The first weekend in December is a big “official visit” date for Penn State: finally, the red-carpet is rolled out for all of the recruits and their families. Prior to that, NCAA rules prohibit any expenses paid out on behalf of recruits for meals or lodging. THIS weekend is all about the wow-factor…nothing but the best. Free lodging in the Nittany Lion Inn, free meals, and meetings with the coaches and academic staff.
Who would have ever in a million years that in just two short years that all could end so tragically? Joe Paterno has been systematically scrubbed from Penn State. While the purpose of this post is to take a peek behind the scenes at a recruiting weekend when Joe ran the show, I will say that not even mentioning him this year at Beaver Stadium was kind of a joke, right? I mean, really…if you can’t give a tribute to Joe Paterno in the safest place in the world to give one…wow. Still ticks me off at what a bunch of PC-cowards are in charge down there.
Okay. What was it like?
Heidi and I arrived at the Lasch Football Building at around 3:30 PM on Friday afternoon. We were signed in and taken with the other recruits and their families to Holuba Hall (the h-u-g-e indoor practice facility) to watch the team practice. Within a few minutes, we had our first JoePa sighting.
There he was: this little, hunched-over Italian guy wearing a coat that looked two sizes too large, wandering through the middle of the field staring at some notes he was holding. At first, I felt bad because he looked like he was reading those notes like he needed directions to his office or something. I would find out later that Joe always carried his hand-written notes around with him to keep himself on task. He made his way over to us, introduced himself – like THAT was needed – and made a little joke about us bringing the cold weather with us from Erie. I soiled my pants right there.
Later on, we had dinner in the team dining room with the players and the coaches, and the evening ended with a trip on one of the blue buses to Beaver Stadium. The entire ride was narrated wonderfully by a former player, who stood on the steps by the driver:
“When you turn this corner, you’re going to look out of the window and see thousands of people tailgating in the fields around the stadium.”
“When you turn THIS corner, you’re going to see this 85 year-old alum who hasn’t missed a home game in 50 years…he came to see YOU play today.”
“When you turn THIS corner, the crowd is starting to swell…you’ll start hearing the sirens from the police escort in front of you.”
“When you turn THIS corner, you’re going to feel the bus start to shake from the fans that are running next to it and pounding on it.”
“And finally…you’ve arrived at Beaver Stadium, where 3,000 fans are waiting to see you get off the bus. The quarterback is the first one off, which is the symbol that on game day, it’s his team now. Joe exits the bus second, followed by the starting offensive team.”
When we walked into cavernous Beaver Stadium on that cold and clear December evening, they had the stadium lights on, the scoreboard lit up, and crowd noise being piped in through the sound system. It was quite a sight, and quite a feeling to walk through that tunnel. If your tongue is hanging out right now, yes – it was as cool as you would think it would be.
Our long day was over, so we met with the other parents at the bar in the Inn…lot’s of fun meeting each other and sharing stories.
Saturday was spent with academic advisers with the football team, a meeting with your son’s coordinator (ours was Larry Johnson, one focused dude is he) and finally lunch downtown with professors from your son’s declared major. But…the best was yet to come.
Saturday evening was a dressy affair at the Nittany Lion Inn. Coaches and their wives, the recruits and their families, and, of course…Joe.
If I took one single thing away from that weekend, it was this: When Joe Paterno stood up to speak, the room went quiet. Not “any” quiet…Catholic church quiet. Dead silence.
Respect. That’s just the way it was.
Joe thanked all of us for traveling to State College, made a few remarks, and said he was looking forward to seeing us later at his home for cocktails and hors d’oeuvres…he spoke so softly, but was as sharp as a tack. He finished with stating, “That was a pretty good speech…I usually get paid a buck for that. Of course, a buck used to be worth a lot more a few years ago.” Cute.
