Joe Paterno is more of a watcher than a coach these days
By RICK MoRRISSEY firstname.lastname@example.org October 30, 2011 9:18PM
Updated: January 23, 2012 4:10AM
I don’t think many people were under the illusion that 84-year-old Joe Paterno was doing much of the heavy lifting, coaching-wise, for Penn State.
But during the Nittany Lions’ 10-7 victory over Illinois on Saturday, JoePa didn’t seem to be doing any coaching, or if he was, he was doing it telepathically. Because Paterno was going for his Division I-record 409th victory, ABC felt compelled, as networks often do in such situations, to show the coach over and over again. How many times did ABC show him? Ten? Fifteen? I don’t know. A lot.
Paterno sat in the press box Saturday and . . . that’s about all he did. He sat. Every time a TV camera was trained on him, he sat staring at the game below. He was not wearing a headset. He did not seem to be talking to anyone.
This wouldn’t be an issue if he had been standing on the Nittany Lions’ sideline. But after getting accidentally hit by a player and injuring his pelvis and hip during the preseason, he’s not able to stand for long periods. He coached on the sidelines for a half in two games this season.
Some coaches who stand on the sidelines don’t say much either. The only way you know Bears coach Lovie Smith is alive is when Devin Hester returns a kick for a touchdown. Other than that, he’s a statue, just as Tom Landry was with the Cowboys.
“Coach has never worn a headset when he is on the sideline,’’ Jeff Nelson, Penn State’s assistant athletic director for communications, said in an e-mail Sunday. “Sometimes he will wear one when coaching from upstairs, but usually he just talks to the five full-time assistant coaches who are in the booth and they relay what he wants to the coaches on the field. He speaks to the team in the locker room just before they go on the field and then he goes upstairs.’’
Is that coaching?
It’s a tough issue to wade into because it deals with cultural notions about how old is too old when it comes to working and being productive. The Nittany Lions are 8-1 and ranked 16th in the nation in the Associated Press poll. They seem to be doing pretty well with offensive coordinator Galen Hall calling the plays and defensive coordinator Tom Bradley handling the other side of the ball. And they seem to be doing pretty well with whatever it is that Paterno is or isn’t doing.
We celebrate the wisdom that comes with age on the Supreme Court, even though clerks do a lot of the work for the justices. The structure at Penn State doesn’t look much different.
But is Paterno actually coaching? If you believe coaching means being involved in the bulk of game-day decisions, then, no, he isn’t coaching.
There are many head coaches who consider themselves to be like corporate executives who delegate responsibility. But when game day rolls around, it’s obvious who is in charge.
That didn’t look to be the case with Paterno on Saturday. Hall and Jay Paterno, Penn State’s quarterbacks coach (and Joe’s son), were animated while talking into their headsets. So was Bradley. The head coach just sat there.
This has been going on for several years, of course, with Paterno letting his assistants do the micromanaging stuff. During the last six years, various injuries have forced him to the press box 21 times. This is a tough, driven human being who wants to be part of the action, even if he’s high above it in a press box.
But is it coaching? And should what he accomplished Saturday be considered a record?
Paterno has been the head coach at Penn State for 47 years. He’s the reason the program, and the school, to some extent, is what it is today. It would be one thing if Penn State were struggling and it had a coach who didn’t know when to say goodbye. But the Nittany Lions are winning, and if the coach doesn’t want to say goodbye, who’s going to tell him to leave?
And why tell him to leave?
If he’s a figurehead, who is he hurting?
There’s a story about Jerome Holtzman, the late, great baseball writer from the Sun-Times and Tribune. Later in life, he took a call from an editor, who chided him for using clichés.
“Yes, but those are my clichés,’’ Holtzman said. “I invented them.’’
This is Paterno’s Penn State. Try telling him he didn’t invent it.