Bill Conlin | Paterno is punishing a few good men, too

Posted: May 24, 2007

(Captain Queeg removes the steel balls from his pocket and he spins them in his palm insistently as he speaks.)

Queeg: Ah, but the strawberries! That's where I had them. They laughed at me and made jokes, but I proved beyond the shadow of a doubt, and with geometric logic, that a duplicate key to the wardroom icebox did exist! And I'd have produced that key if they hadn't pulled Caine out of action! I-I-I know now they were only trying to protect some fellow officer and! . . . (realizes he has been ranting, babbling).

DID ANYBODY check Joe Paterno's right hand while he met with local media before addressing the Nittany Lion Club in King of Prussia? Was he nervously rolling a pair of steel ball bearings in the fashion of Herman Wouk's fictional Captain Philip Francis Queeg, the delusional World War II skipper of the minesweeper USS Caine? Queeg became the model for stress-induced paranoia. Wouk won a Pulitzer Prize, and Queeg's name is often invoked when some famous person circles his psychological wagons and starts doing weird stuff.

The iconic football coach is justifiably upset by the mounting evidence the football Camelot that was once Happy Valley - or so we were conditioned to believe - is nothing more than a pre-NFL proving ground populated by hired thugs.

One unsavory incident involving high-profile football players after another has rocked the pastoral university a writer once described as being "100 miles equidistant from Nowhere . . . "

The shock waves travel more quickly than they did in 1963 when I made my first swing through the trees between Harrisburg and State College.

The Pigskin Curtain came tumbling down in the winter of 2002-03 after Paterno permitted a player named Anwar Phillips to play in the Jan.1 Capital One Bowl. Phillips had been indicted in the rape of a Penn State coed with whom he had a year and a half friendship before an alleged Nov. 12 sexual assault of the young woman. Paterno kept Phillips on the squad even though he had been formally expelled, effective in the semester that began after the bowl game. Paterno was hammered by the national media. Nobody bought the "innocent until proved guilty" card. Not on this one. Not when it was only a football game, as opposed to the suspension of his civil rights.

An embarrassed university president Graham Spanier quietly diminished Paterno's sweeping authority to make the call in matters involving his football empire.

Four of the six players allegedly involved in an ugly April 1 party rumble were legally cleared of any criminal wrongdoing. However, two others, alleged instigator Anthony Scirotto, an All-Big Ten safety from West Deptford, N.J., and defensive tackle Chris Baker, face a number of felony charges.

In King of Prussia, Paterno described the latest incident as a "team embarrassment." Then he outlined how he intends to "prove to people we're not a bunch of hoodlums."

And that's about the time his audience needed to listen for the clackety-clack of small steel balls being rolled in his right hand.

Joe said he already has informed Spanier that each player on the team will perform 10 hours of community work. Some also will work with the Special Olympics to see "how lucky they are." That's cool, as well.

The rest of this massive group spin is not so cool . . .

If Paterno goes through with it, Sept. 2, 2007, will be a Sunday in Happy Valley like no other. On Saturday, the football team will open the season against a speed bump named Florida International. And among the horde of workers cleaning up after 105,000-plus hungry, thirsty, sloppy and perhaps randomly incontinent fans will be the Penn State football team.

At this point, Joe Paterno morphs from Captain Queeg into R. Lee Ermey, the real life Parris Island Marine drill instructor who played Gunnery Sgt. Hartman in the harrowing film "Full Metal Jacket":

"You pick up paper cups like you break tackles . . . You defensive linemen, let's use a little elbow grease cleaning up that barf. That's why we gave you rubber gloves and surgical masks . . . Let's go . . . Sorry now you didn't go into the draft? Me too. Pretend that Hefty bag is a ballcarrier . . . "

Look, Joe, if these kids were looking for group punishment, maybe some of them would have joined the Marines. Know how hard the rest of the Big Ten will be laughing? That time Matt Millen didn't finish the run the first day of fall practice in the required time, did you make the rest of the team run extra laps? No, you made him run until he was inches from quitting the team. Now he's an NFL team president. When Franco Harris was late for a Cotton Bowl practice, did you discipline the whole first team? No, you tossed him a second-team jersey. Now, he's in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and is one of America's most successful black entrepreneurs. But nobody else had to pay the price of his screwup.

In the middle of last century, when Joe was a kid, he went to Brooklyn Prep, where the Jesuits had something called "Jug" to discipline rule breakers. When you heard a priest thunder "Jug," you reported to the Jugmaster, who gave you a choice: Walk the quadrangle in line for 2 hours, write a 2,000-word composition on something like "Mating Habits of a Tsetse Fly" or grind rocks in Father Hufnagel's lab. "Rocks" were a powder you had to grind into a powder so fine, it took 2 hours of non-stop grinding before 5 grams would fit through a sieve - blisters guaranteed.

Joe, you'd better join this century before you are out of time. You don't need this final chapter to be titled, "Mutiny on the Nittany." *

Send e-mail to bill1chair@aol.com.

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