Nadel on Joe Paterno, from Big Ten media days.
If we didn’t know better, JOEPA could be one of those all-too-cute abbreviations kids today use in text messages, right there with BFF, JK and 2G2BT. LOL! The man the college football world knows as JoePa -- octogenarian Penn State coach Joe Paterno -- wasn’t even sure the things were called “text” messages until Tuesday. Really. “Is it t-e-x-t? Or tech? Is it t-e-c-h?” Paterno asked a few sportswriters in a hotel hallway after he had addressed a large Big Ten media day gathering. “It’s text? Oh, OK.” More proof that you’re never too old to learn, folks, though some Nittany Lions fans might not see it that way. They’d offer it as proof that Paterno is out of touch, proof that he should have retired long before what’s about to be his 42nd season atop one of the most successful, storied programs in all of college sports. That, borrowing a word Paterno used when discussing another subject, is just a bunch of “gobbledegook.” Joe Paterno should retire when he wants to retire. He has earned that right by winning lots and lots of games. He has earned that right by keeping 107,282-seat Beaver Stadium filled. He has earned that right by insisting his athletes take school seriously. And he has earned that right by being Mr. Penn State, a man who has given his money and time -- his life, really -- to make the university a better place. “I don’t bother with what people think,” said Paterno, who turns 81 in December. “It’s kind of flattering that so many people are interested in what I’m gonna do. When I think I can’t do the job that Penn State deserves to have a head coach do, then I’ll start to think about getting out.” Hey, just because he’d rather deliver a note to a recruit via Pony Express than by text message, it doesn’t mean he’s forgotten how to do his job. The whole text-messaging thing came up because the NCAA next week will reconsider a new rule barring coaches from texting recruits. The practice had gotten completely out of hand, with some coaches and their assistants texting teens 100 or more times per day -- much to the chagrin of the parents who had to pay for all of those incoming texts. Note to prep football studs: If you get a text from somebody claiming he’s Joe Paterno, don’t even bother reading it. “If he thinks it’s from me, we don’t want him. He’s dumb,” Paterno said. “If I gotta get up in the morning and write 20 kids, ‘I love you,’ every day ... God! “There are a lot of coaches, particularly young coaches, who grew up with electronic messaging -- whatever you wanna call it, e-mail and what-have-you -- and they can send text messages. I can’t text.” He nonetheless seems able to bring in enough good recruits to keep winning. His 363 career victories rank second all-time among Division I-A coaches. The Dump JoePa movement built up steam from 2000-04, when Penn State had only one winning season. Just as the executioners were sharpening their axes, however, the Nittany Lions went 11-1 in 2005. They were 9-4 last season, which Paterno finished coaching from the press box after a sideline collision required knee surgery. Despite that success, Paterno still has plenty of detractors. Some point to an off-campus brawl last April -- resulting in criminal charges against two players -- as a sign there is not enough discipline in his program. Paterno has mandated that every player on his team join the Sunday morning cleanup crew after home games this season, but many critics say the punishment is too soft. “My job is not necessarily just discipline; my job is rehabilitation sometimes,” Paterno said. “It’s easy to just dismiss them. But you’ve got to be careful you don’t destroy them.” I agree. I’d always rather err on the side of compassion, especially until the legal proceedings play out. Think Duke lacrosse, people. Meanwhile, as Paterno prepares for Season No. 42, he has many of the same laments as coaches of all ages, all levels and all sports. His team is too young. He doesn’t have enough leaders. His schedule is tough. And expectations are sky high. “I’ve got 15 grandkids and they can hardly wait to come to a football game,” Paterno said. “(They say,) ‘Granddad, how are we gonna be?’ How the heck do I know? An 11-year-old wants to know how you’re gonna be, dammit ... but he’s probably smarter than some of those 40-year-olds that send e-mails.” Not to mention those crazy tech messages. OMG, those are such gobbledegook! Mike Nadel (email@example.com) is the Chicago sports columnist for GateHouse News Service. Read his blog, The Baldest Truth, at www.thebaldesttruth.com.