Bill Conlin: Paterno is a stranger in cyberspace

Penn State coach Joe Paterno says he is definitely not entertaining thoughts of retirement.
Penn State coach Joe Paterno says he is definitely not entertaining thoughts of retirement.
Posted: December 30, 2010

TAMPA - College football's Last Emperor was talking about discipline, circa 1944.

He was talking about a Jesuit priest at Brooklyn Prep, a former boxer named Father Frederick Engel.

"Father Engel was prefect of discipline," Joe Paterno was saying Tuesday. "If somebody was out of line, he gave him a shot in the head. He used to be a boxer. Can you picture something like that happening today?"

Joe did not ask the rhetorical question dismissively . . .

I had 3 years of first-hand knowledge of Father Engel, whose fingernails-on-a-blackboard voice triggered a wave of fear if directed at you - even if not directed at you.

Legend has it that Fred Engel got some smartmouth from Paterno teammate Gerry Hart, who was a sophomore when Joe graduated. Hart had become one of the best high school tackles in America and was ticketed for West Point, where he was involved in the notorious Honor System cribbing scandal that decimated Earl Blaik's team. Before moving on to a career that took him to the Detroit Lions via Army and Mississippi State, Gerry had his Engel Moment. One day, the P of D called him out for some minor infraction. Hart gave the Jesuit some lip and the 245-pound athlete was dropped by a lightning right.

Tough love . . . Gerry did not say, "Thank you, Father, may I have another?"

JoePa comes from a level of discipline long gone . . .

Somebody is going to replace college football's Last Emperor sooner than later. More will end than just the dynasty Joe Paterno established in Happy Valley. I am surprised that Fast Eddie Rendell did not take a 20-second timeout from his contradiction of meteorologist John Bolaris, interruption of Ray Didinger, dissing of snowbound New Jersey Eagles fans and wussification of America rant to name Paterno's successor. Penn State is, after all, the official state college, right? And doesn't the outgoing governor get to make a few pardons and appointments?

When Paterno and Florida's ESPN-bound Urban Meyer were getting ready for their relaxed, convivial, Outback Bowl press conference, I Googled "Latest Joe Paterno Rumors" on my iPad.

In a nanosecond, it returned a total of 397,000 hits. (Today it was up to 400,000.) The iPad features Apple's Safari search engine, which uses more expanded search parameters than Google. But even Google returned a robust 73,700 results.

I asked Joe if it bothered him that every inch of his storied career and its end game has been laid bare by the social-networking phenomenon sweeping the world.

He could have said, "Where is Father Engel when I need him?" Instead, he said, "It drives me nuts. I get in a bus and I gotta tell a bunch of kids, 'Take that thing sticking in your ears and shove it.' I don't particularly like the idea of people having that much access to anything."

That should be good for about another 200,000 "results."

Joe wasn't thrilled when told the cyberworld was rife with reports he was in the Milton W. Hershey Hospital being treated for cancer on a day he was quite visibly in Clearwater with his team. Or that his entire family was being flown to the Outback Bowl on private jets. (Sue Paterno and Joe's daughter and daughter-in-law flew to Tampa on a university charter for families of the coaching staff and athletic department officials.)

In 1949, when JoePa was playing quarterback for Rip Engle at Brown, George Orwell published a frightening look at the future titled "1984." A totalitarian government imposed 24/7 video surveillance on the entire population. "Big Brother" was watching Everybody.

Orwell got it wrong. Now, as we complete 2010, "Big Brother" is being watched by Everybody. In fact, Everybody is being watched by Everybody.

About the closest Joe has come to hi-tech is the Series 3 BMW sedan he was driving when involved in a widely reported 2007 road-rage incident on campus. Somehow, I have a hard-time envisioning Paterno flashing a middle-aged couple two-fisted middle digits while wrapping "Do you know who I am?" in a manic volley of verbal graffiti. But a little road rage? Sure.

Joe says he hasn't even thought about retiring. That makes him a lonely figure buffeted by thousands who want him gone. Given the negative dynamic, it would be inexcusable for Penn State president Graham Spanier, the board of trustees, the boosters, and everybody else involved in the empire Joe Paterno has built for them over the past 45 years to not have a dignified exit plan in place. "Oh, Joe just kicked at the 40-yard line on third-and-12? What do we do now?"

Well, they better have somebody in mind who can handle a program where the bar has been set so high. The guy to really feel sorry for when Joe either dies or retires is the next head coach.

Legends are never easy to replace. Abraham Lincoln was replaced by a hack vice president named Andrew Johnson. Didn't work.

General manager Paul Owens was replaced by Phillies president Bill Giles. Didn't work. Manager Paul Owens was replaced by John Felske. Didn't work.

Bear Bryant, who had JoePa's number, was replaced by Ray Perkins, who cautioned, "You don't replace Bear Bryant, you follow him." Perkins had two solid seasons after a 13-10 start. But he wasn't Bear.

Frank Sinatra was replaced by . . .

Be patient. Still looking . . .

King Lear "raged at the dying of the light . . . "

Meanwhile, college football's Last Emperor says he has never thought about retiring and apparently has been slow to notice that this is no country for old men.

Send e-mail to bill1chair@aol.com.

For recent columns, go to

http://go.philly.com/conlin.

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