The American Vision: A Biblical Worldview Ministry

The Legacy of Coach Joe

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Unlike every other college and university in America, Penn State University has had only one head football coach during my entire lifetime of 38 years. As a matter of fact, you have to go back six years before I was born to reach the point when Paterno became the head coach at Penn State. And for 16 years before that, Joe was an assistant coach, which puts his entire tenure at the school right at 60 years. That’s longer than most marriages. Actually, it’s longer than Joe’s own marriage. Joe and Sue Pohland were married in 1962—twelve years after Joe was hired as an assistant coach. And, if you think about it, a marriage is how most pre-Baby Boomer Americans regarded their careers. A marriage of business rather than love of course, but a marriage nonetheless; one where dedication, commitment, and trust was required—on both sides.

In the modern world of college football, Joe Paterno—or JoePa as he is known to the college football world—is something of a dinosaur. Although fiery and competitive as ever, at 83 years old Joe just doesn’t fit the mold of the new, corporate look of BCS computer-ranked football. While he has a slick contemporary office in the training building—complete with his own personal shower—he prefers doing his work in his home office because it has everything he needs, including high-tech gadgets like a private phone and a fax machine. And if you happened to walk by the house that contains Joe’s office—as most Saturday afternoon football fans do on their way to Beaver Stadium, the largest college football stadium in the country—you would never give it a second glance. You would certainly never guess that the owners of that house have given more than $4 million back to the university that signs their paychecks. But this is why JoePa is such an icon for Penn State and such an anomaly for modern college football: He represents the old way of doing things. He’s not in it for the money; he’s in it because he doesn’t know how to stop doing what he was meant to do.

My father-in-law loves JoePa. Although he is 20 years younger than Joe, he identifies with him. To my father-in-law, JoePa represents everything that is right about America. You know, all the things that started getting questioned during the 60s by the post-World War 2 kids on college campuses. Lacking a national emergency of their own, they decided to create one. They shouted long and hard against the inequalities, the injustice, and the hatred that they saw all around them. From the safety of America’s institutions of higher education they began railing against the system that guaranteed them the freedom to rail in the first place. Hard work, sacrifice, and saving were thrown out as oppressive and intolerant ideals and were quickly replaced with entitlement, instant gratification, and debt. An entire generation was taught to be distrusting toward their parents—the very ones who were paying for their "education."

The ever-present symbol of consistency in this sea of change was Joe Paterno. In his thick glasses, rolled-up pants, and black shoes, stubborn JoePa was impervious to change. He looked the same, dressed the same, and coached the same—year after year, decade after decade. Penn State defensive coordinator, Tom Bradley agrees:

"If you just took — and all you had was not the players but him in practice, OK? — and you just filmed him in practice, because his attire doesn’t change and he wears the same stuff, you would not know the year. I don’t think it’s any different from what I remember playing here. I remember doing the same stuff. He’s still in every drill, coming around all over the same place. He doesn’t coach from a tower, you know what I mean. He’s working his way around, whatever he wants to get to." [1]

Joe is from the "old school," the same one that my father-in-law went to, the school of "if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right." If the dissidents on the college campuses during the 60s knew where this school was located they would have shut it down long ago. Unfortunately for them, this school does not have a campus, or even a curriculum; but it does have a coach. And as a fairly outspoken political conservative, that coach has been a thorn in the side of the liberal sports media for over half a century. As college football moves ahead into the brave new world of corporate sponsorship and exclusive licensing deals, JoePa stands alone as one who remains convinced that his job is not primarily to win national championships, but to turn arrogant and selfish high-school boys into mature and responsible college men. And much to the chagrin of the naysayers, it is working. A recent report by the NCAA has confirmed that Penn State "football players had the highest graduation success rate, known as G.S.R., 85 percent, and the highest federal graduation rate, 89 percent, among teams ranked in this season’s final top 25." [2] By comparison, second-place finishers Miami and Alabama had a G.S.R. of 75 percent and the University of Southern California had an abysmal 57 percent.

While the writer of the NY Times article quickly noted that football coaches usually have little to do with academic graduation rates, this is most certainly not the case with JoePa. As an avid Penn State fan, I have felt the pains of watching a star player sit out an important game because he violated one of Joe’s rules for the team, was cutting classes, or had been getting himself into trouble in myriad other ways. Joe is a man of principle, few men like him still exist in our postmodern world of compromise and situational ethics. He is a man of character and integrity and works very hard to instill this into his players—all of his players—from the bench-warmers to the star running backs. Joe doesn’t play favorites, but he does play fair. It doesn’t always sit well with me to lose a game based on Joe’s uncompromising principles of academics and behavior, but in the end, I know he’s always right.