At that point – I will never forget this – Jay Paterno shouted out something about Bush being a moron. It was like the most inappropriate thing I ever saw in my life, and may ever see. I watched all of the assistant coaches nervously look at each other and roll their eyes as in…w-o-w. C’mon, Jay…REALLY? In fairness, Jay DID handle the aftermath of the Sandusky mess with dignity, so maybe his dad kicked his arse so hard that night that he learned his lesson.
Insider information: when you looked around the room, you could have been at Harvard. ALL of the coaches wore navy-blue blazers, striped ties, and shined shoes. Short haircuts, and no facial hair. The wives were decked out in silk dresses, lots of very nice jewelry, very high heels, and had professionally styled hair. It was quite a scene.
Okay, into the white van driven by our chaperon for the weekend: Mr. Mike McQueary. I am NOT kidding. But, we’re on our way to “Joe and Sue’s.”
Sue Paterno greeted us at the door, welcomed us in, and told us to help ourselves to the food…which she had prepared herself. Now, things get interesting.
Joe Paterno walks up to me – the Guy From Erie – and says, “Hey! It’s FRAN!” He proceeds to drag me around to all of the other coaches, saying “HEY! Fran’s here!” They all laughed, so I did, too. Who the hell was Fran? It turns out that I have a remarkable resemblance to Fran Fisher, the Penn State radio guy for a thousand years.
As the evening moved on, there was a knock on the door and one of the singing-groups on campus – can’t remember their name – showed up to sing some Christmas carols. Sue invited them into the living room, and we watched as Joe got up and joined in. They finished with “Hail to The Lion,” “Fight on State” and the “alma mater,” with Joe right beside them. I’ll never forget it…here’s the video:
To quote Paul Harvey, here’s The Rest of The Story.”
I pulled Mike McQueary aside and asked him if it would be appropriate to get a photo with Joe. “Not tonight,” he said. “Joe will be at breakfast in the morning with us, and that’s the best time.”
About 15 minutes later, Heidi and I were wandering around the house and ended up in the kitchen alone when in walks Joe. Call me an opportunist, but there was NO WAY I wasn’t going to take advantage of this moment. “Joe, can we get a picture?” “Sure.” I handed my camera to someone who was nearby and he snapped away.
The next morning at breakfast, there was a lot of buzz because Penn State just got the Outback Bowl bid at 11:00 PM the night before. It was a BIG deal…Joe comes to breakfast (blazer and tie, of course) and says, “Hey, thanks for coming …Penn State is a GREAT place to play football and get your education from. Hope to see you here as a player!”
That was it. He left.
No pictures. Not one.
In the end, I may have secured the last photo of Joe Paterno at the last “official visit” he ever conducted at Penn State, AND in his kitchen. Eleven months later, he was fired. A few months after that, he was dead.
After our wonderful weekend in Happy Valley, I wrote Joe a letter thanking him for the experience, expecting nothing in return.
About 10 days later, I got a letter from him…he had simply taken my letter and wrote his response across the top.
Somehow, someway…I lost it. Couldn’t find it. Tore apart every bin, drawer, and file cabinet in my house. No-go. For the last year and a half…looked everywhere.
And, today…I found it. It was like a Christmas present, a few weeks early.
I love Penn State, and I love Joe Paterno. His name will be cleared. Justice will run it’s course. He was a good man – not without flaws – but a good man.
And I was lucky enough to meet him.
Not sure if I’m on-board with the long hair and beards…but I understand the new coach had to do what he had to do. Bill O’Brien is like 45 years younger than Joe was, and things do change…but I always loved the Penn State “clean cut” look. It was iconic and set them apart. The day will soon come when you see dreadlocks flying out of a white PSU helmet…sigh. I am getting old.
Here’s a link from that weekend in State College. Lots of photos…I believe the murals/posters of Joe in the football building are gone now, like he never existed. What a shame.
I would have never written this post if the previous staff was still in place, out of respect. Coach O’Brien and his team are now creating their own traditions, as they should. I just thought that some of you might enjoy reading about what recruiting was like under Joe…I am not an expert. This was just my experience.