STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Someone asks Joe Paterno a question about missed tackles. Think about that for a minute. Think about how many times someone, over 45 years as a head coach at Penn State, over 61 years in coaching, think about how many times someone has asked Joe Paterno about missed tackles. A thousand at least, right? A thousand times would be fewer than two times per game coached. It has to be a thousand, minimum. What in the world could Joe Paterno have left to say about players missing tackles?
And yet, still, he considers the question. He doesn’t exactly love these weekly media sessions, but hey, he’s here, and the question is asked, and this is how Joe Paterno’s mind works. He breaks down questions. That’s his life’s work. He breaks thing down and breaks that down and breaks that down more. That’s coaching. That’s life. It is about obliterating the vague, it is about cutting through the shadows and fog, it is about figuring out what you stand for. Missed tackles, you say? Well, let’s think about that for a moment. What do you mean when you say missed tackles? What exactly causes missed tackles?
“When you miss tackles, obviously, it’s one of two things,” he begins. “Either you did a lousy job in your technique tackling. Or the other guy is that good, he’s that quick, he sets you up well, he gets you a little bit off-balance, he sets you up well enough that he can beat you.”
And I have to tell you, simple as that sounds — and it sounds ludicrously simple — I never thought about it exactly that way. MIssed tackles had always seemed to me a concrete thing, a stationary and motionless thing, the player is there, you tackle him, and if you don’t, it’s a missed tackle. But of course it isn’t like that at all. Sometimes a missed tackle is a missed tackle. Sometimes it’s a great move. Sometimes it’s a runner with power. Nothing in football is static. Everything in football is motion and interaction and violence and deception, each piece of the game is a tiny duel, and sometimes you win the duel, and sometimes you lose the duel.
“I think it’s a combination,” Paterno continues, “Most games we have tackled pretty well. … We have had a little problem on the corners and on the edges with our linebacking, at times we have missed tackles. But you’ve got to give the other guy credit. I think we have played against some people that have blocked solid, made it tough for us to penetrate, and the backs have had a little running room, and when they have had some running room, they have been good enough to make us miss at times.”
People keep wondering how long Joe Paterno will continue to coach. That is the question that seems to override everything at Penn State University, especially in a season like this when the Nittany Lions are young, and building, and taking a few thumpings in the Big 10. Well, sure, it’s understandable. The man is 83 years old, will turn 84 the day after Christmas. When Joe Paterno showed up at Big 10 Media day looking sickly — he was in the midst of fighting off a nasty reaction to medication given in a dental procedure — there were some not-so-quiet whispers that he might not finish the year. When he showed up at his weekly press conference a week ago Tuesday, just two days after he was carried off the field for his 400th victory, the buzz was about how he seemed disoriented and several times needed questions repeated. There were some who began charting how many times Joe Paterno needed questions repeated. The Internet has been ablaze all year with rumors about Paterno’s departure and theories about when it will happen.
But the man sitting behind the microphone now, with that familiar blue Penn State banner behind him, the one talking about missed tackles, well, this man isn’t going anywhere. Not yet. His mind still turns over those football questions. Missed tackles still interest him after all these years. Blocking techniques still interest him after all these years. Building young teams — 59 players on Penn State this year are freshmen or sophomores — still interests him. Someone asks him about that: How does he feel about this team in the future? Well, yes, that’s interesting — no, not the question itself (he’s been asked this question MORE than a thousand times) but what it makes Paterno’s mind think about. He breaks the question down. How does he feel about the team in the future? Well, what does the future look like? What are the challenges of the future? The game is tougher now, isn’t it? It takes longer to develop a young players in today’s world, doesn’t it?
“It’s not the way it used to be,” he says. “The defenses are much more sophisticated. The coverages are more sophisticated. The blitzes are all a little bit tougher to handle than they used to be. So there are some people that have to really be exposed. … There are a lot of things that go on now that takes a little longer to develop into a real steady, consistent football team.”
These are the things that still occupy his mind. Joe Paterno isn’t going anywhere yet because he feels good, he feels sharp, and the challenge of building a team in this tougher new world excites him the same way it always excited him.
What’s that: You say some people think the game has passed him by? Hell, there have ALWAYS been people who have thought that about Joe Paterno, going back to 1966 when his first team went 5-5. Anyway, didn’t Penn State beat LSU in a New Year’s Day bowl game this year? Didn’t Penn State go to the Rose Bowl last year? This team, young as it is, as tough as its losses to Iowa and Ohio State and and Illinois have been, can still win its seventh game against Indiana Saturday, can win its eighth against Michigan State. This team had Ohio State down at halftime, this team can still play in another New Year’s Day bowl. What do people want? What do people expect?
