Welcome back to another installment of Action’s Bookclub, where I’m whiling away the long offseason hours by taking stabs at a specific subgenre of literature: books written by (or “written by”) college football coaches. So far, I’ve covered Lou Holtz’s Wins, Losses and Lessons, Urban Meyer’s Above The Line, and Nick Saban’s How Good Do You Want To Be?
This week, I’ll be looking at an older installment in the genre: the 1989 book PATERNO: By The Book, by former Penn State University head coach Joe Paterno. Let’s start with literally the first line of the book, and-
I remember the night I was forced to decide who I am.
Nope. Alright. Nope. I set the book down for two days after reading this.
Here’s the thing: I am expressly not going to make jokes about what happened at the end of Joe Paterno’s career. It is deeply unfortunate, a web of genuine tragedy, and there is no humor to be found in it — nor should anyone try. Like it or not, the events that came to light in 2011 cast Paterno’s storied career in a different light, one that will color any reading of his writings, 22 years prior, on subjects of leadership, morality, and so forth.
But I’ve got this book to read.
So, just like I would when talking to anyone else born in the 1920s, I’m going to avoid talking about a lot of things, and flip through the index to find things we can talk about. Here are ten things I liked from Paterno: By The Book.
1. HELPFUL PARENTING ADVICE
One of my early memories was toward the end of Prohibition. Each year my uncles fermented their own illicit beer and wine to consumer during a future year’s card games. They’d send one of older kids down to the basement for a jug of wine, and the rule was that the kid had to whistle all the way down the stairs and back to prove he wasn’t sipping any. If he stopped whistling, he got a crack across the head.
Corporal punishment angle aside, that’s just a clever system. And jaunty! I’m going to make my kids do this, but with Oreos. “WHISTLE CAMP TOWN RACES AND HANDS OFF MY DOUBLE STUFS OR YOU’RE GOING ON TIME OUT.”
2. GRANDPA, SAY SOMETHING THAT’S ALMOST PROGRESSIVE FOR YOUR TIME, BUT DO IT IN A REALLY GRANDPA WAY
Joe Paterno, on women’s athletics:
Many women used to express disgust at men pounding each other in football and crowds going crazy over it. Some still do. But now that the women’s revolution has also created a revolution in women’s sports, that’s largely changed... women’s sports have arrived. They give women another way of feeling good about themselves. They’ve made it no longer necessary for women to feel that they have to be the support of men’s glory.
Wow, okay, for his generation, and in 1989, that’s actually-
We should have known this all along, even when women usually expressed themselves only through their husbands’ achievements. Macbeth’s wife urged him on, saying “Hey, Mac, don’t you want to be king? Get with it!”
Honestly, “I appreciated women’s sports because of Macbeth” isn’t the worst way to get there. Better than those guys who are like “I only realized the value of feminism after I had a daughter”. You should’ve picked up on it before then, possibly while watching MacDuff’s family be murdered. (Spoiler alert).
3. TELL ME HOW YOU WOULD WOO A LADY IN 1961
She was already “pinned” to somebody else, but that didn’t stop us from sitting on the beach, reading aloud to each other from Albert Camus’s The Stranger.
Joe, you absolute dog.
4. SPEAKING OF OLD-TIMEY STUFF, DOES HE TALK ABOUT STICKBALL?
Yes, yes he does. It was a law in the 1980s and ‘90s that any memoir published in the United States had to include a reminiscence of playing stickball on the streets of Brooklyn, or be about Lee Iacocca. Or Both.
5. DOES HE ALSO MENTION LEE IACOCCA?
6. HEY GRANDPA, CAN YOU TELL ME ABOUT YOUR FRIENDS, WHO YOU THINK ARE ASSHOLES
As coaches, we have to push kids to reach their potential. Those kids look to us for examples in struggling to learn poise, class, and the handling of adversity. Coaches don’t automatically provide those examples. Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight (a personal friend) and baseball manager Billy Martin (not a personal friend, but someone I admire for his competitive drive), don’t always advance the essential goodness of sport.
This is a wholly representative view of friendships from that generation. “Listen, I don’t like him, and I don’t respect him or what he does, but what am I gonna do, kick him out of the Elks Club? He was the best man in my wedding, and I hate him.”
7. TELL US MORE ABOUT WHO’S WRONGED YOU OVER THE YEARS
Barry [Switzer], a more appealing guy than one might guess from the behavior he tolerates from his team, has no hypocrisy in him.
I always regretted my intended off-the-record wisecrack to some newsguys who asked about my leaving college coaching. I tossed back that I didn’t want to “turn over the game to the Switzers and the Sherrills.” Barry is a great kidder, practical jokester, and fun guy to be around, but my crack bothered me and I apologized to him as soon as I could.
I didn’t give a damn about what Sherill felt.
The next three paragraphs are about how much he dislikes Jackie Sherrill. This is my favorite part of the book.
8. FORGET WHAT YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT AND SAY SOMETHING ACTUALLY HONEST ABOUT COLLEGE FOOTBALL
When a school cheats, it’s rarely without the knowledge and endorsement of the coach. He can put a stop to it any time he wants. All he has to do is lay down the law to his assistant coaches, who are usually the bagmen in the recruiting and special-treatment rackets; he has to insulate a wall between his staff and recruits on one hand and boosters and alumni on the other.
Again, I won’t get into the post-mortem of Joe’s entire career, but I will posit that, by the early aughts, when Penn State went 26-33 over five seasons from 2000-2004, they probably were not as advanced at cheating as other programs had become.
Then they went 11-1 with an Orange Bowl win in 2005, so.
9. OKAY, LET’S GO BACK INTO BULLSHIT IDEALISM
Chief Justice Earl Warren used to say that he turned to the sports pages first because he wanted to start the day reading positive accounts of people doing their best. That’s changed. Too many sportswriters miseducate their readers, corrupt the meaning of athletics, and inflict unjustified pain on players.
Earl Warren died in 1974, tragically 30 years before the prevalence of dog-picture internet, which is a much better way to start your day than stories that glossed over Ty Cobb’s behavior.
10. NOW, PUT SOMETHING IN THERE JUST FOR YOUR OLD BUDDY ACTIONCOOKBOOK
In our first three games [in 1983], we lost, lost lost — all in front of the dropped jaws and disbelief of mostly own crowd.... in the shameful second, at Beaver Stadium, we failed to reach the end zone, and lost, 14-3 — to Cincinnati???!!!
I really appreciate that he was mad enough to actually use that many question marks and exclamation points in print. And justifiably so!
Some history: due to attendance and other factors, the NCAA had reclassified Cincinnati as a Division I-AA (FCS equivalent) team for 1983, a decision that would be reversed after the season. The win over Penn State marked the first win by a I-AA equivalent over a ranked I-A (FBS equivalent) team in the history of the sport. The Bearcats went 4-6-1 that year, with their other victories over Cornell, Temple, and Rutgers. This was one of their logos that year:
The Bearcats have a great branding history, but I've always been confused about what happened from 1969 to 1983. pic.twitter.com/n84LwE1qP2— OhVarsity! (@OhVarsity) October 11, 2018
None of that’s in the book, but it should be.
There is no honest or comfortable way to assess this book — published in 1989 — in 2019.
That said, it reads more like an actual biography than the pop-science-y self-help manuals coaching books have become in this day and age. It’s a fundamentally flawed book, but it’s a far better read than Urban Meyer Sells A Corporate Retreat Seminar Developed By His Life Coach.
Also, he dedicates four paragraphs to saying Jackie Sherrill is an asshole. My only regret is that Sherrill’s book is out of print, because I bet he’s got feelings on the matter.