Paterno’s legacy summed up with one cheer
Certain moments don’t seem terribly significant at the time, but they stick in the mind, maybe forever.
This one was spontaneous, it seems. It happened at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa in September 2010, and it happened completely out of the view of the television cameras.
Penn State’s football team was in town to play Alabama, the first time we’d seen each other since 1990. Maybe the most appealing for fans of the home team: the sight of old Joe Paterno, PSU head coach since 1966 and link to a college football past that many Tide fans remember with longing. In a weird way, Paterno — college football’s all-time winningest coach who battled Alabama in two bowl games and 10 regular-season matchups in the late 1970s and through the 1980s — was one of the last living links to the halcyon days of Paul Bryant.
So the 2010 meeting has drawn national attention, for that purpose. My wife and I — like (I suspect) many of the other 100,000 crowded into the stadium that night — are there to witness a historic renewal, as much as anything else.
But the game is obviously tilted in Alabama’s favor. Alabama is playing at home; Alabama has the superior team, the defending national champs and the reigning Heisman Trophy winner. The action in the first half has borne that out — Alabama leads 17-3 going to the locker room, a comfortable enough lead with its swarming defense. The second half is most likely a fait accompli.
As the teams are exiting the field for the second half, Paterno’s image appears on the big screen at the stadium. This is unusual — an opposing coach for a visiting team receiving this much attention. He’s briefly standing still for the obligatory halftime interview with ESPN’s Erin Andrews, and it’s clear from his body language that he intends to give her exactly as much time as is absolutely necessary.
The crowd murmurs, then breaks into a smattering of applause. This is even more unusual — Alabama fans, as passionate as any in the country, do not applaud visiting teams or coaches.
Paterno breaks free of Andrews and begins to jog towards the visiting tunnel, as quickly as his 84-year-old body will allow him. The applause changes to cheers. This has now transitioned from unusual to downright odd.
The din grows louder for the visiting coach, a thundering ovation for a coach who came to break Alabama’s heart. Paterno, for his part, does not acknowledge the cheers — he’s an opposing coach in enemy territory. He’s not there to be cheered.
Finally, as he’s about to disappear from view, Paterno — still the symbol of everything that’s right about college football — quietly pumps his fist. It’s an acknowledgement of the crowd, in the way that a gruff old man telling you to get off his lawn is an acknowledgement.
Alabama won the game 24-3. Less than 18 months later, Paterno — fired from his post for his failures in reporting part of an unspeakable scandal — is gone from this world, the victim of lung cancer.
I hope he is at peace.
Friday, February 3, 2012
newspaper column: my $.02 on Paterno
Little late with this week's newspaper column, which astute readers may recognize as part of a larger blog post from 2010. So I plagiarized myself. Sue me. Anyway, as always you can feel free to comment on the post, either here or by finding me on Twitter.