Much has been written in the last decade about the negative effects of feminism on our culture. One effect has been the rise of the she-male—the tightly pressed, neatly-groomed, sweet-smelling, perfectly-combed metrosexual male in name only, who is as far from a man as a housecat is from a tiger. As we naively allowed equal rights a foot in the door, we forgot to check the fine print. We laughed Phyllis Schlafly off as a kook, and ended up right where she said we would be. We forgot that our boys need to have examples of real men, not women acting like men. We forgot that a part of the curse in Genesis 3 is that men will look for every reason to abdicate their role of responsibility and women will look for every chance to take it from them. Laziness is the man’s curse and jealousy is the woman’s. This is not a popular message, but it is a biblical one. It can also be tested rather easily. If a man stops leading his family effectively, it won’t take very long for the wife to take over. Many of the football players that JoePa has recruited over the years are from broken homes and one-parent or blended families. In fact, this description is also true of most of the males entering the workforce. There is a nationwide epidemic of apathetic and absent fathers, while an entire generation of sons are dutifully combing their hair, shaving their face, and shining their loafers. They have learned that appearance is everything and honesty is a weakness.

This is not to say that getting a new generation of boys to engage in what we perceive to be "manly" activities is the answer either. Many men, convinced of the need to return to a true masculinity have decided that hunting, fishing, and getting your hands dirty is the answer. While these activities are not necessarily unhelpful, they are also not the answer. JoePa teaches his recruits that being a man is not being able to push the other guy’s face into the ground (although it can be immensely helpful when needed), being a man is reaching down and helping him up. Being a man has nothing to do with dancing in the endzone, drawing attention to yourself, but has everything to do with being a team player, taking the focus off yourself. Being a man has nothing to do with intimidation and ridicule, but has everything to do with encouragement and respect. Although it can’t be said that men like JoePa are all that is needed to remedy the current vacuum of masculinity, it can be admitted that the old ways still prove to be effective. The "new school" of the 60s protesters has been shown to be shallow and unable to hold its own weight. President Obama’s socialistic agenda for America is a direct result of being discipled in the ways of the "new school." He knows no other way.

But "old school" JoePa knows what the President has yet to learn: You can’t buy or manufacture integrity, it is learned and it is earned. And as long as the leader of the free world insists on blaming the previous administration for every problem in his own, the country will continue to spiral down. We don’t need a president that pats us on the head and tells that everything is going to be OK. We don’t need a nanny to comfort us, we need a coach to give us a kick in the pants:

Paterno gives fifth-year offensive lineman Mike Lucian a kick in the pants. That’s usually a metaphor. Not at this practice. Paterno kicks Lucian in the seat of his pants. "I’ve never snapped before in my life," says Lucian, who this spring moved from guard to center. "I’m having a lot of trouble with the shotgun snap. [Quarterback] Paul Cianciolo, another fifth-year guy, is working his butt off. It doesn’t help him out when I have a bad snap. So Joe came over and gave me a kick in the rear." [3]

Mike Lucian gets it. Rather than getting upset that JoePa kicked him, he takes it as a reminder to be focused, to work harder, to get better for the sake of the team. While JoePa is not specifically teaching his players Bible verses, he is giving them a crash course in a biblical worldview via the football field. He is preparing them for life in the real world of sin and brokenness. He is training them to remove "I can’t" and "It’s not my fault" from their vocabulary. He is taking class after class of immature boys, gifted with a sporting talent, and turning them into mature, productive members of society. Some have admittedly strayed from the lessons of JoePa upon leaving his "100-yard classroom," but these are far outnumbered by those who haven’t. As a fan of college football, I am glad to know that JoePa will be coaching for a few more years. As a concerned citizen, I am encouraged to know that every year a few more JoePa-trained men are being released into America’s job force. But most importantly, being a Penn State alumnus, I am proud to call JoePa my Coach. His legacy of integrity and hard work will always speak louder to me than his two national championships.

Then again, a third sure wouldn’t hurt. How about it Joe?

Endnotes:

[1] Ivan Maisel, "Desire to coach still drives 81-year-old Paterno," ESPN.com, April 15, 2008. Online here.
[2] George Vecsey, "Coaches Come and Go, Except JoePa," NY Times.com, January 12, 2010. Online here.
[3] Maisel, ESPN.com.

 

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