Former Penn State head football coach, the late Joe Paterno, was memorialized on Thursday afternoon before a packed house of more than 10,000 at Bryce Jordan Center, where the Nittany Lions play basketball. The event was as emotional as we expected, but it was replete with humor, with hitherto unknown Paterno vignettes, and with one ballsy speech by the founder of Nike and Joe’s friend, Phil Knight.
The VIP section occupied most of the basketball court, with the Paterno family and close friends in the front rows, then the present Nittany Lions football team, and behind them, a myriad players from past teams. The cameras trained on Sue Paterno before the speeches started, as she hugged children and grandchildren and expressed her gratitude. Speakers for the event had been invited by the Paterno family, and some videos collages had been produced to fill some of the gaps. These were very well done, considering the brief time in which they had to be put together.
Joe, of course, would have hated it. He publicly despised this type of attention — at least that was his story for external consumption. Upon accepting awards, Paterno would always humbly credit his family, his university, and his team before he would take any credit himself.
Upon reflection, I have a few observations to share with you, mainly concerning Phil Knight’s speech. Before I get to that, I’ll mention some other things I found notable.
The Penn State administration was conspicuous in its absence from list of invited speakers. The one exception was the Susan Welch, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts. She was a natural, because of Joe’s love of literature and the arts, which led him to establish the Paterno fellowship for outstanding liberal arts students. Lauren Perrotti, current Penn State senior and Paterno Fellow, also spoke.
Had he somehow been alive to plan his own memorial (which he would have hated), Joe probably would have invited the university president to speak, just because of Paterno’s graciousness and sense of propriety. However, Joe’s family had a bad taste in its collective mouth from the actions of the administration and the Board of Trustees. Even though Steve Garban, long-time trustee had been Joe’s friend, he was not invited. Obviously, the family, most notably Sue, had strong feelings about the impropriety of Joe’s dismissal. On November 9, after Fran Ganter delivered the notorious note that told Joe to call a number that turned out to be a telephone at a local hotel where the board was meeting, Sue handed Joe the note, he called, and heard the voice on the other end tell him he was no longer head football coach at Penn State. He told Sue. She phoned the number back to tell them in one sentence what she thought of their action and then hung up. Sue will always think negatively of the people who did this to her husband. In the days following Joe’s dismissal, Sue had even been personally insulted when she went to take her daily swim in the Lasch Building swimming pool and was told that she no longer had privileges there because her husband was no longer an employee. There was no way in hell anyone associated with the administration or the BOT would be invited!
Football players representing each decade of Joe’s tenure as head coach were consistently articulate and excellent speakers whose love for Joe shone through. Kenny Jackson, Charlie Pittman (1960s), Jimmy Cefalo (1970s), Todd Blackledge (1980s), Chris Marrone (1990s), and Michael Robinson (2000s) from past teams, and Mike Mauti of the current team consistently praised Joe for his principles, his support, and his devotion. I learned something new from each one of them.
Mike Robinson, representing 2000 – 2010, spoke of his frustration with Paterno and his struggles to be named the starting quarterback. Joe was frank with him about his abilities and his future. He told Robinson that he could see him playing in the Pro Bowl someday, not as a quarterback, but as a fullback or a running back. Robinson, who currently plays fullback for the Seattle Seahawks of the NFL, was selected as a replacement player for the Pro Bowl this year. He went with the old man’s wisdom, which was contrary to his own self-assessment, and found his niche in the NFL, one from which he could make a significant impact.
Jimmy Cefalo, representing the 1970s, spoke of Joe recruiting him — or rather, recruiting his mom. At the moment when Joe told Mrs. Cefalo that her pasta was better than Mrs. Cappelletti’s, the young Jimmy knew he was going to Penn State to play wide receiver for the Nittany Lions. “That’s hitting below the belt, Joe!” His football career, as you know, was a smashing success. When he had finished during his senior year and had met all the academic requirements for his degree in journalism, he decided to take his remaining few months as a Penn State undergrad easy, scheduling a light load of basket weaving courses. Subsequently, Paterno called him into his office. Cefalo wondered what it was about, as he was done with football. Upon his arrival for the meeting, the coach waved the class schedule at him and said, “What do you think you’re doing, Cefalo? This schedule is beneath you!”
