May 4, 2004
By Dustin Dopirak
Daily Collegian (Penn State U.)
One of my friends from high school has been a Penn State fan since birth. He used to have a cardboard cutout of Joe Paterno in his room, PSU posters all over his walls, and a tape of the 1986 Fiesta Bowl that he still watches as sort of a religious experience.
When we were younger, he used to preach to me the great Penn State superfan creed: Joe Paterno is God; Bobby Bowden is Satan. Paterno's program is squeaky clean; he graduates players and makes great men out of them while also making them great football players. Bowden recruits criminals, pays them to come to school, doesn't make them go to class, and slaps them on the wrist when they get in trouble while they're in school.
Since coming up to Penn State four years ago, I have determined that most other PSU fans also have this notion.
After years of hearing the standard Penn State propaganda I mentioned above, I was surprised to find out that Paterno and Bowden are actually friends. They talk to each other rather frequently, and hang out together at Nike football camps. Their wives are friends, and Paterno was genuinely happy for Bowden when he passed Paterno for first on the all-time Div. I coaching wins list.
That's indicative of the paradox of Penn State fans. If you dare question Paterno's decision-making when it comes to the discipline of a player charged with a crime, they'll run you out of town.
But they won't even mention his choice of friends.
They won't because it goes against what fans of any team or sport want out of sports. What they want is an old-time comic book or spaghetti western in which the good guys wear white and the bad guys wear black, but they want real life events to be the story line. Therefore, everyone has to have a foil.
Bowden and Paterno fit into this scenario perfectly. You've got Bowden, the good ole' Southern gentleman with the molasses-thick drawl who uses words like dadgummit, and Paterno, the Ivy League educated Italian-American who still sounds like he just got in from Brooklyn.
Bowden's got some NCAA violations and had a less than stellar 59 percent graduation rate last year. The NCAA has never bothered to sniff around in Happy Valley, and last season, the Penn State football team graduated about 86 percent of its players.
Doing any more work than that to determine the content of these coaches' characters is too much for some fans.
But Paterno surely has some skeletons in his closet, and a lot of them have been coming out lately with the recent string of criminal charges facing his players. And Bowden assuredly has his good qualities or else Paterno wouldn't be so tight with him.
But why consider those? Life is complicated, filled with thin lines and gray areas. Fans want their sports to give them a release from that. A chance to relax their minds.
They're not happy just watching the games, or just rooting for their hometown teams. They need someone to hate. Being a Red Sox fan wouldn't be as fun without having the Yankees to hate, nor would rooting for Ohio State be nearly as great without Michigan to despise.
But it can't just stay there, it has to get personal. Fans find a couple threads they can pull on, declare the players or coaches of their team's rivals evil and make their team's run to victory into a mission mandated by God.
And somewhere in that, the idea of humanity is completely lost. The fact is that sports figures have strengths and weaknesses. They are capable of great accomplishments and great failures and of acts right and wrong like all other human beings. But there are times when that perspective is lost on certain fans. Sports figures are seen as either infallible or lacking any sort of redeeming quality. There's no consideration to the possibility that they might be both.
And they certainly can be. Athletes are just as likely as anyone else to be out building houses for the homeless one day and getting busted for partying too hard the next.
But when that happens, if the guy's not on your team, he's a jerk and out of control or the coach runs a shady program that promotes criminal behavior. And if he is on your team, he's a mistreated hero, the news media is at fault for putting the story on page 1, and the coach has every reason to play the guy in the next game.
But actually, he's neither a hero nor a villain. He's a prominent human being that screwed up. That's what they all are, just men and women, like you and me, who screw up and succeed.
And that's why it makes sense that Penn State's God and that devil down at Florida State can still be friends.
Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno are both enemies and friends.