ALCS president writes op-ed about PSU football
By Josh First
September 16, 2007
Recently the Patriot News published articles about detractors, supporters, and mystified observers of Penn State's football program. While allegiance to an alma mater or admiration of a regional sports program is nothing new, and despite the ambiguous nature of personal appreciation for team color schemes or school locations, there are some distinguishing characteristics about PSU's football program, and Joe Paterno as a person and a coach, that make the uniquely broad and deep support for the Nittany Lions understandable and even admirable. The Nittany Lions and their coach, Joe Paterno, maintain high standards and qualities that stand out on the national collegiate sports stage.
Joe Paterno serves as both a classic paternalistic coach to his athletes and as a hero to the arena of college sports in general. A devout Catholic, Paterno did not miss out on applying religion's basic lessons: Humility, simplicity, charity, tradition, discipline and hard work, values which so evidently guide his coaching and which draw multifaceted, talented young disciples to him. Paterno's squeaky clean approach to building and managing his teams, and the program's lack of a NCAA violations history, stand in blazingly stark contrast to many of the nation's top college football programs, which continued to be marred by the use of sex, cash, free cars, and other illegal or immoral favors to recruit and (just as important) hold "talent."
The win-at-any-cost attitude prevalent at so many colleges has corroded much of what once made college football fun and rewarding to watch, and it is that lack of desire to win at any cost that has maintained PSU as a staid if somewhat stale program. PSU fans continue to be regarded as slightly crazy by disbelieving fans elsewhere if only because we treat visiting teams and fans with dignity and respect, not threats of violence and vandalism. And while that annoying "We're number one" finger pointing has crept into the younger PSU fan base, it pales in comparison to the demonstrations of young fans elsewhere.
While many other college football teams sport NFL-like wannabe attitudes and uniforms, complete with play-stickered helmets, player names on jerseys, and elaborate uniform designs, the Nittany Lions stand out in their simplicity. Their plain blue and white uniforms emphasize the team; they don't draw attention to the individual player.
Setting aside his well-known finicky standards for personal conduct among his players, another example of Paterno's high expectations (and a condition of being on the team) for his players is that each one must maintain decent grades and be directly on track to graduate with a degree. Several months ago a well known former Nittany Lion remarked to a journalist friend of mine "I know about college football, and I know what Penn State has done for people. This school doesn't use people up." Like the other Nittany Lions, with a college degree in hand he was able to make the transition from would-be professional sports to actual professional work.
Incidentally, although the Notre Dame-PSU rivalry has spawned plenty of give and take on the local sports pages over the years, the general "cleanliness" and serious academic orientation of the Notre Dame program is one of the reasons I am counted among their admirers. It's an old fashioned approach that is refreshing and heartening to see, and apparently like many other college football observers I am annually inclined to give Notre Dame certain standing and recognition that their number of wins may not necessarily always support. Sports have to be about more than numbers and both PSU and Notre Dame hearken back to a golden age when molding the totality of a young man in college was the true goal and sports were just one aspect of that experience. So many other programs have lost sight of that ideal.
Support for the Nittany Lions ends up being about so much more than winning. It is about wholesomeness, admirable personal qualities of the players, who have a genuine future with a college degree and a meaningful career.
In today's world of politics and sports, by any standard Joe Paterno is a hero. If Elvis Presley represented the once-in-a-lifetime alignment of voice, looks, personality, background and experience that personally connected to listeners and which still instills a deep connection among devotees who sense something special, Paterno is similarly characterized by an incredible alignment of values and talent. His coaching method breeds loyalty and genuine admiration among fans and competitors alike. Therefore, for most PSU fans like myself, Paterno will always be the king, and Happy Valley his kingdom. Long reign the king...
(This op-ed was submitted to the Patriot News, where a shortened version was accepted).