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January 20, 2016
by Bob Cohn


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Remembering Johnny Bach

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Johnny Bach died the other day. He was 91. He coached the Penn State men’s basketball team  for 10 seasons, 1969 through 1978, and managed to slip out the door one game over .500.

But that merely was one, brief chapter. Bach seemed to have a million friends and lived a rich, diverse life. Basketball was just a part of it. I met him years after he left Penn State. He was an assistant with the Washington Wizards late in a remarkable career, 77 and still at it,  and he had taken up painting and was getting good at it and, well, that’s what we call a story. A few years later we reconnected, as they say, for another story, this one about his volunteering to help coach a high school team at the age of 85. What I remember most from my sporadic and brief dealings with him was that Bach was a true gentleman, a delightful, brilliant, engaging man. But make no mistake, he was a tough guy, too. He was tall and lean, white-haired, both courtly and occasionally salty in manner and always impeccably dressed. Even better, he had a million stories.

Bach was a revered and gifted coach at every level, including the Olympics, who specialized in teaching defense. He grew up in Brooklyn. He knew a kid from there, a football player named Joe Paterno. He was commissioned a Navy officer at 20 and served on a cruiser during World War II, interrupting his education and basketball career at Fordham. He had to serve. It was in his blood. His father fought in that war and also World War I. His identical twin brother, a pilot, was shot down over the Pacific and never found. He also was 20.

Bach later learned to fly and loved it, and was an avid student of military history. After dabbling in sketching, he learned to paint at the age of 70 to deal with stress after suffering a heart attack that nearly killed him. In fact, it did. Bach said he was “flat-lined dead.” He eventually became a good enough artist  to display his watercolors a Chicago-area art gallery.

Bach was an excellent student and player at Fordham, and after washing out of pro basketball, he returned to his alma mater presumably as an assistant coach. Instead, he was asked to become the Rams’ head coach. He was 26 and did not believe was qualified. According to Bach, after he confessed this to Joe Lapchick, the legendary St. John’s coach, Lapchick replied, “Johnny, None of us have ever been qualified to coach. But you’re gonna learn.”

He did, picking many brains, Lapchick’s and others’, including the former freshman football coach at Fordham, Vince Lombardi. Bach’s first team was 20-8 and made postseason play the next two seasons. He thought it would be easy. For awhile, it was. But when reality set in and he finally had a losing team in his sixth season, “there was no way I could recover the team or myself,” he said. “I didn’t know how to bring my team out of it.” But Bach figured it out and stayed until 1968, a total of 18 years. No Fordham coach has won as many games. By then he also was the athletic director. He planned to leave coaching but Penn State made a big offer. Among the candidates he beat out was the coach at Army, Bob Knight.

As the college game grew, Bach grew disenchanted with recruiting. He would cite as a tipping point his failure to sign Tom McMillen, the high school All-American out of Mansfield, Pa., who wound up helping transform the Maryland program under Lefty Driesell. “I was very disappointed at the end of 10 years,” Bach said.

During his time at Penn State, Bach served under Henry Iba as assistant coach of the 1972 U.S. Olympic basketball team that competed at the games in Munich. Those Olympics are best known, of course, for the 11 Israeli athletes and German police officer killed by Arab terrorists.  The Games went on, wrongly, many believed. During the basketball competition, the Soviet Union infamously beat the U.S. in the gold medal game on the basis of some last-second chicanery with the game clock. To this day, no American player has accepted the silver medal. “Most of us still carry a very deep wound from that,” Bach said years later.

Bach gravitated to the NBA, where he would become best known as Phil Jackson’s assistant with the Chicago Bulls. Bach was the “defensive coordinator,” Tex Winter handled the triangle offense and Jackson presided over the operation as Michael Jordan and Co. won three straight championships. He moved on to a few other teams before retiring in 2006. A few years later he was back in the gym. He couldn’t help it. He coached a wheelchair basketball team comprised mostly of Chicago gang members who were “shot into the chair,” as Bach put it. The next year, he volunteered to coach the sophomore team at a Chicago private school located not far from where the Bulls played. He worked mostly with the big men. “We should reach 85 and be like that,” the school’s athletic director said.” The coach likened Bach to a “40 or 50-year-old,” adding, “He’s a young person with a lot of his actions and the way he communicates. I just feel lucky to get to know him.”

He is hardly alone.

* * *

But don’t just take it from me. Listen to someone who really knew him. This from Jackson on Bulls.com:

Bach was knowledgeable about the East Coast game and could tell a great story. He was fascinating and vibrant—an evangelist. Winter, on the other hand, was knowledgeable about the West Coast game and knew all the educators of the game. Tex would go to bed at 10pm on an off night, while Johnny would stay at the bar and tell stories late into the night. Tex was dogmatic about the game and the way it should be played, whereas John was about “let’s get this hand to hand conflict on”. I was their student for 2 years. I thought I knew the NBA game, which I did, but I didn’t know the history of the game of basketball.

