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From the Archives: Field Day for Joe Paterno at Penn State Football's 2009 Media Day

by on August 03, 2014 9:00 PM

Media Day on Monday officially kicks off James Franklin’s first season as Penn State’s head football coach.

It’s another New Era.

For a study in contrasts with an era now twice gone by, I'd like to share my Aug. 13, 2009, account of Penn State’s Media Day five years ago, presided over by Joe Paterno.

Although I started covering Penn State football for The Collegian in 1979, it was my first column for StateCollege.com. That was 259 weeks and 574 posts ago.

About the 2009 Nittany Lions: Three weeks after a 31-7 season-opening win in Beaver Stadium over Akron (also PSU's first home opponent in 2014) they lost a showdown with Iowa, 21-10, referenced late in the story.

They rebounded with road wins at Michigan (whose Big House was undergoing renovations, temporarily reducing its capacity), Michigan State and Northwestern, and a victory over LSU in the Capital One Bowl, to finish 11-2 and ranked No. 8.

That column is reprinted here in its entirety:

Thursday was the Nittany Lion football team’s Media Day at Beaver Stadium. That meant there were about 113 writers, broadcasters, radio and TV people, and members of what the Nittany Lion head coach calls the “web mob” on hand in the media room bowels of America’s largest football stadium.

So too were around nine TV cameras. Fourteen digital cameras. Seventeen Penn State PR and “branding” people.

In the back of the crowded room sat three people who, collectively, know more about Nittany Lion football than anyone. There was the former voice of Penn State football, Fran Fisher. And the current voice of Penn State football, Steve Jones. And the historian of Penn State football, Lou Prato.

Joe Paterno was there, too. Of course. As always. And will be.

With the presence of Fisher, the 85-year-old broadcasting legend and all-Big Ten wisecracker (“I’m the luckiest man here. My hearing aid doesn't work.”) and Earl Whitmore, an 83-year-old stringer from the Lebanon Daily News (who refereed my midget football games nearly four decades ago), Joe was only the third oldest guy there.

Still, that's plenty old. In fact, at Joe’s first Media Day at Penn State, Matthew Brady took the team photo. AP filed its stories by telegraph. And the only black berries were on the free buffet.

Well, not really. But you get the idea. This season marks Joe’s 60th season on the Penn State staff and 44th as head coach.

“You know why Social Security is having problems,” someone cracked wise. “Joe started collecting his money.”

Age and pension aside, in many ways, Joe has remained the same. His hair is mostly black. He joked with some writers before his press conference officially began (about the Internet, no less) and he wore his requisite casual professional outfit: Penn State blue and white wind-breaker, starched white Oxford, blue tie.

Also on display was his decades-old affectation, “How the heck do I know?” when queried about his team’s chances.

JOE: RANKINGS RANKLE

In this case, the 2009 Nittany Lions’ chances are defined by a No. 8 in the preseason USA Today Coaches Poll and Sports Illustrated’s No. 14 ranking. PSU has to be hoping the SI jinx is not in operation this season. As if Joe even notices.

“What's it mean?” he asked his questioner. “Does it guarantee us any wins? I don’t think it helps us. It’s good for the fans, but I don’t pay attention to it.”

A typical Paterno non-answer. No reason to create any expectations, false or otherwise. Joe is aware of the power of sound bites. But that doesn’t mean he doesn't know how to feed the media, who an hour earlier ate a free lunch at Penn State’s expense.

“What do you think of Jack Crawford?” a reporter raised his hand and asked. “Have you ever coached someone from London?”

Joe kind of leaned over at the dais at the front of the room, gave one of his cockeyed grins and tilted his head. Paterno is a polished showman and knew to wait two or three beats before answering. He wears the George Burns mantle very well.

“I'm sure I've coached someone from London before.”

Pause.

“I’m just not sure who.”

Joe was who the reporters came to see. It is a show the coach has been putting on for more than four decades. When I joined the beat in 1979, the size of the crowd was about one-fourth of what it is today. Back then, Joe knew nearly everyone’s name. Who they worked for. And which players on the team came from a reporter’s hometown.

Not so any more.

No matter. To many, even those covering the team, Joe is an icon, a legend, someone untouchable. One reporter started his question -- again, after raising his hand so a microphone could be brought to him -- by stating what a privilege it is to be asking Joe Paterno a question.

JOE: NO PROBLEM WITH NAVARRO

There were very few toughies.

Here was one about NaVarro Bowman, who ran into some troubles with the law last season and failed to meet the terms of his probation. “He’s been all business this summer,” Joe said. “He had a good summer session. I don’t think we'll have any problem with him.”

Even David Jones of the Harrisburg Patriot News, who loves playing devil’s advocate and tweak the old coach, couldn’t manage anything more probing than asking about the Lions’ blocking scheme when in the shotgun.

Joe was The Show.

Sure, the media guide may have captains Daryll Clark and Sean Lee on the cover. And for good reason. Clark, the quarterback, is coming off an 11-2 season in which he was first-team All-Big Ten. And Lee, the linebacker, is coming off knee surgery that sidelined him in 2008 after 138 tackles in 2007.

Clark leads an offense in dire need of two more starters along the line and some experience at wide out. And Lee heads a defense with a secondary that is of primary concern.

The Lions will fill up on three cupcakes -- beginning with Akron at home on Sept. 5 -- before trying to hand Iowa, the season spoiler in 2008, its just desserts on national TV in Beaver Stadium on Sept. 26.

That’ll be the first big test and a big game, that’s for sure. Paternoville made plans this summer to begin its encampment early that week. ABC Saturday Night Football will hit town for the Iowa game, with Musburger, Herbstreit and Salters – Lisa’s not only the best sideline reporter in the business, she’s a Penn Stater.

JOE: A WINK AND A NOD

There was no talk of or by Paterno about Iowa, or even the schedule, at Thursday’s press conference. No one’s that stupid. And Joe can be that grumpy.

“Nothing excites me yet,” Joe harrumphed. “We’re lousy.”

Then he paused. Then he got that little grin. Then he looked out at all those reporters.

“I’m excited to be alive. That’s about it.”

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Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979. He is a senior lecturer in Penn State's College of Communications and teaches a pair of classes in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism: “Sports Writing” and “Introduction to the Sports Industry.” He created and taught for several years the Center’s course on “Joe Paterno, Communications and The Media.” Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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