Penn State Football: Joe Paterno’s Tunnel Vision for 2011
On Thursday, Joe Paterno returns to the scene of the supposed decline.
It was nearly a year ago when Paterno left State College on an early Monday morning, flying directly to Chicago for the Big Ten Conference’s annual football media days.
The university’s private plane landed just fine, but the Penn State football coach nearly crash-landed. In a 17-minute, 10-second appearance before scores of media people from around the country, the 83-year-old Paterno sounded weak and looked wane.
Granted, he was recovering from some summer health problems caused by reactions to medicine. And a number of public and private functions in State College the previous few days had sapped his strength.
But his poor performance at the press conference on Aug. 2, 2010, drew notice around the country and even in his own locker room. His players, some later admitted off-the-record, privately wondered if their legendary coach was going to make it through the 2010 football season.
Paterno most certainly did, visibly gaining strength as the season progressed even though the resultant 7-6 record was, in the words of veteran safety Drew Astorino, “humiliating.” And that’s Paterno’s 400th win notwithstanding.
As a result, Paterno has promised to work his team harder in the 2011 preseason drills, which begin on Thursday, Aug. 4. His players have gotten the message:
Linebacker Nate Stupar: “Joe’s been talking about having a little bit of attitude. He has something to prove. We all have something to prove.”
Wide receiver Justin Brown: “There’s a real sense of urgency.”
Senior DeOn’tae Pannell: “Joe seems 10 years younger. He’s more energetic. I think he’s too hard on himself. He can’t wait.”
Astorino: “Personally, I was embarassed by last year.”
Linebacker Michael Mauti: “It was a failure for all of us.”
“I didn’t do a very good job,” has been his mantra. And he’s right.
HARDLY A CAKEWALK
At long last, Paterno is healthy, by nearly all accounts – some of them via JoePa sightings emanating from around town and campus. After several years of fighting broken bones and busted hips and wayward stomachs, Paterno is once again hitting the bricks.
He is a man on a mission. Still – as he enters his 46th season as the Nittany Lions’ head coach and 62nd at Penn State.
The 2011 campaign is Penn State’s 125th playing football. And Paterno has been on the sidelines for 693 of Penn State’s 1,217 games. That’s 56.94 percent. (It would be 695, but he missed two games when his father passed away and when his son David was in a serious accident.)
Look for the next game, the Sept. 3 opener in Beaver Stadium against sub-lowly Indiana State, to feature something old about Paterno that will be new again in 2011:
The word is Paterno is working out – speed-walking, actually – like a mad man so he can run out of the tunnel for that opening game.
Don’t put it past him: He’ll be 84 years and 256 days old that day, but his rolled-up pants won’t be a wrinkle over 30. It’s been a tough walk in Sunset Park – and everywhere else – for Paterno to get back into this kind of shape. To wit:
WALKING STORY NO. 1: JOE THE GROUCH
Senior offensive tackle Chima Okoli was driving on campus this summer when he spied a familiar figure up ahead, walking up a fairly steep grade.
“It was around noon and really hot out. I saw Joe walking up Bigler Road,” said Okoli. “My friends in the car had never seen Joe before, so they were pretty excited. I pulled over and rolled down the window.”
Paterno came over to the car, peered in and after a few seconds realized it was Okoli.
“Hey Coach,” Okoli said. “Do you need a ride?”
“Can’t you see I’m exercising?” Paterno snorted, and walked off in a huff.
As Okoli retells the story, he laughs and then turns serious: “Joe is looking better than he has in a long time. That 7-6 was not good. It really ticked him off.”
WALKING STORY NO. 2: JOE THE STUD
My buddy works on campus, and walks to and from his home in West College Heights twice a day, once for lunch.
Several weeks ago as he was headed home near the Penn State golf course, he passed Paterno, who gave my friend a hello – as has been the case for three decades when the fellow walkers crossed paths. They both then continued on their way.
My buddy kept an eye on Paterno as the coach headed off in full stride. Paterno walked straight down the street, then suddenly crossed over to the other side. Apparently the icon noticed an attractive (my friend says) young woman out gardening in her front yard. Paterno stopped and chatted with her.
When the conversation ended a short while later, Paterno headed down the walk a bit, then crossed back over the street to his original path, the diversion obviously – my friend says – worth the detour.
WALKING STORY NO. 3: JOE GOES THE DISTANCE
A few weeks ago, one of those guys who home-delivers freshly-butchered meats saw Paterno out in the Chestnut Ridge neighborhood of State College. That’s according to another friend of mine, the kind of guy whose wife buys freshly-butchered meat from a guy in a truck.
(I called the butcher twice to confirm this story, but he lacked the chops to call me back. So I pass along the following morsel subject to a bit of grilling – although my source is a journalist and swears he heard the story from the butcher himself.)
The butcher spotted Paterno in a tony section of State College, located at the western edge adjacent to state game lands. Joe stopped and the two talked. Then Joe headed off for home – completing a roundtrip of about six miles.
The moral of the story?
When he has tunnel vision, Joe Paterno may briefly stop to smell the roses, but after 62 years he's still ready to meat a challenge.