the absolute greatness of Coach JoePa's accomplishments (on the field and off) and his humility in the face of them.

P.S. I already have the box of tissue ready for whenever JoePa puts football in his rearview. I figure, what, 2017 maybe '18?