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Jay Paterno on Penn State Football and What I Learned from Coach Paul Bryant

by on September 09, 2010 6:30 AM

This is the kind of game you live to coach.

When Penn State and Alabama get together, the excitement is palpable. The players may change from year to year, but the aura shared by these two programs is timeless; Penn State will always be Penn State and Alabama will always be Alabama.

For me, Alabama means Coach Paul Bryant.  As a ten-year-old I answered the phone when he called the house to speak to my father. The unmistakable voice asked for Coach Paterno, and I ran from the basement up the stairs to tell him that “The Bear” was on the phone.

“That’s Coach Bryant to you,” my dad chided.

My father always had a respect for Coach Bryant. In each other they recognized a kindred spirit—a demanding spirit—despite vastly different backgrounds. They forged tough young men from the high school kids who arrived on their campuses. And they commanded great respect by being more interested in leading the players to excel than in being their friends. Today, people talk about a coach being a “player’s coach.” Most of those guys never last the way that Coach Bryant endured.

One of my biggest coaching regrets is that I never got to meet Coach Bryant. But, back in eighth grade, he wrote me a letter. It was National Library Week in February 1982, and our librarian at Park Forest Junior High School asked us to write to a celebrity and request a reply. At that age I wanted to coach football, so I picked Coach Bryant.

To a young man he had never met, he responded with open and honest words:

Dear Jay,

Unfortunately when I was in school I did not do much reading in the Library. This may be the reason I have such a difficult time now in more ways than one.

I do highly recommend that students go to the Library and fully cooperate with the Librarians. Wish I had not just sat there looking at a book and thinking about football.

Give my best to your father. Hope he is having a very pleasant spring.

Sincerely,

Paul W. Bryant

That December my father and I watched Coach Bryant’s last game from the New Orleans Hilton Presidential suite just days before Penn State would win the National Championship against Georgia. It was the same suite where we’d stayed four years earlier before Penn State and Alabama squared off in one of the great National Title games of all time (just wish it had turned out a little better for Penn State).

Now that I am a coach myself, I find myself reflecting on some of his lessons. One of my favorite Bryant quotes reflects preparing your team:

“Don’t do a lot of coaching just before the game. If you haven’t coached them by 14 minutes to two on Saturday, it’s too late then.”

Coach Bryant’s comments on the proper time for coaching were in my head as I drafted this column over the summer, so that writing it wouldn’t conflict with my day job and the necessary game week preparations.

But this story and this game take me back to 1994. I was asked to represent my father at the Paul Bryant Coach of the Year Award banquet in Houston. Without hesitation I jumped at the chance. 

At the dinner I was introduced to Coach Bryant’s son Paul. We discovered that our fathers shared something very special, a genuine respect and fondness for each other as fellow coaches and competitors. 

Paul told me that his father had a couple of things he looked forward to after retirement. He wanted to take in some baseball games at Fenway Park—being a Red Sox fan I was delighted to hear that.

More important, he had wanted to go up to Penn State in the fall to watch practice and a game because he had such respect for what Joe Paterno and Penn State were all about.

The game this Saturday night, as well as the game between the two schools next year, should mirror these two coaches’ relationship. It’s one based on respect, as well as a shared love of competition at the highest level, which brings out the best in ourselves and in each other.

In my den at home this summer as I watched Alabama video,  Coach Bryant’s letter hangs on the wall across from me. Even though he’s rooting for Alabama, I’m sure Coach Bryant wouldn’t want me to coach at 14 minutes to two on Saturday. 

Nearly three decades after he’s passed, his lessons are as relevant as when he was still roaming the sidelines of the same field where we’ll play Saturday night. Lessons as timeless as the tradition he helped establish.

***

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State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JayPaterno
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