Last week, I saw an Alabama fan wearing a t-shirt asking "How do you say 'Roll Tide?'" On the back, in a dozen languages, were the answers. That and the news that Texas A&M will soon be leaving the Longhorns' shadow for the SEC hammered home the point that our game's regional appeal is elastic, both nationally and internationally. The more things stay the same, the more they change. No one knows that better than Nittany Lions' coach and Medal of Freedom nominee Joe Paterno.
Last year, I was lucky enough to see the Alabama-Penn State game in person, likely the last time Joe Paterno will coach a game in Tuscaloosa. The contest was exciting but gradually uneventful. The pre-game pageantry, however, was something else.
Alabama's athletic director Mal Moore, as an old Bryant assistant, apparently wanted to pay homage to Joe Paterno as the game's winningest coach and to Alabama and Penn State's shared history (bowl games, the 10-year series, etc.). The hype videos normally shown on the enormous stadium screens were edited to include Penn State clips, and Bobby Bowden was brought out to midfield to welcome Paterno and Saban before kick-off in some kind of coaches' detente. The band followed with an old martial-vibe pomp, which felt like it was dusted off from the 1920s.
Earlier that week, the Great Leader said to the press that it would be a "damn crying-ass shame" if a person like Joe Paterno and his team were booed in Tuscaloosa. And sure enough, when the Penn State players took the field, they were cheered. When the jumbotron cameras caught Paterno leaving the field at the half, he received a standing ovation.
The Bowden comparisons are inevitable but misplaced. Age is a red herring. Bowden got canned for losing. Their in-state rival won two national championships in three years, while the Noles were lucky to get an invite to a bowl within driving distance. Penn State, however, was in the '09 Rose Bowl. FSU's agreeing to a $5 mill bribe for Jimbo Fisher if the guy wasn't named head coach by 2011 didn't help.
Penn State last played in Tuscaloosa over two decades ago, and JoPa was considered an old coach then (sidenote: Alabama's student section doesn't have assigned seating; therefore, it's first come, first serve. A group of students camped out to ensure they got the entire first row so they could spell, in body paint, "W E L C O M E B A C K J O E P A T E R N O R O L L T I D E," which is impressive for both the greeting's politeness and the students' organizational skills). If other Big Ten schools have been using his age against him in recruiting, frankly they need to do a better job. Penn State's still Linebacker U.
Now, here is where I digress into baseless speculation, even more so than usual. Were one to look at Penn State's record alone and not Paterno's age, it would be more difficult to suggest they need a new coach.
I believe that most sportswriters are hacks whose idea of "ambition" equates to a two-minute call-in spot on some afternoon ESPN chat show. Those covering Paterno reveal more about themselves than their subject, and I believe that watching a man age is uncomfortable for many people. I have even read a suggestion that JoPa should retire to spare the audience the chance sight of a man dying during a football game.
Nuts to that.
Those people have it all backwards: Paterno is teaching not a lesson on how to die, but on how to live. Personally, I'm pretty impressed by the guy. I know he won't live forever, but neither will anyone. Big deal.
Just due to the length of the schedule, I know there's a 50/50 chance he will die during a football season, less likely during a game itself. But he's doing what he loves and doing it fairly damn well--hopefully, tomorrow's results excluded. We should all be so lucky.