Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Send Joe Victorious, Happy and Glorious

It's rare that a Stewart Mandel piece brings me to a moment of clarity (although I have to say that I've found Mandel's Mailbags to be better-reasoned than his efforts last year, hence the paucity of the Duel of the Jews feature), but this piece on Joe Paterno was telling, for me. It represented the mainstream media coming around to the notion that Paterno has almost nothing to do with Penn State's success this year, aside from the generalized notion that Paterno built a power in State College, the platform from which Tom Bradley and Galen Hall have turned out the #3 team in the country. Here are the money grafs:

It may sound sacrilegious to ask, but one can't help wondering how much, if any, Paterno has actually contributed to that success.

The "Spread HD" (The "HD" supposedly stands for "highly diverse"), with its mix of motion, four-receiver sets, power-I running and option pitches, was the brainchild of offensive coordinator Galen Hall and quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno, Joe's son. Defensive coordinator Tom Bradley has been largely running his own show for years.

JoePa still watches tape of the upcoming opponent (though more frequently from his home office) and offers suggestions, including over the headset during games from his new vantage point above the field. "My being upstairs, it's funny. I'm not sure that's not the best place for a head coach," he said recently. "I have a better view of the game from up there than I ever do on the sidelines. I can see more than half the field. Coverage things. I know who is covering."

However, he's no longer able to visit with the team at halftime ("It's too tough for me to go down and back up," he said), leaving him almost no interaction with his players.

I'd add in the facts that: (1) Paterno never seems to be, you know, actually talking on his headset when he is shown in the booth; and (2) Paterno's trip to Terrelle Pryor's living room was reportedly his first recruiting visit in some time.

I hope this doesn't come across as picking on Joe Paterno. He's on the Mount Rushmore of college coaches. If you asked me to choose between Paterno and Bobby Bowden, I'd take Paterno every day of the week and twice on Sunday. That said, I like Paterno for what he achieved in the past. In the present, he has as much to do with Penn State's success this year as Queen Elizabeth does with England's response to the credit crisis.

Drunken English fans still sing about the Queen when England take to the pitch. Tourists still flock to Buckingham Palace to take a look at the Queen's residence. English tabloids still obsess about the Queen and her progeny. Those factors don't change the fact that she's a figure-head. No one seriously thinks that she has a role in anything. Likewise, the overwhelming evidence shows that Paterno is in a purely symbolic role as Penn State's coach. Penn State fans might still dress like Paterno and celebrate him ringing up more wins, but they're no different than some lout from Sheffield shouting about the Queen as he knocks back pints after England beats Croatia.

This matters because, as Mandel's column makes clear, there's going to be a tide of Paterno-related sentiment supporting Penn State playing in the national title game. You could see the beginnings of this meme when ABC subjected the country to a treacly Paterno montage (naturally set to music) at the close of the Lions' win at Ohio State. Right now, Kirk Herbstreit is taking the position that Penn State is rightfully behind Texas and Alabama, but that they'll likely make the title game because their remaining schedule is easier. Watch that opinion change if we get into late November and Texas and Alabama are both unbeaten. Watch Michigan State get built up into a major roadblock on par with a trip to Baton Rouge or a neutral site game against Georgia or Florida. It is objectionable to support a team for the national title game for sentimental reasons; it's doubly inappropriate when the object of that sentiment has almost nothing to do with his team's success.

The likely victim of this prospective wave of emotionalism will be Alabama. Texas will have played far too tough a schedule to possibly be excluded from the national title game and they are probably going to have the Heisman Trophy winner under center. Alabama, on the other hand, wins games in the traditional Alabama style: tough, gritty, and defensive. The Tide also have a coach for whom members of the media will do no favors. Talking heads will no doubt cite to Paterno's unbeaten teams going uncrowned four times in the past. Something tells me that they won't remember that two-time defending national champion Alabama went unbeaten in 1966 and was deprived a third title in favor of the Notre Dame team that tied at Michigan State, nor will they remember that Alabama was out of the national conversation in 1994, despite being unbeaten up until the SEC Championship Game. Like Justice Scalia's law clerks, one suspects that the historical narrative will be a tad one-sided in an Alabama-Penn State debate.


chg said...

My personal dream scenario is for Texas to lose while Alabama and Penn State go unbeaten. Penn State puts up more gaudy victoriess to #1, while Alabama continues to scratch out wins, and we get a month of Penn State-Paterno coronation coverage along with the requisite "Does 'Bama even deserve #2?" leading up to the title game.

Then Bama brains Penn State and rolls by 30. If you're a sentimentalist, just tell Joe Pa he won and give him one of your kid's t-ball trophies.

Michael said...

