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The Paterno Class

by on January 26, 2012 1:25 AM

This week, Mike Poorman is writing a series of columns chronicling the impact of Joe Paterno over the 34 years Poorman has written about and been
a part of Penn State.

Tuesday: Joe Paterno & The Penn State Students

Wednesday: Joe Paterno & The Interviews

Thursday: Joe Paterno & The Paterno Class

Friday: Joe Paterno & State College

When an emissary approached Joe Paterno early in 2008 concerning the creation of a communications course about Joe and the media, the coach balked.

And it wasn’t because he didn’t like the media.

“Awww,” he crowed to the guy who pitched him the idea, “I’m busy enough already. I don’t have enough time to teach a class too.”

“No,” he was told. “Poorman will do the teaching.”

“Oh,” replied a relieved Paterno. “In that case, go ahead.”

So we did.

It was called “Joe Paterno, Communications & The Media.” The course was a look at the changes in sports journalism and communications – marketing, branding, broadcasting, speeches and spinning – from the 1950s through today.

And in terms of today, we took that literally. Often, the lesson was ripped from today’s headlines. (See: November 2011.)

For four years, the class met twice a week for 75 minutes and covered six decades of sports journalism and more. Joe was the one constant, the benchmark in a semester-long case study that began by covering an era with no face guards and finished in the heyday of Facebook and Twitter -- what Paterno called Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

(Given the false reports of his death several days ago, I guess Paterno’s vernacular for the 140-character miscarriage of misinformation in this case was right-on. And we did talk about the Twitter fiasco in my sports writing class on Tuesday – just the sort of thing we would have done in the “Paterno & The Media” course as well.

(We also would have shown a clip of Paterno’s Big Ten Conference media day comments from August 2010, when he began with “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” Then we would have read part of Twain’s original essay and finished off with a few video examples of Paterno’s use of literature to adroitly deflect questions.)

Before it received formal university approval, the course was put through the ringer. That meant objectives, goals, assessments, metrics, anticipated outcomes and meetings.

John Curley, the first editor of USA Today and the former CEO of Gannett, provided some valuable input. He, along with Doug Anderson, the dean of the College of Communications, had founded the College’s Curley Center for Sports Journalism. Many people helped with the creation and fine-tuning of the course, but without Anderson and Curley it never would have gotten off the ground.

Another key figure in its creation was Dr. Jack Selzer, at the time the associate dean in the College of Liberal Arts, and a scholar who is also schooled in athletics and Paterno. He went on to found the Paterno Scholars program. And the journalist and lecturer in the office next to mine, Steve Sampsell, was and is a terrific sounding board and brainstormer as well.

So the course was tagged with a temporary course designation of Comm 497. That number, following by a letter (mine was 497G), is for experimental, topical or one-shot courses. The idea going in was always that if the course “worked,” it would last only as long as Paterno coached.

The course was real time, and almost daily we used fresh media examples in class. As such, the course was usually just offered in the fall – football season -- since it started in 2008.

                                              * * * *

Once the class was up and running, guest lecturers came in person and via Skype. We had writers, editors, reporters, PR people, marketers, authors and bloggers. They came from all the major media – ESPN, ABC, New York Times, Sports Illustrated, as well as a myriad of newspapers, TV outlets and websites such as Rivals and Scout.

We took field trips to Paterno’s press conference, dissecting the exercise through post-game rhetorical analysis. The president of SI compared his brand to that of JVP. MRob Skyped about his Web show, Penn State’s archivists always gave a historically interesting lesson that preceded the final project assignment, and Fran Fisher and Lou Prato -- Penn State legends in my book -- covered a combined 75 years of broadcasting.

It wasn’t all Italian wine and Rose Bowls. We spent three classes breaking down an “Outside The Lines” report that skewered Paterno, and rightfully so; investigated why the local media only pitched softballs; and rehashed pressers where Paterno was not only evasive, but not understandable. Perception vs. reality was a theme, and criticism of Paterno was de rigueur.

My favorite part was looking at Paterno’s speeches, the ones where he used his communication skills to affect change, manage public opinion, direct the university and wield power won on the football field. These included his 1973 Commencement address; his 1983 lecture to the Board of Trustees, when he told it – in essence – that he wanted a university his football team could be proud of; his stiff-arming of the Faculty Senate when he was athletic director; and his seconding nomination of George Bush at the 1988 Republication Convention.

(In class, we not only watched the speech, but the news coverage that preceded it, to discuss how television news covered Joe’s biggest foray into politics.)

The class was never designed to go on forever. When Joe stopped coaching, I would stop teaching (the Paterno class, that is). Earlier this month, after a meeting of the College of Communications administrative minds, that was unanimously reaffirmed. So the 2011 edition was its last.

It finished with a flurry.

                                                   * * * * * 

When the Sandusky scandal hit, I threw out the syllabus. From that point on, every lecture was of the just-in-time inventory variety, the multiple lessons and never-ending examples coming so fast and furious that all-nighters to prep for the next day became commonplace.

For the final eight classes of the semester, as well as the course, I settled into a teaching template. The first half of the class a particular issue or two was framed, often using video examples that were, sometimes, all of an hour old. Parachute and pack journalism, sourcing, local vs. national reporting, ethics, the story told globally, inept PR, multi-platform journalism, crime reporting, reporting the law and the presentment in accurate layman’s terms – they were all lessons on the fly.

Sara Ganim, the reporter who broke the story, was a guest lecturer four days after the charges were filed. The lawyer who counseled the Central Mountain superintendent about reporting in 2008 shared background information and evaluated the media coverage.

The class not only studied the news, it made it. Joe Posnanski of Sports Illustrated came to class and the students Tweeted so loudly and thoroughly his editor called, wanting a transcript of class that day. Jay Paterno, as media-savvy as any guest the entire semester, lectured on the last day of class – as he had every year the class was held – and gave his POV of the media coverage.

USA Today, The New Yorker, the New York Times and a myriad of newspapers came to class to do stories on the students who were studying what those very news outlets were reporting. Fox News taped an entire class, then did a sit-down with some students. (I know what you’re thinking; but the final report, done by John Roberts, was crisply fair and balanced.) It was like Escher’s Drawing Hands – one creating the other.

Class was exactly as I hoped it would be, in terms of relevance and lessons learned. But it occurred under circumstances I could have never imagined nor desired. They were real-life examples that were literally and horribly surreal.

Paterno himself never came to class over the four years, although he was always pumped and primed when the students attended one of his pressers. In January 2011, he apologized to me profusely for not making it there – he said then he’d do so this past fall. Well, we all knew what happened. 

Still, Joe was in class everyday. Especially so over the course’s final days.

                                                    * * * * *

Back to the spring of 2008, at the course’s genesis:

A few weeks after Paterno’s initial approval of the course, I dropped off a pile of supporting papers at his office, with a cover letter outlining the course’s salient points. It was on a Sunday afternoon and an assistant who was there put the oversized envelope on Paterno’s chair.

On Tuesday, the cover letter came back via intercampus mail – sans the explanatory papers. (Which means he looked at the packet on Monday and turned it around right away.)

For decades it was Joe’s style when responding to letters and notes to return the original document, with a few of his own words or sentences carefully written in the margin. His handwriting was impressive, cleanly legible with crisp loops – they must have had a helluva penmanship class at Brooklyn Prep back in the 1940s.

In the upper right corner of the note about the eponymous course was this message:

“Thanks, Mike. Thanks for sharing this. Looks good. But I’m still not sure why anyone would want to go to a class that has my name on it. Joe P.”


Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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