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August 31, 2004

Can An Old Nittany Lion Learn New Tricks?

FROM THE HIGHBROW NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE comes a rare college sports story about Penn State’s legendary Joe Paterno. The 6-page, 4157 word article is ominously entitled “The Lion in Late, Late Autumn.”

When the Times runs a sports story in its intellectual Sunday magazine section, it is typically overlaid with a more profound sociological and cultural agenda as well. That’s precisely the case here, as author Pat Jordan unabashedly disparages the aging (77) Paterno for “losing the recruiting wars,” sloppily coached teams and “unimaginative and unquestioning assistant coaches.”

Similarly, Jordan writes with a pervasive deference about Penn State and the bucolic Happy Valley (that’s really the name) where it sits: that Penn State has “quasi-Ivy League pretension,” that Happy Valley is “eerie” due to friendly people and neat houses, and that Happy Valley is like a place out of a movie—“The Stepford Wives” or “Pleasantville.”

The author couldn’t help but to give JoePa his due, but he registered his strong reservations about Paterno coaching until he’s 82 (when his four-year contract extension ends).

And JoePa’s achievements have been impressive indeed:

• 38 years as head coach at PSU (54 years total), with a 339-109-3 record.

• He has coached five undefeated teams, won two national championships and been voted Coach of the Year four times.

• He has been a coach for more than half of the football games Penn State has played since 1887.

• Paterno’s career has spanned 11 US presidents and 742 coaching changes in D1 football.

Meanwhile, in amassing these achievements, Paterno has held steady to his “Great Experiment,” emphasizing players’ discipline, character and scholastic achievements. Graduation rates and career paths for PSU football players have accordingly been very impressive.

According to Penn State president Graham Spanier, PSU has the highest academic admission requirements for athletes of all schools in the Big Ten—and the Big Ten’s admission standards are higher than the NCAA’s.

Paterno’s remarkable achievements notwithstanding, author Jordan delivered the thrust of his message regarding an uncertain present and future. Consider:

• The past four of JoePa’s teams have gone 22-26, and three of those were losing seasons.

• Penn State’s record last year was 3-9, Paterno’s worst record ever.

• Recruiting is still a big question mark. 52 of PSU’s 115 players this year are from Pennsylvania; they don’t recruit well nationally, especially from the South.

• Penn State’s rigorous academic standards put a damper on recruiting great football players who are questionable students.

• Paterno has delegated authority to assistant coaches inconsistently and ineffectively over the past few years. It’s hard for a seasoned citizen to change his ways.

• Although Paterno is as vigorous and energetic as a person twenty years younger, he is nonetheless 77 years old. It becomes increasingly hard for him to be relevant with players and coaches so much younger than he is.

Notwithstanding the skeptical tone of the article, the author conveyed a likeability and reverence that Paterno still commands.

Hopefully the Lion of Happy Valley can go out happy.

(this 508 word excerpt—with attendant commentary—was distilled from a 4157 word article in the New York Times Magazine section of the Sunday Times of 8-30-04)