Familiarity breeds boredom — that’s a reality of life. Joe Paterno has been around for so long, his success has been so numbingly consistent (75% win percentage, 75% graduation rate, the Joe and Sue Paterno library at the center of campus), that eyes glaze over. What sounds to an outsider like thoughtful and interesting football talk undoubtedly sounds to insiders like he’s avoiding the question. Maybe he IS avoiding the question. “Joe has always had his answers,” a longtime observer of the program says. “If the questions happen to match up, so much the better.”
But he is also talking about football. And if you love football, isn’t this the ultimate privilege — listening to Joe Paterno talk? That’s how I always felt when talking basketball with John Wooden. That’s how I felt traveling the country and talking baseball with Buck O’Neil. That’s how I feel when talking with Bob Knight (once you got past the expletives). That’s how I always feel when talking with Earl Weaver or Whitey Herzog or Vin Scully.
And that’s how it is with Joe Paterno. He’s the legend. And he’s still sharp, still engaged, still determined. No, it isn’t like every word he says is a nugget of gold. But there are lessons to be learned, lessons he is constantly teaching, lessons about how you last, lessons about how you overcome, lessons about not making stuff too complicated. And there are stories. Someone asks Paterno what he expects this weekend since the Penn State-Indiana game won’t be at Indiana but instead at a “neutral” site in Landover, Md. — neutral in quotes since the crowd should be pretty heavy Penn State.
Well, Paterno says he doesn’t have any expectations since he never had his team play a neutral site game in Maryland before, and there’s no point in expecting anything. But in saying that he remembers that many years ago, when he was still an assistant coach at Penn State, the Lions played Illinois at a neutral-site game in Cleveland, in the old stadium. That was 1959. He said there wasn’t much of a crowd (he’s right, there were only 15,000 or so there at Municipal Stadium). He said that Penn State beat a good Illinois team (he’s right, Penn State won 20-9). And he remembered that Illinois had this middle linebacker that was pretty good and was about to become pretty well known across America.
He said it so matter-of-factly, weaved it so easily into the answer, that there was no follow-up … I suspect nobody really cared. But I cared. This was history. I thought he was talking about Dick Butkus — and how cool is that that Joe Paterno remembered coaching against Dick Butkus in college. So I went back and looked and found that Butkus didn’t play for Illinois until 1962 — Joe Paterno had his years mixed up. I was disappointed. Ah well, it’s understandable after all these years, right?
Then I looked more closely. And I realized that Illinois DID have a terrific middle-linebacker (and nose guard) in 1959 named Bill Burrell. He is one of the great jewels in college football history, a consensus All-American in 1959 and he finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting. Joe Paterno still remembers coaching against Bill Burrell at a nearly empty Cleveland Municipal Stadium more than 50 years ago.
And people are worried about how many questions he needs repeated?*
*I should point out here that Joe’s hearing probably isn’t great, but half the questions at these press conferences are asked over a speaker system and I didn’t understand half of them either.
Ah, but those missed tackles. Coaches can’t go on forever. We all know that. But break it down: Why do coaches fade? I think it’s because over time coaches can lose energy, they can lose focus, they can lose touch with the times, and perhaps more than anything they can lose their coaching values. Yes, that’s the big thing. The temptation as you grow older, I think, is to take a few more shortcuts, let a few more things go, rest a little more on what you’ve already accomplished.
But I don’t think any of that is happening with Joe Paterno. Yes, he cuts some things out of his schedule. Yes, he has to deal with some of the physical tolls of age. Yes, he will sometimes ask for questions to be repeated and sometimes think reporters mumble. But the rest of it, the important stuff — he seems as energetic about football, as focused on winning, as curious about the questions as ever before. And the team still responds. No, he’s not going anywhere.
The morning after Paterno won his 400th game, there was still a buzz in the Penn State football offices, still a sense of excitement, and when Paterno arrived he gathered people together and said: “That was wonderful. But now that’s over.” He may not do everything he once did — but he stands for all the same things.
At one point, someone asks Joe Paterno at the press conference if he can find any value in studying Indiana’s crushing loss to Wisconsin last week. Paterno breaks down this question too, and offers up an answer that can probably be used for most questions.
“You watch it, and you look at it,” Paterno says, and then he sort of smiles, just a little bit. “Whether we come to the same conclusion of some of you experts is debatable.”