Johnny Bach and I had the job as video recorders to set up the pre-game tapes for our next opponents. These video recorders were new devices that would let us cut and paste tape into 7-10 min videos of the coming opponents. We would get competitive about our product trying to outdo each other’s edits. Johnny would end his tapes with an ace of spades on a rifle butt signifying an enemy kill. He talked in WWII terminology. My generation protested the Vietnam conflict and I’d end mine with Jimi Hendrix’s anthem at Woodstock or Talking Heads “Stop Making Sense”. One day John was preparing a video and called me over to the video editor. “Check this out”, he said. “Del Harris has started using Horst Pinholster’s Pinwheel offense.” There wasn’t much you could put by John Bach and he loved defense. Many people don’t know that when I was given the job as the Bulls coach I named John as the defensive coordinator, but knew Tex was the offensive coordinator. That early Bulls team was a terror on defense with Pippen, Jordan, and Grant as the Dobermans of D. We had 3 types of presses besides a full court man-to-man press that put teams under duress. John was the defensive teacher of that first 3-Peat team.

Johnny Bach was an identical twin. This brother was lost to him during WWII. He was a pilot in the Pacific and one day, did not return on a mission. John, a gunner ensign, would get his pilot’s license and wear his brother’s wings as a bracelet on his wrist. He loved to fly. One day when the team was in Pittsburgh for a preseason game, John was out all afternoon—he was a man, who loved to explore. That night at the game he took off his shirt and proudly showed us his full fighting eagle tattooed on his chest. Tonight I’ll think of him and that spirit he embodied, especially his motto after a late night on the road. “What? You can’t be tired, you can sleep in the grave.” Sleep well, Johnny.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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November 4, 2015
by Bob Cohn


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Penn State’s two losses have come against opponents currently ranked in the AP Top 25, No. 1 Ohio State and, somewhat  improbably, No. 21 Temple, which almost beat Notre Dame last week. So the Nittany Lions are still searching for that so-called “signature” win.

It looks like they’ll have to wait a couple of weeks — when Jim Harbaugh and Michigan visit Beaver Stadium on Nov. 21 — for their next opportunity, right?

Wrong.

The Nittany Lions travel to Evanston, Ill., to face Northwestern Saturday. You won’t find the 6-2 Wildcats listed in the AP or coaches’ poll. But perhaps more credibly, they are 21st in the first College Football Playoff rankings. (Note: To accommodate TV — what else? — the game kicks off shortly after 11 a.m. (CST), a decidedly deadline-friendly time. At least one writer is not complaining, for once.)

Northwestern beat Stanford, 16-6, in its opener. The Cardinal has not lost since. Meanwhile, the same day, Penn State was embarrassed by Temple, 27-10 (as good as the Owls turned out, it was still an embarrassment). If you want to understand why the Nittany Lions are absent from the Playoff rankings and Northwestern, despite losing to Michigan and Iowa back-to-back by a combined score of 78-10 is 21st, look no further.

Penn State (7-2) is 14th in total defense, Northwestern 18th. The Lions are  getting better on offense while the Wildcats appear headed in the other direction. (Fun fact: Three Division I squads ranked 100th or worse in total offense have winning records: Penn State (104th), Temple (112th) and Northwestern (116th). There is harmony in the universe).

Even without facing Ohio State, the Wildcats have played a tougher schedule. That figures in its Playoff ranking, but the main difference is that “signature” win over Stanford. PSU is still looking for one of its own. Maybe it comes this week.

 

 

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October 29, 2015
by Bob Cohn


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At long last, the Bob Shoop Show

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Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop finally made his 2015 debut Thursday as the designated weekly assistant media sacrifice. Well, maybe that’s overstating things. Some coaches, like Shoop, seem to enjoy the interaction. Not only is he good at his job (Penn State was No. 2 in defense last season and LSU came calling),  he is, in dealing with the pesky, probing reporters,  “cheery and chipper” — as described by Jourdan Rodrigue of the Centre Daily Times. Two things (among others) Shoop has going for him: He likes baseball — the Oakmont native is a big Pirates fan — and he admits to reading about Penn State football. During the season. In a world in which coaches routinely claim to avoid such distractions like grim death (even though they always seem to sniff out the negative stuff), Shoop admits that he is, in fact, a reader. Let’s hope his confession results in no consequences from the top.

The main topic of the half-hour session was Penn State’s recent problems with tackling and handling the running game. It shouldn’t be an issue Saturday when pass-first Illinois visits Beaver Stadium, but it still has caused some concern. You can read about it in the Trib and elsewhere. But other items were discussed.

*Shoop on sack-master Carl Nassib’s incredible season: “He came in (to my office) in January and closed the door behind him and said, ‘Invest in me. I’m a good investment.’ And it sure has been.”

