Coach Paterno and the "Penn State Way"

Sometimes a coach is more than just a coach. The best among them become role models for values transcending the arena of athletic competition. When such a coach works with students during their malleable years, some of the most valuable learning imaginable is offered, and taken directly to heart.

Seventy—eight year—old Joe Paterno won't retire after this football season, and Saturday's game at Beaver Stadium won't be his last game in front of the Penn State faithful. But neither of those is reason to do anything other than root for Paterno and his team this weekend. 

Even by normal early—November standards the game is compelling. Penn State, verging on a Big Ten title and a BCS bid, faces what may be the toughest obstacle between it and a sparkling 11—1 finish. They'll play the Wisconsin Badgers, a team that's handed the Lions their share of heartache during Penn State's recent spate of futility. This time around, Penn State's suffocating defense and its home turf, which is suddenly recognized as one of the country's toughest road venues, will probably turn the game in Penn State's favor. The crowd will be raucous, and a lot of fun to watch.

But there's a bigger story here. If you care a whit about college football, you know what the past five years have been like for the Nittany Lions and their iconic coach. Aside from blips of success in 2002, since PSU lost at home to Toledo (I'm serious) in 2000, their performance has been miserable, and depressing.  Last year most of Penn State's opponents might've said Penn State was one of their toughest games — the Lions were close in almost every game, never giving up more than 21 points (only one other team, Auburn, could say the same thing). But they lost and lost, until wrapping up with two decent wins and finishing at 4—7, which might be palatable elsewhere but is simply nauseating in Happy Valley.

This season the turnaround this has been thrilling, even breathtaking. Penn State is stacked with speed and versatility and, better yet, with upperclassmen who learned humility and spent last winter believing in a system that, until then, seemed to have betrayed them. Remarkably, too, it's brimming with freshmen who contribute — a delicacy Joe Pa never afforded himself in the past. Blue—chip recruits are lining up again, too, and the program has purged itself of a batch of bad seeds that were conspiring, it seemed, to send Paterno packing in a way he never deserved.

By all accounts, Penn State is back, and yet it's not only Penn State fans who should take notice. The message Paterno and Penn State bring with them — that a top program needn't trade in its integrity — is back too, and it's one that makes Saturday's game a must—see.  Paterno's contrbutions to the NCAA are almost a cliché. Everyone knows that Penn State frowns on 'fun & gun' glitz and Heisman poses, and Paterno's insistence on classroom performance is as legendary as his tacky pants and retro specs. The program isn't perfect, but Paterno's legend has been hard—earned.

One message is 'loyalty,' a word Penn State fans proudly say is central to what they love about the program. Michael Robinson, the team's fifth—year quarterback, knows this isn't just a jingle. Coming into this season many thought the team would be better off if Robinson, who'd never complained while being shuffled between quarterback, running back and wide receiver the previous three seasons, would yield the QB spot to a sophomore named Anthony Morelli, who happens to be oozing with talent. But Paterno made clear the job was Robinson's to lose, something that wouldn't have been the case at many schools, particularly given what's been at stake for the program.

But Paterno stuck with Robinson, even when in the first half of PSU's first conference game — the first real test of the 2005 team and a pivotal game in Penn State's turnaround — Robinson committed four ugly turnovers and looked like a poor sheep lost in the Big Ten woods. As Penn State emerged for the second half and with the program itself teetering, many Penn State fans hoped to see Morelli under center.  But Paterno stood by Robinson, and Robinson delivered. It's already Lion lore that before a last—minute, game—winning drive in that game Robinson looked at his offense and provoked them, 'What kind of team do you want to be?' — seconds before he managed a TD strike as he was mauled by a Northwestern blitz. Since then 2005's been a magnificent campaign, centered on Robinson discombobulating opposing D's with an unfair arsenal of skills and quiet leadership.

It's only recently the phrase, 'The Penn State Way' has entered the college football lexicon but in reality, only the term itself is new.  Paterno's commitment to his program, his athletes, the University, and to the quaint idea of 'winning with integrity' has guided countless college and high school programs for decades. In the span of four decades that's seen college sports consumed with bad intentions Penn State has competed with many programs that offer themselves as proxies for minor leagues. Joe Pa has built and kept intact a program that doesn't just win but molds its players, as Penn State's alma mater goes, into men, rather than draft picks. Penn State fans can rattle off dozens of stories like Robinson's — players who after leaving the University stand ready to face the world, whether or not it involves playing football on Sunday afternoons. That's something to root for.

Saturday afternoon may be one of those few, fleeting moments when history is ours to witness. It will be Senior Day at Penn State, and many of those players in plain blue won't play competitive football much longer. Penn State fans would say those seniors deserve to know success, and fairly.  But don't watch, and don't root for Penn State just for that reason. Joe Paterno's career has been a magnificent gift not only to Penn State fans but to college sports. He's not retiring just yet, but this could be Paterno's last great team. In the end, to root for Penn State in this game and for one more glorious season for Paterno is to hope college sports can fulfill its promise to every kid who scores a touchdown and knows the difference between launching a Terrell Owens dance and just handing the ball to the referee.

Bill Lalor is an attorney and writer (and a Penn State alum) living in Manhattan. He is the proprietor of the group blog and webzine Citizen Journal.

