Bird that Sings

December 29, 2011

The Autumn of the Patriarchs

Filed under: Sports,Uncategorized — admin @ 8:12 pm

“Broken treaties broken vows
Broken pipes broken tools
People bending broken rules
Hound dog howling bullfrog croaking
Everything is broken.”
Bob Dylan

As 2012 approaches, nobody needs a clock to know what time it is. It’s a good thing too, because everything is broken; politics, the economy, the climate, even sports.

The era of Spectator Sports as Big Business that began as Big Manufacturing went into decline is itself drawing to a close. Big Sports filled a void; we went from making stuff to watching stuff, but now, right on cue, some of the biggest sports are falling all around us.

Al Davis and Joe Paterno have this much in common; both are from Brooklyn and both had to be carted off the football field, feet first, in the fall of 2011.

When I was a kid, I always had the suspicion that Al Davis was a gangster who was using football as some of kind of front. Actually it was vice versa. Even though Davis—who famously drove his Thunderbird convertible to California in 1959 with a suitcase in the back and eighty bucks in his pocket—ultimately made a fortune in football, making a buck was just a means to an end for Al.

Al Davis wanted to build a football empire. He did too, parlaying his first job as a wide receivers’ coach under legendary offensive football guru, Sid Gillman of the American Football League’s San Diego Chargers, to the head-coaching job of the new league’s Oakland Raiders. At the time Gillman said of his assistant, “Al Davis thinks he’s the smartest guy in football. He’s not . . . yet.”

Davis was soon not only coach of the Raiders, but General Manager and had turned them into a winner too. Then they made Davis President of the League and within a year he had the upstart AFL drafting and signing away players from the established NFL with such abandon that Davis, at least, believed the AFL would soon be dominant.

It was partly out of fear of Pirate Al, that the owners of the NFL and AFL got together and negotiated the Pro football merger of 1966. This pissed Davis off so much he resigned as President of the Junior League and went back to his beloved “Raiduhs” where he resumed complete control of the team’s day-to-day operations.

Along the way the Raiders not only won Championships under a series of Davis’ hand picked successors; John Rauch, John Madden and Tom Flores, but developed the outlaw mystique that made them the bad boys of football. Like James Brown, the Raiders were . . . Super bad.

Davis had assumed controlling ownership of the team long before he took the Raiders to LA in 1982, only to return to Oakland twelve years later in exchange for a King’s ransom. However Al’s second coming in Oakland was not as successful as the first and the whispering began: The Old Man had lost it. Al’s particular brand of football; power running and a, speed-kills, vertical passing game to go along with a take no prisoners, mano a mano defense, was passe´ they said: other teams were out scheming the Raiders; that the game had passed Al by.

Like the Latin American dictator of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel, The Autumn of the Patriarch, who had to sell the Caribbean Sea to the North Americans (they had it shipped away) in order to retain total control over his profoundly shrunken realm, Davis isolated himself in response to the criticism and became increasingly obsessed with proving himself still the smartest guy in the room. It was a sucker’s game and Al must have known, but couldn’t resist the action.

Oddly though, no one was prepared when Al Davis suddenly passed away in mid season: it was shock to everyone; his detractors, his underground admirers, even his players.

No matter how much you might have disliked Al Davis, no one thought he would ever die.

Right about now Joe Paterno must be wishing he were dead too.

Incredibly, I remember Paterno’s first years at Penn State, probably because I was not yet old enough to smoke or drink, but Joe Pa really seemed like he had something to prove back then.

Paterno let us know— through his sycophants in the media to be sure—that just being a football coach was not enough. Joe Pa was building a program that was different we were told: Paterno cared about the players, he wanted them to graduate and make something of themselves outside of sports; the implication being he wanted them to do the important things he would have liked to do if he wasn’t stuck in this stupid college football racket.

That was Paterno’s image but after a while, that’s all it was. To put the best spin on it, Joe Pa was like everyone else: we start out with big ambitions and then in middle age, maybe start talking up what we’ve already done; maybe even try to make it seem like more than it really is.

Joe Pa took his mid-life crisis one step further than most of us though; he decided to make the entire Penn State campus, and in fact much of Central Pennsylvania, a monument to his emerging cult of personality.

When the Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Giants and New England Patriots asked him to coach their teams, Joe turned them down. When the Pennsylvania Republican Party wanted to run Joe for governor sometime around his 1986 National Championship, he turned them down too.

Joe Pa couldn’t leave Penn State and it wasn’t because he was too humble. Mostly, it was because he was a total control freak.

For years—especially the early ones— Penn State featured small to medium sized quarterbacks who couldn’t run and couldn’t throw; whose talents were a mystery except when you realized that they looked a lot like Joe.

Though a great recruiter and self-publicist, Paterno was probably also the worst great coach of all time.

To be fair, some of that was his innate football conservatism: a great Penn State team would rarely stomp their opponent, they would typically eek out a win, and that was mainly because the players would refuse to lose.

What Penn State fan can forget the 1969 Orange Bowl, when Paterno had All-American Charlie Pittman and two future all Pro’s, Franco Harris and Lydell Mitchell in the backfield and still barely beat Kansas 15-14, and that, only because of a great Defense anchored by Mike Reid, Steve Smear, Dennis Onkotz and Jack Ham. It was Joe Paterno and Penn State football at its agonizing best.

By 1998, when the first investigation of Jerry Sandusky began, Joe Pa must have known something about his then defensive coordinator and at least he blocked Sandusky from becoming head coach of the team. Paterno could have investigated Sandusky himself but that wasn’t going to happen. For one thing Paterno probably figured that was the DA’s job. For another, he was too busy trying to protect his program. No, the big question, the one will dog Paterno to the end of his days is why couldn’t Joe let go?

Why, after he dumped Sandusky in 1999, when Paterno was already over 70, did he hang on as coach and more for another twelve years only to witness the complete destruction of everything he had built, of his life’s work?

The answer of course is that he didn’t let go because he couldn’t let go: these guys never do.

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