Penn State to offer class examining Paterno's interaction with media

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Joe Paterno's sometimes prickly interactions with the media are about to fall under the microscope of academia.

Penn State, the university that Paterno has called home for decades, will start a class this fall examining the famed football coach's relationship with the media, as well as his role in general as a communicator.

Paterno's distinctive nasally voice tinged with an accent from his native Brooklyn often stand out when he's in a room. Yet, there's much more to Paterno's message, said Mike Poorman, a senior journalism lecturer at the university and the course creator.

"There's a reason that Joe, more than any other college coach, does what he does," said Poorman, who has also written about Paterno and the team since 1979. "Whether talking to the media, delivering a corporate address or interacting with his staff ... it's meticulous. There's a reason why he does everything."

Poorman said he hasn't talked to Paterno directly about the class, though he has received word through the coach's family that JoePa is OK with the endeavor.

"He understands the media's obligations, and for something like this, if he thinks it will make journalism and the media better, he's all for it," Poorman said.

Paterno's son and quarterbacks coach, Jay Paterno, said Thursday night his father's initial reaction was "What would they want to possibly do a course about me for?"

The evolution of sports journalism into today's fast-paced, Internet-driven media marketplace, and its effect on Penn State coverage, will be a main focus of the class, "Joe Paterno, Communications and The Media."

For instance, weekly in-season news conferences once meant Paterno talking with six reporters around a table, no microphone or TV camera in sight. Paterno once knew everyone's name on the beat, Poorman said.

Today, remarks spread quickly through blogs and Web chat rooms, not to mention the live broadcasts over the radio. Paterno at his news conferences sits at a table overlooking a Beaver Stadium media room with more than a dozen reporters, with at least another dozen asking questions on the phone.

"There are very few people in the same job, the same role, the same company" for the length of time that Paterno has been at Penn State, Jay Paterno said about his father. "He's the perfect person to study the changing media."

Paterno, 81, is about to enter his 59th season at Penn State, and his record 43rd as head coach. Paterno is the second-winningest coach in major college football, behind Florida State's Bobby Bowden.

With spring practice starting next week, Paterno is also about to enter the final year of his contract. Athletic director Tim Curley has said there is no timetable to make decisions about Paterno's future after his current deal expires.

Poorman said he's had the idea for a Paterno-focused class for years. At times, in teaching a separate sports writing class, he's looked at Paterno over a span of three or four sessions, but started looking seriously at a full-time class about Paterno in the past year.

He said he bounced the idea off at least a half-dozen people before getting the go-ahead this spring.

The class also looks at how Paterno built relationships beyond regular news conferences, such as through his once weekly off-the-record sessions with reporters on Friday night's before games.

Known as a prodigious fundraiser for the university, Paterno still wines and dines deep-pocketed donors and speaks to alumni and other groups.

Poorman also noted how Paterno, when he first started as head coach, appeared on one of the first television "coach's shows" now commonplace for big-time athletic programs.

The course will be limited mainly to juniors and seniors, meeting twice a week. Besides journalism, it will examine Paterno through the College of Communications' other disciplines: advertising/public relations; film-video; media studies; and telecommunications.

Registration for the class opens in early April.

Poorman said he knows some people might think it is an easy, pop culture-type class, though he stressed the upper-division course would be anything but that.

"It is a serious academic study," he said.