My buddy Terry Losch is Joe Paterno’s running advocate.
Terry and I run together for an hour several times a week, and longer on Sundays. Terry has lived in State College his entire life and has run a retail shop on Allen Street in the downtown for a quarter century or so.
As we run, we talk what you’d think two middle-aged guys would talk about (wink, wink, nudge, nudge).
We also talk about Penn State football. And Joe Paterno. A lot.
Terry is a townie, a Penn State graduate, an astute sports observer, a guest lecturer in numerous Penn State classes, a hard-driving former competitive athlete, a businessman serving students, visitors and alumni. He deals in running shoes and sporting goods.
And reality. He’s not a homer. If a player pees in public at 4 a.m., Terry won’t shower him with praise – even if he is a 100-yard rusher.
Terry is a big Joe Paterno fan, for all of the above reasons and more.
“People better be careful,” he says a couple of times a week. “Joe’s going to be gone soon and there’s never going another one like him. Ever. People don’t realize that. They don’t get it. This is it.”
HEAR ME OUT
“You know,” I say, “at his Tuesday press conferences Joe sometimes gives answers that don’t match the questions.”
“Of course he does,” snaps Terry.
“He’s almost 84 years old. He needs a hearing aid.”
I doubt any of Joe’s inner circle has told the coach that. (It would help both Joe and the beat writers if someone did.)
But Terry, who has had a passing acquaintance with Joe for several decades, having seen the coach scores of times walking on trails surrounding the town, would tell him directly to get that hearing thing straightened out.
“And don’t be a cochlea about it,” Terry would smirk. “Or else I’ll lay down the hammer.”
Terry can be blunt. And funny.
He marvels at Joe the athlete.
“Joe’s still in incredible shape. You can go to,” and he names a local senior citizens place, “and you just don’t find people Joe’s age doing what he does. And his running form, the way he still runs…that’s better form than I have.”
True enough. Terry’s 58 but he runs like, well, like he’s almost 84. When we do a speed workout it takes him 40 minutes just to warm up. His foreplay must be hell.
Tuesday afternoon, as usual, I spent 31 minutes at Paterno’s weekly press conference. As usual, later in the day Joe’s remarks were fodder for our running conversation (puns are a big part of what we do, too).
“Joe talked a lot about youth at the press conference today,” I report. “He said 59 of the players on the team are freshmen or sophomores. Only eight seniors, he says, are real contributors to this year’s team. And of 13 kids sidelined for the Indiana game on Saturday, five or six of them would’ve been first-stringers.”
Terry knew what was up. We'd been down this path before.
“They just finished a 11-2 season…two of them, plus what? About 29-30 wins before that? Of course there’s going to be a lot of young kids. That’s what happens when you win a lot of games and your stars graduate. What’s left are young players.”
“Yeah,” I say, “but they’re getting slaughtered. They already lost four games by 20 points or more, which Cory Giger says has never happened before under Joe Paterno.”
The guys in Terry’s sporting goods store (Hi, Jason) listen to Cory’s local sports talk show on ESPN every afternoon, so a Cory reference always gets Terry’s extra attention.
“So? Your point?”
Sometimes, Terry sounds like Joe Paterno. Lucky me.
“They’re losing by big margins. Doesn’t that tell you something?”
“Well, Ding Dong,” he actually talks like that. As Joe is mired in the pop culture of the ’40s and ’50s pop so is Terry in the ’50s and ’60s.
“What, no one expected this? It’s news? Everyone figured they would lose to Alabama, Iowa and Ohio State. And we thought they might lose to Michigan. So they’re at four losses. No surprise.
“They’ll win at Indiana, and if they beat Michigan State they’ll be 8-4. Now tell me: What did you think they’d finish?”
“Uh, well, 8-4.”
“My point. Exactly.”
He can be so smug.
“Now tell me,” Terry says, gaining speed – we’ve been running for 38 minutes in the rain and wind, zig-zagging across campus and in town.
“How is Florida doing this season? Weren’t they ranked second last year? Do you think Urban Meyer is doing any better than Joe this year? And aren’t some people saying that Penn State’s going to play them in the Gator Bowl? Together…same bowl…same season.”
I knew Florida was not having a landmark season. We counted at last three losses, there in the dark, my fingers starting to numb.
(It turns out Florida has a 6-4 record, with a combined 27 points of offense in three of the four losses. And, here’s where I hate Terry for being so right. The Gators lost 31-6 to Alabama three weeks after Penn State fell 24-3 to the Tide; both games were in Tuscaloosa.
(Penn State’s 6-4 record is similar; the Nittany Lions’ average points scored per loss is eight points, and the Big Ten is fairly equal to the SEC in talent this year, maybe even better.)
“And what about Texas? Aren’t you the sportswriter?” Shut up, Terry. “How is Mack Brown doing this year?”
“He’s lost more than either Penn State or Florida.”
“My point. Exactly.”
(Texas, ranked No. 3 last year, is 4-6 this season, with a win against Nebraska. But there have been losses to Iowa State, Baylor, K-State and UCLA.)
We’re getting closer to home.
“But,” I point out, “over the past five years Florida has won two national championships and Texas one, while losing in the title game last year.”
“Yeah, but they’re all close,” says Terry, right again. Since 2005, Florida is 63-14, Texas is 62-14 and Penn State is 57-16.
“Now, though, they are all in the same boat. They are losing more than usual, they are making tons of mistakes, their rosters are populated with underclassmen, they are casting about for some leadership and the alumni are up in arms.”
An important difference is this: Joe is almost 84. Brown is 59. Meyer is 46 (but nearly quit coaching…for what, a week?).
“Of course age has something to do with it,” Terry says, as we are near the end of the run. "But only if Joe loses."
AN ANSWER FOR THE AGES
“We’ll find out soon enough if they can mold that youth, find some leadership, motivate their coaching staffs, cut down on the mistakes, work harder and recruit enough to full the gaps.
“That goes for Joe, too. If they beat Michigan State, win the Gator Bowl and go 9-4, then that’s a good start.
“Who can fault that?” Terry says, daring me to answer. I don't cut him off.
“If not, if Joe can’t get them back, we’ll know in the next year or two -- either way. In the meantime, they better appreciate him. Joe’s going to be gone soon and he’s not coming back.”
We’ve finished the run –- and I think I’ve got my column, I tell Terry.
“Well, if that’s the case, remember one thing: The store’s at 115 South Allen Street. Make sure you get the address right, Ding Dong.”