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Penn State Football: Paterno Is The Story – Not New, But News

by on August 05, 2010 7:04 AM

On Monday afternoon, for 17 minutes and 44 seconds, Penn State football coach Joe Paterno met the press at the Big Ten football media days in Chicago. (video)

Later on Monday, he recorded a 3-minute, 56-second one-on-one interview with Joe Schad that played on ESPN. (video)

The national folks love Joe.

That's a total of 21 minutes and 40 seconds – about the same airtime as Charlie Sheen got later that night on the CBS comedy, "Two and a Half Men."

QUESTIONS NOT ASKED

Not once in either interview session on Monday was Paterno asked about a Penn State player.

Not about the Oct. 2 roadtrip to Iowa, where Penn State hasn't won in its last three tries. Or about the Nittany Lions' Nov. 13 road game at the Horseshoe, where Penn State has won only once (in 2008) in eight tries since the Lions joined the Big Ten in 1993.

In fact, where the national media corps is concerned, he wasn't asked about very much. Except about being Joe Paterno – and his health.

Of the 16 questions posed to Paterno during those two media ops, there were as many questions about the Alabama game – you may have heard that PSU plays there on Sept. 11 – as there were about "What makes you happy, Joe?" The answer: One of each.

There was also a solitary question about Paterno's 400th victory, which is just six wins away. Kind of a big deal, I think.

Overall, here is the tally of question topics posited on Monday:

Health, age, retirement – 9

Big Ten expansion – 3

2010 expectations - 1

400 wins – 1

Alabama – 1

Being happy - 1

To be fair, in more informal settings on Monday and Tuesday, the questions posed to Paterno were much broader. Mark Brennan of FightOnState.com and one of the beat's best reporters for a long time, was on the scene in Chicago.

Brennan reports that a 12-minute off-the-cuff hallway Q&A with Paterno covered a wide range of issues, including "the QBs, Big Ten expansion, Big Ten divisions, the STEP seating plan, Penn State-Nebraska, the timing of Big Ten Media Days and preparing for the season."

Here's a three-minute excerpt of that impromptu session on FightOnState, with the sole focus of the exchange Paterno's health and future.

The Penn State beat writers, accustomed to Paterno through good and bad, cover the wider spectrum of the team. Not true of the national press or the beat writers who follow the other Big Ten teams. As shown in the first two videos, Joe is their news.

Part of the reason for the onslaught of octogenarian queries is that much of the aforementioned non-PA media corps in attendance do not have much exposure to JoePa, justifiably a legend to them and almost everyone else. A smaller reason is that other than Evan Royster, the team does not have an identifiable star (and even Evan lacks national panache). And, to be honest, the team does not have a shot at contending for the Big Ten title.

That leaves us – and the media that are not hometown in location or elocution – with Paterno.

Not a bad place for most college football writers' stories to be – beginning, middle and end.

Some of that will change next Thursday at 1:30 p.m., when Penn State will hold its own Media Day on campus. Then, most likely, the attention – mostly journalists from Pennsylvania, unlike the regional and national focus of the Big Ten media daze – will shift to the 2010 squad, its players, its challenges and its schedule. Somewhat.

JOE IS THE STAR

No matter what, Joe is the national star. And each between now and the day of his retirement, that quasar will only brighten – if that is possible.

For nearly all of his 45 years as Penn State's coach, Paterno has been the story out of sleepy State College, equally inaccessible from anywhere. When they finally made it to town, the national press has loved him. He is good copy.

In the 1960s, it was that brash young coach and his "Grand Experiment."

In the 1970s, it was a tiff with Nixon, a high-profile commencement speech, finally a No. 1 in 1978 and a "60 Minutes" profile the eve of the 1979 Sugar Bowl against Alabama.

In the 1980s, there were two national championships and a Sports Illustrated "Sportsman of the Year."

In the 1990s, there was status as an elder statesman ("still coaching in his late 60s!"), a $3.5 million gift to Penn State and an early big splash in the Big Ten.

And the 2000s brought losses aplenty, a national focus on whether Joe was past his prime and then, when wins exploded from 2005-2009, plaudits and praise nearly unmatched in Paterno's storied career. Lazarus meet George Burns.

The final return to glory, the most emotion-evoking of them all, placed JoePa even higher on the pedestal.

Paterno has always overshadowed the program, then and now. And mostly, that's because he made the program. And is still the program.

EVAN ROYSTER WHO?

Poor Royster. He's going to finish as Penn State's all-time leading rusher – a huge achievement in the Land of Warner, Ki-Jana, Blair, L.J., Lydell, Pittman and Cappelletti. Yet in those 22 questions posed to Paterno on Aug. 2, not one focused on this season's No. 22.

 

About Cappy, the other 22: He is the only Nittany Lion in Paterno's 44 year-and-counting head coaching career to win the Heisman. Playing for Paterno, it wasn't easy. That Cappy is best known for what he did off the field (the heart-wrenching remarks about his dying brother Joey) than what he did on it (the only Nittany Lion to win the Heisman) may serve as proof that only the greatest of stories, the most compelling storylines, can wrest the headlines from Paterno. Has it cost Lion stars Heisman votes? Who knows?

Not that Paterno has sought the spotlight, especially in the later years. But he has always been good at dealing with the press, especially the national folks. The beat writers, maybe not so much: That's been an on-again, off-again thing for years.

LESS JOE TO PROMO

In recent years, the Penn State marketing gurus have made a concerted effort to focus more on Penn State football, the Penn State tradition, the Penn State experience. And less on Paterno.

They didn't do it to be mean or out of spite, but Joe The Brand is already known. Penn State football needed the pub, not Joe.

That's why the weekly highlight show has metamorphosed over time.

In 1975, it was called "TV Quarterbacks" and 27 percent of the show was Paterno, with Joe on-screen for 15-and-a-half minutes of the 58-minute show. By 2008, when I broke down an episode of "The Penn State Football Show," Joe was on-screen or had a voice-over for 83 seconds of the 22-minute, 15-second show.

 

That's Joe for only 6 percent of the show.

Now comes word that the "Nittany Lion Hotline" radio call-in show, which is aired Thursday evenings during the football season and features callers' Q&A with Paterno (usually), will be no more. It will get a new name and a new focus. And less of the guy everyone knew.

So, obviously, there is less Paterno these days, whether you measure it in days, media conferences or Penn State promotions.

If you have been paying attention the past few years, that's not new. But today -- on the day when Paterno takes the practice field for his 61st season coaching at Penn State -- it's all the more reason that it's news.



Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979. He is a senior lecturer in Penn State's College of Communications and teaches a pair of classes in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism: “Sports Writing” and “Introduction to the Sports Industry.” He created and taught for several years the Center’s course on “Joe Paterno, Communications and The Media.” Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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