The only thing that would make that scenario better would be Penn State failing on four attempts from the one-yard line on the game's opening series.

Ed said...

Reading your post (and chg’s comment) made me wonder if you’re stuck in 1968–back when Ohio State and Michigan were not, for disparate reasons, national jokes, and the Big Ten commanded far greater respect than it does today.

That’s not to say that your argument about sentimentalism isn’t somewhat persuasive. Prior to reading it, I thought it entirely plausible that a one-loss Florida with convincing wins over Georgia and Alabama in the SEC title game could leapfrog an undefeated Penn State team (the ultimate apocalyptic BCS moment brought about the perception that the Big Ten stinks and the SEC is the best conference in the country). Upon reflection, I do think the wave of wistful reflections on Old Joe’s career will rule out that possibility.

But, there is precious little chance that Penn State gets to the title game over undefeated Texas and undefeated Alabama. You’ve already outlined the Texas reasons, I think the Alabama reasons are pretty similar.

People absolutely loved Alabama when it scored 31 first half points against Georgia. They were willing to forgive Alabama when it defeated Kentucky 17-14, because, after all, those incredible SEC defenses are so fast that it’s impossible to throw an accurate pass against them. They’re not terribly awestruck by Alabama now that Kentucky just lost 63-5, but that’s okay, because doesn’t Alabama have a rendezvous with the team that vanquished the Wildcats in such a manner? If the Tide win, even if it’s 3-2, all will be forgiven.

Either that or it will face an 11-1 #4 ranked Georgia team again, which should give it more than enough strength of schedule points to withstand any Penn State romanticism.

The only thing that could push Alabama down to no. 3 would be a continuation of bad offensive play against middle-of-the-pack SEC teams combined with Florida getting beaten by Florida State a week before the SEC title game (you can substitute Georgia and Georgia Tech in the above, depending on the results of the cocktail party). This might initiate a conversation about the SEC not being as strong as it’s cracked up to be, with evidence supplied by its other lackluster non-conference performances.

But it’s a pretty unlikely scenario, and if it did occur, one could just as easily attribute it to people using their reasoning faculties as getting misty-eyed over Paterno. Bottom line, the Big Ten’s stock is currently very low and the SEC’s stock is currently very high, and no amount of footage of Paterno in his leather helmet at Brown is going to change that.

Anonymous said...

I think you are forgetting that the media shows reverence for Alabama that is unmatched by almost any other program, regardless of current coach (How about TWO "Bama is Back" SI Covers in three years?)

Neil Young & Geraldo said...


This is a curious post. I am not sure what you mean by JoePa being a "figure head." By this, do you mean he has absolutely nothing to do with Penn State becoming a top program again this year? Or do you mean he has less influence over micro-decisions made during games?

This distinction is critical. If you are intimating that its the latter, then are you calling Bill Parcels a "figure head" down here in Miami simply because he doesn't call plays or have a headphone on Sundays?

I believe you can wield upper-echelon influence without calling plays or talking to players at halftime. In fact, those types of behaviors may be less important than we typically believe. Or they may be more!

What do you mean by "figure head"?

Michael said...

Ed, you're assuming rational behavior from the voters. I stopped believing in that notion with the January 1998 coaches poll.

Anon, how do you square the "unmatched reverence" for Alabama with the fact that the Tide have never produced a Heisman winner?

NY&G, Bill Parcells is a general manager. He makes personnel decisions. His role is clearly defined. Similarly, Paterno is a head coach. Head coaches are supposed to, you know, make decisions during games. There is no evidence that Paterno does anything during games to make decisions.

PB at BON said...

I'm glad you posted on this, Michael. (And next time you talk to Spencer, give him a flogging for his "Aww, I kinda want one more for JoePa" soft spot, which he announced on EDSBS Live last night).

Anyway, your post immediately catalyzed a more meta question: How does the upcoming "tide of Paterno-related sentiment" fit in with (what I perceive to be a very real) Big 10 wariness, courtesy back-to-back OSU flops?

It could very plausibly go either of two ways:

(1) The general Big 10 wariness (I certainly sense, perhaps you disagree with the premise) could be real, pronounced, and enough to hold back the tide of Paterno-in-his-twilight love.


(2) Part/much/all the supposed Big 10 wariness (again, assuming you agree it exists--perhaps not) was little more than lip service--maybe just copy to fill pages. In which case a journalist's "Aww, Paterno" love could be either (a) more than enough to overlook his/her perhaps merely nominal Big 10 trepidations, or (b) that ideal excuse he or she perhaps expected would be available come crunch time anyway (i.e. A commentator can say whatever she wants about with regards to the Big 10 or anyone else because come vote time there's always some storyline on which you can hang your hat.)

Any thoughts on this?