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Jay Paterno: Tough Times Toughen People

by on September 22, 2011 6:00 AM

Several months ago a friend of mine half-kiddingly suggested that a run for politics might be in my future. My wife protested.

She didn’t want me to get into that arena because of the sometimes rough-and-tumble world of elected office.

“Are you kidding?” I laughed.

“You think your Congressman has tens of thousands of constituents who care more passionately about the issues than football fans do about play-calling, starting quarterbacks and next week’s game?”

It was meant as a joke -- but one that does have some truth.

Tough times have their benefits. One is that they expose the true character of the people in your life. Under pressure, everyone shows his or her true stripes. Some back away slowly, some run to be supportive, some tell you the truth you need to hear and some turn at the first sign of trouble and rip into you.

Of course, “tough times” are relative. Even some of my closest relatives think things are depressingly tough because of one loss or an uncomfortably close win. Think of soldiers in a gunfight in Afghanistan. That is the most extreme of “tough times.” Sports are just games.

There’s no doubt that we do value sports in this country. And believe me, I certainly understand that for many of our fans, losing at home to Alabama and eking out a tough road win at Temple qualify as major disappointments. No one feels that pain more than a team and its coaches.


A few weeks ago, many people were trumpeting Penn State’s superiority because win or lose, we do things “the right way.” They mocked other universities for their alleged violations of NCAA rules. At the same time, Joe Paterno was revered for his track record of over 60 years of college athletics without a single major NCAA sanction.

Now, some Facebook “friends” have decided they want to tell me what they really think about Joe Paterno and the Penn State football program. And about me.

I get the passion, I really do. When the Red Sox started 2-10 this year I was wondering. They eventually got to first place and until this month they seemed to be a lock for the postseason. (And yes, I’m worried. But still hopeful they’ll hold on -- although losing to the O’s on Wednesday night hurt. A lot.)

The VAST majority of Penn State fans are true blue, true believers and true to their belief in Success with Honor. There are some, however, who profess the faith in good times and then look for the nearest exit when times get tough.

That is certainly their right to do so. But true fans of any team – even those of us who root for the BoSox – choose to stay loyal, through the thick of two World Series titles in four years and through the current thin of 14 losses in 18 games.


It may be the times in which we live. This is an era of over-hyped expectations and instant gratification, where the idea of building something of value -- with values -- over the long haul is often neither wanted nor appreciated.

It is human nature and it is not new.

As far back as the late 1700s some people turned on beloved President George Washington. His own Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, facilitated the appearance of anonymous essays in party newspapers, as well as those written under fake names. (Perhaps these were the earliest origins of anonymous comments and postings on message boards under pseudonyms.)

As a coach, I understand the frustration of wanting to win.

When we win, the players and coaches and staff and all of our families revel in it, just like the fans do.

When we lose -- as bad as any fan believes he or she hurts, and I know they genuinely do -- believe me, no one feels it more than we do.


But we all can learn from the ups and downs. Especially the student-athletes, the ones who play the game.

In college athletics a team is made up of young men who have real-world problems. They walk a tightrope, competing at a high level in the classroom and also on the field of play before crowds of 100,000, plus millions more watching on television.

One player may be playing hurt or sick. Another may be playing knowing that a family member had passed away or that his mother or father is battling cancer.

It is all a part of the complex issues and individual circumstances that make college coaching different and, at times, difficult. We are operating in many cases “in loco parentis” -- in the place of parents.

The most valuable lesson I can impart on the young men I coach is another Latin phrase:

Illegitimus non carborundum est.

Loosely translated: “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”

If you operate in any public forum -- be you a coach or a politician -- you must live your life knowing that through disappointment, tough people remain and others fall away.

No one is on top all the time. No one. The sooner you learn to fight your way up the more success you’ll have in life. If you choose to sit, complain and point fingers, you will never get anywhere.


I am often reminded of Sept. 24, 2005. Our squad was on the road against Northwestern that day, and it was halftime. After 30 minutes of football we were struggling as a team, and our quarterback, Michael Robinson, was having a tough first half. Many friends and fans later admitted to me that they hoped we’d bench him because they didn’t believe he could get it done.

Michael fought back, our team fought back and ultimately many Penn State fans got amnesia about where they stood at that moment. That is a great thing about athletics -- no matter what the sport, its history is filled with moments when dark doubts are banished by triumph.

So no matter what transpires this Saturday and the remainder of the Saturdays this fall, the lesson for student-athletes remains the same:

You either fight on or fold your tent. You either get on board or jump ship. And either way, your decision will show your true colors.

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
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