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Penn State's Jay Paterno: The Loss Stings More When Dad Is the Coach

by on October 07, 2010 6:50 AM

“Success is never final and failure is never fatal.” –Winston Churchill

This past Sunday I woke up with the knowledge that we had lost a big game the night before. But that morning I was struck with another realization.

I’ve always taken pride in striving to be a good father. My job probably prevents me from being a great father, meaning the guy coaching youth soccer or little league, helping with homework or attending all the parent-teacher conferences.  I try to do my best. I don’t golf, hunt or fish, mostly because the time I do have I want to spend with my kids.

Sunday morning I had to face a son so saddened by the loss he didn’t want to talk about it or even talk to me. In my laser focus on my job I hadn’t realized how much the games have come to mean to him. I believe football is just a game and just a part of life. I had forgotten it can be bigger than life to a 10-year-old boy.

Coaching at Penn State you know many fans are invested emotionally in what happens every Saturday. But the drawback to the college football schedule is that after a loss, there is a whole week until the next game. In baseball the next game is the next day; in the NBA it is never more than a day or two away. In the NFL you have a whole week, but one regular-season loss doesn’t end your hopes for the NFL title.

The week between games gives some of the most intense fans the time to share their coaching critiques with the coaches via e-mail or fax. There is a general pattern to a week after a loss.

Sunday the loss feels like a hangover; you wake with a bad feeling from the game the day before. We watch the video, learning from mistakes and highlighting the positives. By late Sunday afternoon we’ve moved onto the next game.

For some fans Sunday and Monday are two days of reliving the game. By Thursday hopes are up and attention turns to the upcoming game.

I have no scientific data to back up my assertion, but I do have plenty of anecdotal evidence. The negative e-mail flow is heavy immediately after a loss, and on Sunday and Monday. Later in the week anger wanes and the encouraging e-mails appear in the in-box.

My moods don’t fluctuate with the ups and downs as much as they used to—hopefully due to increasing maturity on my part. Make no mistake, I hate every loss. But I learned to cope with criticism years ago.

Sunday morning on my way to work I thought back to when I was ten-years-old. January 1979 began with the loss of a national championship in the Sugar Bowl. When the fall season started with one win and two losses, kids in school started to share negative things their parents were saying about my father.  

At that age children become capable of being cruel to others and aware of the impact it can have on their target. One morning before school I had heard enough. I refused to go into school and sat on the curb in the school parking lot and cried. One friend stayed with me until I calmed down, but I just didn’t want to face any more commentary about my Dad and the previous Saturday’s loss.

But my mother never coddled me or tried to protect us by confronting teachers about how we were being teased. The lesson was to live with the hand that life dealt us—both the positives and negatives.

I learned biting comments may hurt, but they never injure. No one will ever bring me back to that 10-year-old boy—that lesson thickened my skin. Anyone who works in the public sphere has to understand that there will be those who look over your shoulder and think they can do it better. We’re not perfect; sometimes we make mistakes.

But as a father, first and foremost I have to be there for my children. They didn’t choose my profession and the baggage that sometimes comes with it. Sunday morning’s question was: Have I done what I can? It is not to take away that learning experience, but to help my children understand what it is.

Sunday morning I looked at my own son and remembered my emotions that fall day in 1979 when I was his age. The lesson I need to impart as a father and a coach is that you are not defined by the losses, nor can you get carried away with the wins.

This week I got a reminder to be a father to my son, and to the young men I coach. The wins and losses will always be there and it is how you respond to both that shows character and creates true success in life.

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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