On Paterno and 'The Dude'

Could the prospect of hiring Urban Meyer as his replacement be enough to pushJoe Paterno into a graceful exit from the coaching job at Penn State?
Could the prospect of hiring Urban Meyer as his replacement be enough to pushJoe Paterno into a graceful exit from the coaching job at Penn State? (KEVIN C. COX / Getty Images)
Posted: August 14, 2011

Stories this week about Joe Paterno and Lenny Dykstra piqued my interest, and there is absolutely no connection between the two except this: One guy is likely headed to the big house and the other, well, let's just say a lot of us would prefer that he, for his own safety, stay nestled inside his own house.

Paterno got steamrolled by one of his wide receivers in a practice drill, hurting his shoulder, hip, and pelvis. There may be a hairline fracture in there somewhere as well. At age 84, when JoePa gets blasted by young and strong college football bucks, his body breaks up like Wile E. Coyote falling off a cliff after the Road Runner leads him down the wrong road.

And I really don't mean that to be funny.

I worship at the altar of Joe Paterno. No other human being has meant more to Penn State University than Paterno, the bespectacled, oft-caricatured football coach with the personality that is at once irascible and charming. I put him in the top 10 coaches of all-time, a list that would include Lombardi and Wooden and Phil Jackson and "Bear" Bryant and Red Auerbach and Casey Stengel and Don Shula and Scotty Bowman and Dean Smith and Bill Belichick. Paterno's coaching record, his ability over the years to provide Penn State with its identity, and his philanthropy to the university form the foundation of his greatness.

But you can't find a Penn State football fan who doesn't wish he would step down from coaching.

At a time when JoePa still helps the university's profile, he hurts the Nittany Lions football program. Penn State has fallen a notch below the first tier of Big Ten football powers, behind the Ohio States, Wisconsins, and Iowas of the conference. Michigan will pass the Lions soon.

Under Paterno, Penn State gets good players, just not the bluest of the blue-chip recruits. And the biggest reason is the competition's negative recruiting against Paterno. If Penn State is in on a big recruit along with the other Big Ten schools, or any powerhouse program, assistant coaches from that school fill the kid's head with anti-Penn State invective. "Why would you go to a school where the head coach probably isn't going to be there much longer?" they muse. They ask the kid to ponder life when Paterno leaves, or, God forbid, if his health issues prevent him from coaching any longer, and how that kid will now become just a number to a new, incoming staff that doesn't know him. Does that kid still go to Penn State?

Two years ago, I asked Paterno in a one-on-one interview about that concept. "Kids come to the school for the school," Joe Pa said, emphatically. "It's Penn State we're talking about. Penn State!"

I didn't have the heart to tell him he was wrong. Football recruits don't go to a university because it has ivy on Old Main or a nifty self-serve frozen yogurt joint on College Avenue. They come for the coach. Paterno doesn't even go on the road to recruit anymore. At Penn State, they're trying to get him to talk to recruits via Skype. Can't you just see JoePa tapping the computer screen, saying: "Is this thing on?" He is a man who clings to coaching perhaps as a way to continue living. But it's not fun for any of us to watch him get pummeled by a racing wide receiver, or plowed by a charging linebacker making a tackle, an episode five years ago that left him with broken bones and a ripped-up knee.

That said, Penn State is long past the point of being able to forcibly remove Paterno from the job. That would be cold, callous, and unsettling. JoePa has earned the right to step down of his own volition. But I think he can be nudged, and here's my plan: Urban Meyer, Penn State coach, 2012.

I see the former Florida coach, currently doing commentary work for ESPN, about a year away from relighting his coaching candle. Paterno likes and respects Meyer. After this season, when Penn State slogs through another mediocre record and finds itself in another low-level bowl game, the powers-that-be get Paterno in a room and extol the virtues of Meyer. They tell him that Meyer is the perfect coach to preserve the JoePa legacy and to continue the great football tradition at Penn State and that if they don't sign Meyer now, somebody else will and he'll then be gone forever. I think Paterno just might bite.

Saw this one coming

Now, on to Dykstra, who pleaded not guilty last week to possession of human growth hormone and ecstasy and to operating a large auto-fraud scheme. Oh, and he's mired in bankruptcy.

Anybody who didn't see this kind of meltdown from the former Phillies centerfielder just wasn't paying attention. When Dykstra was a Phillie from 1989 to '96, he was crazy. Dude would often take batting practice in his skivvies, flicking a cigarette ash, and carrying a hot cup of coffee on his way to the cage. And his adventures off the field were legendary.

Dykstra was a man with absolutely no personal responsibility.

I knew a car dealer who once sold him a high-end Mercedes. Dykstra would regularly call him in the wee hours of the morning, after a night of serious partying. My buddy would answer the phone groggily to hear Dykstra say, with that lispy voice: "Dude, what's this button on the left side of the steering wheel dash do?"

Here's hoping he can still work the count in the prison sandlot game.

Contact Mike Missanelli at mikemiss@975thefanatic.com.


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