Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Haunting of Joe Paterno

Why Bill O'Brien's hiring at Penn State must bring to mind one of the most painful episodes in Joe Paterno's long life.

The Haunting of Joe Paterno

Joe Paterno was replaced with New England Patriots defensive coordinator Bill O´Brien. (Pat Little/AP file photo)
Joe Paterno was replaced with New England Patriots defensive coordinator Bill O'Brien. (Pat Little/AP file photo)

Perhaps it was just me who was struck by the coincidence.

There are elements in the background of new Penn State football coach Bill O'Brien that not only bring to mind one of the more meaningful episodes in his predecessor's career but which would intrigue a dramatist -- or a psychiatrist.

And I'm certain that if Joe Paterno took the time to examine his replacement's past, he'd have shuddered with discomfort.

It all dates back to 1946 when Paterno was a freshman at Brown, the Ivy League school from which both he and O'Brien earned degrees, though 42 years apart.

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A middle-class Italian afloat in a sea of wealthy New England Brahmins, Paterno, with his thick Brooklyn accent, felt immediately out of plaace at Brown. That feeling was exacerbated on the night he atended his first fraternity party.

While the assembled brothers all wore blue blazers and striped ties, Paterno showed up in what was, for the tme, an ostentatious white sweater.Almost immediately he felt the party's focus shift toward him.

"I heard somebody whisper, `How did that dago get invited?'", he recalled decades later. "My clothes scratched at my skin and a chill surged down my insides."

Paterno soon departed but he caried the stinging memory with him like a war wound. He would feel like something of an alien at Brown, convinced that somehow he didn't measure up to his patrician classmates' image of an Ivy Leaguer.

And the thing that came to symbolize that unease for him was a summer home on Cape Cod, something "every rich Yankee kid I'd met at Brown assumed was coming to him, the same as inheriting his dad's club membership."

So powerful were the slight and the image of inherited vacation homes it conjured that the combination nearly led Paterno to leave Penn State in 1973.

That year Patriots owner Billy Sullivan had made the Penn State coach an unprecedented offeer to coach his Patriots. The four-year deal would have made Paterno football's first million-dollar coach. And it also included a $200,000 home, two cars, a country-club membership, and 3 to 5 percent of the team.

Paterno was sorely tempted, and, subconsciously at least, found the most intriguing part of the package to be the opportunity it would afford him to buy ... a summer home on Cape Cod.

"I really wanted it," he would say, the prospect of revenge practically dripping from is words.

Eventually, when his wife balked, Paterno turned down Sullivan and stayed in Happy Valley.

Now, two months after his 61-year career there came to an unseemly end in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, that long-ago specter has been reawakened.

O'Brien, a wealthy New Englander and Brown fraternity man, has a summer home on Cape Cod. Well, technically it's his parents', but he, his wife and two sons spend considerable time at the Harwich vacation retreat.

If Paterno were paying attention, he must have noticed what O'Brien was wearing when he stepped off Penn State's jet Friday afternoon:

A blue blazer.

And so, the legend of Paterno tarnished and apparently complete, he must now endure seeing an avatar of the breed he so despised occupy his lifetime's creation.

Inquirer Columnist
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About this blog
Reporter Frank Fitzpatrick, a 2001 Pulitzer Prize finalist, is covering his eighth Olympic Games and has yet to win a medal in anything except caffeine consumption. He has also been the beat writer for the Phillies, Eagles and Penn State football. Reach Frank at ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com.

Frank Fitzpatrick Inquirer Columnist
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