Mike Mauti of the current team was a bit nervous speaking in front of such a large audience, but he settled down quickly, telling of Paterno’s comparing him with his dad who had also played for Joe. Another recruiting story came out. Mauti would decide on Penn State rather impulsively on one of his visits to Joe’s office with his parents. Joe pinned him down, “All right, kid, I need your decision. What’s it going to be?” Mauti responded, “I’m here!” At that point, Rich Mauti, the father, chimed in, “You said you were going to talk it over—” Paterno cut him off as if he had caught him telling tales in the locker room. “Shut up, Mauti!” he said, “You heard the kid. He’s here!”
Throughout the speeches, the notion that Sue Paterno was a central figure in recruiting and nurturing players became well established, as did both Mr. and Mrs. Paterno’s concern for academics.
Phil Knight is the founder and CEO of Nike. He has been a friend of Joe Paterno for many years. He was the only speaker to have the chutzpah to address the elephant in the room, namely the Sandusky scandal and the Board of Trustees’ rush to judgement to make Joe the scapegoat. He received the longest ovation of the afternoon for expressing what was on everyone’s mind — that Joe had gotten a bum rap that threatened to diminish his legacy. Perhaps the other speakers had something to lose by mentioning the controversy, perhaps they were told to avoid it, or perhaps they felt it would be Joe’s wish that they avoid it. After all, Paterno had never protested his own firing or expressed any bitterness in public over the hatchet job done on him by the media in the wake of the Board’s action. However, when one is as secure as Phil Knight, one can express the painful truth with impunity. Paterno, he said, had not committed the crime but was taking the blame for it because he was a convenient target for the media. Knight flat out stated that Paterno followed the rules, sent the matter up the chain of command as prescribed, and placed the matter in the hands of a world class university. If any villain existed, said Knight, it was in the investigation, not Joe Paterno. Knight asked, “Who is the real trustee at Penn State?” It all had to be said, especially the part about the media hatchet job (reminding me of Newt Gingrich calling out CNN), to clear the air so the beloved coach could rest in peace.
This Turkey applauds Phil Knight for opening up his mouth. Say what you will about his cheap foreign labor, expensive shoes, bullying of the NCAA, and the weird uniforms Nike produced this year, Phil has a heart, a soul, and a sense of propriety. Paterno was his friend and hero. Phil had his “six”.
Jay Paterno was the cleanup batter, whose speech was everything you would expect it to be. He expressed pride in being Joe’s namesake, of which he is reminded each time he looks at his driver’s license and sees “Joseph V. Paterno, Jr.”. As long as I’ve been listening to Jay talk about the team, the university, and anything related, he has always referred to his dad as Joe. During this remembrance, however, it was mostly “Dad.” The one thing that fell flat with the crowd was Jay’s attempted imitation of Joe, which didn’t really work. At two different times while he was at the podium, when the audience stood and cheered him on, he yelled, “SIT DOWN!” just the way his dad would have, in his high pitched, agitated voice. It didn’t really sound right coming from baby-faced Jay, and it didn’t sound much like Joe, anyway. Jay’s wrap-up was touchingly emotional. He by led everyone in the Lord’s Prayer, just as his dad had done after each football game, then said he had one more story to tell. He spoke of his childhood and the strong presence of his dad in the family. He spoke of his final day with Joe, when the two of them were alone together in the hospital room, how he saw flashbacks of his life’s various stages, always including his dad. Much as he had played on the floor in the study when his dad was working, there he was once again alone with Joe, the the father-son duo. Only now, it was Jay’s turn to be the pillar of strength and the giver of advice. He kissed his dad and told him, “You’ve done all that you could do. You won. We all love you. You can go home now.”
Afterward, a lone trumpeter wearing a classic Blue Band uniform played a mournful version of “Hail to the Lion.”
Jay is Joe’s second youngest offspring, who willfully bore much of the burden for Joe’s final arrangements, even though he was clearly devastated by his loss. No matter what you might think of Jay’s performance as a coach, in this much more important function Jay delivered the performance of his life. Through the whole sordid affair of the Sandusky affair and Joe’s dismissal, and through the tragedy of Joe’s leaving this earth, Jay has impressed me as being a professional in his business conduct and a rock solid family man. He has earned my respect.
Because of Joe’s love for opera, particularly Italian opera, one of the video sound tracks was the late Luciano Pavarotti’s signature aria “Nessun Dorma” from Turandot. This Turkey thought it fit perfectly. It concludes with a proclamation, “All’alba vincerò. Vincerò! Vincerò!” (At dawn I will win. I will win! I will win!).
I’ll remember many of the speeches I heard Thursday, but it will be Knight’s as well as Jay’s that imprinted themselves most indelibly on my memory.
What did you all think of the tribute? Did it give you a sense of closure, or did it still leave things hanging? And what did you think of Jay’s attempted Joe imitation?