Joe Paterno and the Head Ball Coach
From January 2, 1998 through the end of his life, Joe Paterno kept a Florida Gators visor on his bookshelves. He was not a Florida fan, but like most everything with my father there was a lesson behind it................
Years ago Penn State and Florida were selected to play on January 1, 1998 in the Citrus Bowl. It was a bowl promoter’s dream—storied programs, huge fan bases and two highly successful and visible coaches. Joe Paterno and Steve Spurrier were seen as opposites; to the degree that Joe Paterno was seen as old school conservative Spurrier was seen as new school brash.
What most did not know was that over the course of several Nike trips across a number of years Joe Paterno and Steve Spurrier had developed a friendship and mutual respect. Joe used to talk to me about Spurrier. He’d tell me that outspoken coaches who had a lot of initial success were often seen to be arrogant by their colleagues. Joe too had fought that perception amid his early success at Penn State.
Prior to the game Spurrier, noting that Joe never even wore so much as a hat when he coached, good-naturedly suggested this challenge; if Florida won Joe would have to wear his Gators Visor after the game.
The month before the game turned into chaos. Allegations that our All-American Running Back had taken a suit from an agent in violation of NCAA rules surfaced. While we were told that the running back could play in the game if he paid the money back, Joe sent him home from the bowl game and would not play him.
That was not the first big loss. Another big-time offensive player was left home because he had not lived up to his potential academically. The player was eligible and could have played but Joe was trying to teach both that player and the entire team a lesson.
Those two players represented almost two-thirds of our team’s offense; a huge whole to fill in ten days. The game went as expected. Florida’s defense controlled the tempo of the game and we lost. As the final seconds ticked off the two coaches met at midfield both smiling as Spurrier handed his visor to Joe.
The next day that visor was on Joe Paterno’s bookshelves in his den. It remained a reminder of that game not because Joe was pleased with the outcome.
That visor remained for two reasons. One was that he wanted to play Spurrier again.
But the main reason was far different. He explained to me that the visor was there to remind him of this; values and standards matter. It was there to remind him that in the moment when he could have chosen the easier path and played those two players and perhaps win the game, he took the road less traveled.
It was a statement of the character of the program.
After Joe Paterno died the visor came to rest on the bookshelves in my den. It still reminds me that losing the game highlighted something Joe Paterno always taught his coaches and players.
“Losing a game may be heartbreaking, but losing your sense of excellence or worth is a tragedy.”
No game was ever worth winning at the expens
e of losing our sense of excellence or worth--some things are so much bigger than wins and losses.
This past week the visor spoke again with another lesson. Steve Spurrier was on the Paul Finebaum show defending Joe Paterno. The initial false narrative begun 4 ½ years ago has slowly marched back to the truth.
But Steve Spurrier never waited to stand up for Joe Paterno. He spoke up when Joe died, he was there at the Memorial Service. He never hesitated over the past few years to speak about the Joe Paterno he knew, to speak about his character.
That visor’s new lesson was loyalty because of the actions of the man who wore that visor and coached across a sideline from us one day years ago. That day was but a moment, just a game. But the lessons from those two head coaches—lessons about values and character and loyalty are what will endure when I see that visor.
In the end a friendship between Joe Paterno and The Head Ball Coach Steve Spurrier shows us true loyalty that thunders far beyond the playing field.