Cook: Paterno's plan merits praise

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(Cue booming voice)

Hey, Anthony Morelli and Dan Connor, you and the Nittany Lions have just beaten No. 1 Ohio State. What are you going to do now?"

(Cue Penn State stars)

"We're going to clean Beaver Stadium!"

Doesn't have quite the same cachet as the Disney World commercials, does it?

That's OK, though.

It's not supposed to be funny.

Certainly, it's not funny to Penn State coach Joe Paterno, who took the very unusual step this week of going public with his team discipline. Angry about an off-campus fight April 1 that involved several of his players -- at least peripherally -- and resulted in serious charges against starting safety Anthony Scirrotto and backup defensive lineman Chris Baker, Paterno announced the entire squad would pay the price by picking up garbage at the stadium on the Sunday mornings after each of the seven home games this season, win or lose. "This is a team embarrassment," Paterno said. "I think we need to prove to people that we're not a bunch of hoodlums."

Bravo for the old coach.

Paterno's discipline involves more than just trying to make something good out of a regrettable incident. (In addition to picking up empty soft drink cups, the players will be required to donate their time to a couple of worthy causes, Special Olympics and Habitat for Humanity in Centre County). It sends a necessary message to every person on the team: If you act like men, I'll treat you like men. But, if you act like fools, there will be embarrassing consequences, not just for you, but for your teammates. A lot of ketchup- and mustard-stained hot dog wrappers seem like a pretty good teaching tool.

Too bad more college coaches don't try it.

It might go a long way toward stopping the abhorrent behavior by athletes that goes on at every school.

The coaches -- including Paterno -- have to take some blame for their players' actions. The pressure to win is greater now than it has ever been, even for a legend such as Paterno, the greatest coach in college football history. Millions of dollars are at stake, not to mention the prestige of the university. It's easy for any coach to be blinded by a player's ability and not see his character flaws. The player might not belong on a college campus, but the coach takes him anyway because he can play.

No one should be surprised when that player does something wrong.

But, in the end, the players still have the most responsibility for their behavior. A little internal-team policing can't hurt. In this latest Penn State dust-up, Paterno is especially upset because some of his players didn't step up and get the central figures away from the incident before it escalated. That's real team leadership, he said. But there's more to it than that, than just having the players look out for each other. Paterno also wants them to be accountable to one another. He wants them to think twice about the impact it will have on their teammates before they do something stupid and wrong.

Those Sunday morning get-togethers this fall should help.

Do you think the innocent players on the Penn State team might let the ones responsible hear about it when they're getting their hands dirty at the big stadium?

You bet they will.

Of course, Paterno will have his critics. It's easy to suggest that he's grandstanding, that, at 80 and working more frequently from home, he's trying to show he still has a firm grip on his squad. It's easier to think Paterno is trying to make a point with Penn State's Office of Judicial Affairs, which is responsible for student discipline. Better to show those people that he is taking care of his team's problems rather than have them step in and give Scirrotto -- a first-team All-Big Ten Conference player last season -- a lengthy suspension.

But Paterno's motives seem secondary, even irrelevant, in this instance.

What's important is that he is tired of the nonsense from some of his players and is taking significant steps to try to stop it.

It is worth saying again.

Bravo for the old coach.


Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com .


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