Sometimes a coach is more than just a coach. The best among them become role models for values transcending the arena of athletic competition. When such a coach works with students during their malleable years, some of the most valuable learning imaginable is offered, and taken directly to heart.

Seventy—eight year—old Joe Paterno won't retire after this football season, and Saturday's game at Beaver Stadium won't be his last game in front of the Penn State faithful. But neither of those is reason to do anything other than root for Paterno and his team this weekend. 

Even by normal early—November standards the game is compelling. Penn State, verging on a Big Ten title and a BCS bid, faces what may be the toughest obstacle between it and a sparkling 11—1 finish. They'll play the Wisconsin Badgers, a team that's handed the Lions their share of heartache during Penn State's recent spate of futility. This time around, Penn State's suffocating defense and its home turf, which is suddenly recognized as one of the country's toughest road venues, will probably turn the game in Penn State's favor. The crowd will be raucous, and a lot of fun to watch.

But there's a bigger story here. If you care a whit about college football, you know what the past five years have been like for the Nittany Lions and their iconic coach. Aside from blips of success in 2002, since PSU lost at home to Toledo (I'm serious) in 2000, their performance has been miserable, and depressing.  Last year most of Penn State's opponents might've said Penn State was one of their toughest games — the Lions were close in almost every game, never giving up more than 21 points (only one other team, Auburn, could say the same thing). But they lost and lost, until wrapping up with two decent wins and finishing at 4—7, which might be palatable elsewhere but is simply nauseating in Happy Valley.

This season the turnaround this has been thrilling, even breathtaking. Penn State is stacked with speed and versatility and, better yet, with upperclassmen who learned humility and spent last winter believing in a system that, until then, seemed to have betrayed them. Remarkably, too, it's brimming with freshmen who contribute — a delicacy Joe Pa never afforded himself in the past. Blue—chip recruits are lining up again, too, and the program has purged itself of a batch of bad seeds that were conspiring, it seemed, to send Paterno packing in a way he never deserved.

By all accounts, Penn State is back, and yet it's not only Penn State fans who should take notice. The message Paterno and Penn State bring with them — that a top program needn't trade in its integrity — is back too, and it's one that makes Saturday's game a must—see.  Paterno's contrbutions to the NCAA are almost a cliché. Everyone knows that Penn State frowns on 'fun & gun' glitz and Heisman poses, and Paterno's insistence on classroom performance is as legendary as his tacky pants and retro specs. The program isn't perfect, but Paterno's legend has been hard—earned.

One message is 'loyalty,' a word Penn State fans proudly say is central to what they love about the program. Michael Robinson, the team's fifth—year quarterback, knows this isn't just a jingle. Coming into this season many thought the team would be better off if Robinson, who'd never complained while being shuffled between quarterback, running back and wide receiver the previous three seasons, would yield the QB spot to a sophomore named Anthony Morelli, who happens to be oozing with talent. But Paterno made clear the job was Robinson's to lose, something that wouldn't have been the case at many schools, particularly given what's been at stake for the program.

But Paterno stuck with Robinson, even when in the first half of PSU's first conference game — the first real test of the 2005 team and a pivotal game in Penn State's turnaround — Robinson committed four ugly turnovers and looked like a poor sheep lost in the Big Ten woods. As Penn State emerged for the second half and with the program itself teetering, many Penn State fans hoped to see Morelli under center.  But Paterno stood by Robinson, and Robinson delivered. It's already Lion lore that before a last—minute, game—winning drive in that game Robinson looked at his offense and provoked them, 'What kind of team do you want to be?' — seconds before he managed a TD strike as he was mauled by a Northwestern blitz. Since then 2005's been a magnificent campaign, centered on Robinson discombobulating opposing D's with an unfair arsenal of skills and quiet leadership.

It's only recently the phrase, 'The Penn State Way' has entered the college football lexicon but in reality, only the term itself is new.  Paterno's commitment to his program, his athletes, the University, and to the quaint idea of 'winning with integrity' has guided countless college and high school programs for decades. In the span of four decades that's seen college sports consumed with bad intentions Penn State has competed with many programs that offer themselves as proxies for minor leagues. Joe Pa has built and kept intact a program that doesn't just win but molds its players, as Penn State's alma mater goes, into men, rather than draft picks. Penn State fans can rattle off dozens of stories like Robinson's — players who after leaving the University stand ready to face the world, whether or not it involves playing football on Sunday afternoons. That's something to root for.

Saturday afternoon may be one of those few, fleeting moments when history is ours to witness. It will be Senior Day at Penn State, and many of those players in plain blue won't play competitive football much longer. Penn State fans would say those seniors deserve to know success, and fairly.  But don't watch, and don't root for Penn State just for that reason. Joe Paterno's career has been a magnificent gift not only to Penn State fans but to college sports. He's not retiring just yet, but this could be Paterno's last great team. In the end, to root for Penn State in this game and for one more glorious season for Paterno is to hope college sports can fulfill its promise to every kid who scores a touchdown and knows the difference between launching a Terrell Owens dance and just handing the ball to the referee.

Bill Lalor is an attorney and writer (and a Penn State alum) living in Manhattan. He is the proprietor of the group blog and webzine Citizen Journal.