Thursday, September 09, 2010

Bryant’s Life and Death Cast a Shadow Over Paterno

The New York Times
September 8, 2010

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Joe Paterno unofficially started his 45th season as the Penn State football coach with a request at the team’s media day in August that caused an eruption of laughter and made him smile.

“Please,” the 83-year-old Paterno told reporters, “don’t ask me if I’m going to die.”

But there was an underlying uneasiness to the remark, however playful it was. Paterno has made it no secret that part of his motivation for returning each fall has been his fear of the unknown after football.

Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

Joe Paterno, in his 45th season as Penn State’s head coach, still spars with reporters but has appeared worn down lately.

On Saturday, No. 18 Penn State (1-0) will play at No. 1 Alabama (1-0) in the renewal of a classic rivalry. It is a meeting that has illuminated a story that has influenced Paterno’s thinking in continuing to coach the Nittany Lions: the death of Alabama’s Bear Bryant only four weeks after he coached his final game.

“He’s painfully aware that Bryant died a couple of weeks after he retired,” L. Budd Thalman, the retired associate athletic director for communications at Penn State and a close friend of Paterno’s, said in a telephone interview. “I’ve heard him say that a couple of times. I think Joe’s definitely aware of that.”

Bryant and Paterno are entwined in history. In 2001, Paterno passed Bryant for the most victories among coaches at major programs. Paterno, standing alone after Bobby Bowden stepped down at Florida State after last season, has 395 wins.

Bryant, whose Alabama teams were 4-0 against Paterno’s Penn State teams, retired after the 1982 season and died at age 69. In candid moments over the years, Paterno has admitted that the timing of Bryant’s death has weighed on him when contemplating his future.

At his weekly news conference Tuesday at Beaver Stadium, Paterno did not want to discuss anything related to Bryant.

“I think it’s two football teams playing,” Paterno said of the game in Tuscaloosa, Ala. “I don’t think they care if a guy by the name of Paterno is coaching and a guy named Bryant used to coach their team.”

Paterno’s passions are football and family. He majored in English at Brown and is well read in classic literature. Though he says he has many interests, he has often pointed out that he does not hunt, fish or golf, activities that are common among his coaching brethren. If he retired, he has reasoned, he wouldn’t be able to look forward to much other than mowing the lawn.

“The thing about Joe is Joe has a need to stay active,” Thalman said. “He’s not a person who can sit around and vegetate, so to speak. He needs something to really occupy his mind. He’s got a remarkable mind that always demands a task. He’s not a guy who will just put his feet up and sit on the porch and drink lemonade.”

Paterno has long batted away retirement questions with a refrain about wanting to continue coaching for a few more seasons. But more recently, questions about his coaching future have intensified.

Paterno was asked to step aside, but declined, in 2004, after consecutive losing seasons; he broke his left leg when two players ran into him on the sideline in 2006; and he had hip-replacement surgery after coaching from the press box in 2008 (then received a contract extension that would allow him to coach through the 2011 season).

There was renewed uncertainty about Paterno this off-season.

Joe Paterno jokes with seniors Ollie Ogbu (85), Evan Royster, second from left, Brett Brackett, center rear, and Stefen Wisniewski, right, during NCAA college football media day in State College, Pa., Thursday, Aug. 12, 2010. Paterno is heading into his 45th season as head coach of Penn State.(AP)

Although he has missed only 3 of 683 Penn State games in 60 years, Paterno was absent from at least three planned appearances away from State College. The university said Paterno had an intestinal illness as a side effect of antibiotics he took for dental work. At the Big Ten Football Kickoff in Chicago in August, Paterno looked worn down while addressing reporters.

David Jones, a columnist for The Patriot-News of Harrisburg, Pa., wrote that Paterno’s “speech was slow and slightly slurred, and his intellect seemed a little dulled and delayed — something that’s never, ever been true.”

On Tuesday, Paterno carried a handkerchief on his arrival and had trouble hearing some questions, but his wit was sharp, and he did not appear to have any mobility problems. Paterno has tried to keep the focus on the field.

Penn State and Alabama have a rich series history, with the Crimson Tide having won 8 of the teams’ 13 meetings. The most notable game was Alabama’s 14-7 victory over the Nittany Lions in the 1979 Sugar Bowl, with perhaps the most famous goal-line stand in college football history giving the Crimson Tide the national title.

In his 1989 memoir, “Paterno: By the Book,” Paterno wrote of the loss: “It haunted my ego. When I stood toe to toe with Bear Bryant, he outcoached me.”

Off the field, Bryant, who was from Arkansas, and Paterno, a Brooklyn native born 13 years after him, were not rivals.

At a banquet after the 1968 season, Bryant advised Paterno, then a tenured professor at Penn State, on the importance of having a contract. Bryant called Paterno before their teams met in 1981 to see if Paterno could ask the Pennsylvania governor to clear a lane after the game for the Alabama team buses on the roads to the Harrisburg airport.

“I think the idea of Bryant as an uncle is right on the nose,” Allen Barra, the author of a biography on Bryant, “The Last Coach,” said in a telephone interview. “Bryant was not the domineering figure people think; he wasn’t a bully. Bryant made you feel like you wanted his approval.”

On Saturday, the only tangible sign of Bryant will be his name on Bryant-Denny Stadium, but the coach on the visiting sideline will undoubtedly feel the Bear’s presence.

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