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Paterno: Victories, and age, are just numbers

November 9, 2010

Penn State coach Joe Paterno has come a long way since he graduated from Brown University in 1950.

It was great to see Joe Paterno collect his 400th career victory at Penn State on Saturday. I was in the neighborhood for many of the first 120 back in my college days and early sports writing years. It wasn’t always easy dealing with a man who set such high standards for himself and his program. Paterno kept everyone on their toes, beginning with his players and going right down the list, all the way down to the lowest creatures on earth … the sports writing fraternity.
“You guys are too negative,” was the nicest thing he would tell us. But there was much to learn from the man, even for us scribes. You just had to listen, something young people don’t always do.
Paterno said back then that the real reward from coaching was seeing former players come back 10 years later as successes in life. And even if they weren’t successful, he was happy to see them anyway, if only to help them out with some timely advice.
Many of his players, especially the second-stringers, didn’t agree with his personnel decisions. Some thought he talked out of both sides of his mouth. But as they got older, Paterno became a less complex figure, one they could talk to about real life issues.
No coach in any sport has ever developed a larger extended family than Joe Paterno, who impacts over 100 players’ lives every four years. His presence in recent years hasn’t been as pervasive as it was 30 years ago.
Now it seems like his current players simply honor and respect the legend, which is a wonderful tribute in itself.
If you do the math, 60 years of coaching means Paterno has touched the lives of around 1,500 student-athletes. Some of the older ones sent their sons to play for their college coach. Now the sons are sending their sons. This is true at many colleges, of course. The difference is the kids at Penn State over the last 45 seasons have all played for the same man.
Now that Joe has reached 400 wins, his legacy seems as enduring as the statue of “JoPa” that stands outside Beaver Stadium. Nobody ever wanted to win as much as Paterno did but the true meaning of his career rests with the lessons he taught his players. If any bystanders paid attention, they learned some good stuff, too.
I carry a few of his lessons to work with me every day. Here are a few that still resonate in my brain.
“Take care of the little things and the big things will take care of themselves.”
This applies directly to my own job, and I suspect many of our jobs out here in the working world. In my job, it means do all the detail work before you worry about the end product. Prepare for an interview instead of winging it. Get started building pages early in the work shift. Don’t let stuff pile up until it’s too late.
For any high school coach, the message is similar: Prepare for every practice session, down to the minute. Let your players know what needs to be done in every imaginable situation. Emphasize the importance of doing it right in practice.
Paterno didn’t invent detail work among football coaches. But he’s old enough to have been around when Amos Alonzo Stagg got the bright idea.
“If you practice well, you play well.”
We just heard several New England Patriots players admit they didn’t practice well last week as they tried to get ready to play a 2-5 Cleveland team that ended up beating them like a drum on Sunday, 34-14.
There’s not a whole lot the coaching staff can do to wake up their players, especially professional players who spend so much time away from the practice field. Bill Belichick and his staff probably had a bad feeling about their team in the days leading up to the Browns game. On the other hand, they have to be careful how hard they push a 53-man roster that needs to maintain its endurance for a 16-game schedule. That’s a challenge every coach in every sport faces.
“There was enough glory in this game for both teams.”
Paterno would often say this after a close, well-played game. It was his way of complimenting the losing side. On rare occasions, this would involve his own team. Like when the Lions lost to Alabama in the Sugar Bowl in a game that matched the nation’s top two teams from the 1978 season.
It took several years for Paterno to get over that loss, but he never faulted the effort of his team. Actually, he blamed himself for the loss, which was pretty smart because he called three straight running plays up the middle from the one-yard line late in the game and Alabama’s defense stopped all three.
“It’s the name on the front of the jersey that matters most, not the one on the back.”
Penn State, famously, does not put names on the back of its football jerseys. On the road, the Nittany Lions wear all-white pants and jerseys. The helmet used to be all white except for one blue stripe. This is all part of the younger Paterno’s philosophy of no player being larger than the team.
“Publicity is like poison; it doesn’t hurt unless you swallow it.”
I have adopted this epithet Joe used to throw at the media. This definitely applies to local coaches and players. It worries me now, in my older years, that a newspaper can swell a teenager’s head with words of praise. We are collaborators in the process of separating the better players from their teammates. And that’s not right. That’s why I still get uncomfortable publicizing high school freshmen athletes.
In my early years covering Paterno, freshmen college athletes weren’t even eligible to play. He hated when the NCAA changed that rule in 1972. He thought it was the end of the world. Now he plays true freshman frequently because he had to do it to compete successfully in the recruiting wars.
Sometimes, you have to compromise your values to succeed in life. There’s a murky lesson in there somewhere.
“The minute you think you’ve got it made, disaster is just around the corner.”
You can apply this to any good team that gets upset by a weaker squad. Even worse, I sometimes think it’s true in real life. If I ever won PowerBall, I’d go into seclusion, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
“When a team outgrows individual performance and learns team confidence, excellence becomes a reality.”
Somebody ought to put this one up in every high school locker room around the country.
Joe Paterno turns 84 next month. He left Brown University in the spring of 1950 and followed his old head coach, Rip Engle, to Penn State. Joe thought he was going there for one or two years, just to install Rip’s Wing-T offense, and then he would be off to Law School. Instead, he stayed at Penn State for the rest of his life.
I can’t say he was the most well-rounded man I ever met in my life. After all, he’s a football coach who buries himself in game preparation 16 hours a day. But nobody knew where he belonged better than Joe Paterno. And if he ever started to believe the publicity that big-time writers were sending his way, Joe’s wife Sue usually brought him back to earth in a hurry. That’s why he never became head coach of the New England Patriots in 1973.
I think of Joe Paterno whenever I see a young and energetic high school football coach from our Blackstone Valley who works hard with his players and treats them with respect. They’re all honoring Paterno’s legacy when they teach their players each day in practice to work hard, pay attention to the small details, and work for a common team goal.
And perhaps the greatest lesson Joe’s life teaches us is that you never stop working and doing vital things. He is an inspiration to people his own age, too. Age, and win totals, are just numbers.

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