*Shoop spoke in a similar vein of sophomore Jason Cabinda, who moved from outside linebacker to the middle after Nyeem Wartman-White went down in the opener against Temple: “On the bus ride back, Jason said, ‘Put me in there. I got this,’ ” Shoop said. “That’s kind of his personality.” (Personal note: Speaking for rest of the media horde, we appreciate Cabinda’s frequent and entertaining visits. He is a bright, outgoing young man who informs and even enlightens. In other words, he gets it.)

*Cabinda not only replaced Wartman-White, he essentially also replaced  the guy Wartman-White replaced, Mike Hull, the Big Ten linebacker of the year in 2014, a vocal and spiritual leader who currently resides on the Miami Dolphins’ practice squad. Tall order, right? No problem, said Shoop, who said Cabinda has leadership qualities “that are  very rare and special to us,” especially for a young player.

*So who replaced Cabinda at weakside linebacker? That would be freshman Troy Reeder, who redshirted last year. In his first season of action, “He has risen to the challenge and played at a pretty high  level,” Shoop said.

*Three of Penn State’s four starting defensive linemen have been nominated for postseason awards. Only sophomore Garrett Sickels has not, but don’t count that against him. He’s the youngster of the bunch, and his play has been stellar (Personal note: Sickels comes from Red Bank, N.J., located in scenic Monmouth County. It’s the same town where this writer’s father grew up and grandparents lived. It also is the hometown of Robert Morris basketball coach Andy Toole. Glad you asked?) Shoop on Sickels: “Arguably one of the more underrated players on our defense and possibly in the Big Ten. He’s an under the radar guy.. . .As good a player as he is, he’s an even better person.”

*Sophomore safety Marcus Allen, the “quarterback” of the defense, has rebounded nicely after missing a couple of games. “I think Marcus is a guy who’s actually tackled well,” Shoop said. “He’s still in our top two or three tacklers. He’s been pushing through some injuries and things like that, but he’s clearly a leader of the team. He’s played the run really well and he needs to continue to improve upon the pass game. He’s been a pretty sure tackler for us.  He grades out very high and continues to be one of the leaders of our unit.”

*A first-year freshman, backup corner John Reid is making his mark. He has two interceptions, a fumble recovery and a forced fumble to go with 18 tackles. “Ball magnet,” said Shoop. “I’ve never seen anything quite like it. . .That guy’s always around the ball, and it just continues. He just finds a way to make plays.”

 

 

 

 

 

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October 29, 2015
by Bob Cohn


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A colleague’s departure, and a shorter practice

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At the start of his weekly, post-practice media session, PSU coach James Franklin addressed Wednesday’s resignation of Minnesota coach Jerry Kill for health reasons. “The business lost a good man today,” Franklin said. “Just an unbelievable guy. Take football out of it. Just an unbelievable person and an unbelievable guy. I have tremendous respect for him and his career and how he handles business.”

Franklin also talked about scaling down practice, a measure to deal with having to wait until Nov. 14 for the bye after 10 games.  Franklin said he began shortening practice on Tuesday, “but today was the real difference. Usually we’re in pads and we’re bangin’ a little bit,” but the players shed pads and knee braces sooner than usual. Still, he said, “I liked what I saw. It was the right thing to do.”

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October 20, 2015
by Bob Cohn


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There’s conservative. And there’s this

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Freshman sensation Saquon Barkley ran for 194 yards against Ohio State Saturday. Yet Sunday’s new NCAA statistics revealed Penn State had dropped from 103rd in total offense to 111th (out of 127). How can this happen?

It happens when your quarterback — we’ll call him “Christian Hackenberg” — accounts for only 120 yards through the air. He threw 13 passes, completing 7. Two of the completions, to Chris Godwin, totaled 101 yards. The remaining five totaled 19 yards. Seriously.

That’s not to say Hackenberg intended to throw just 13 times. He dropped back more than that. But the Buckeyes had five sacks, and also forced Hackenberg to escape the pocket and run (for his life) twice for positive yards.

It added up to 20 intended passes (not counting penalties). Wait, make it 21. Running back Nick Scott looked like he might want to throw but kept the ball. Probably the wise move.

Hackenberg threw four passes in the second half after Ohio State took a 21-3 lead, two on the first drive of the third quarter. Both were complete, 56 yards to Godwin and eight yards to DaeSean Hamilton for a touchdown that made it 21-10. After that, nearly the entire half, Hackenberg was sacked twice as often (4) as he was able to get off a pass (2).

Certainly Penn State has gone conservative for the most part since the 10-sack Temple debacle, but given how the Buckeyes defensive studs  (not just Joey Bosa) were manhandling the Lions’ line, handing the ball to Barkley and hoping for the best might have been the most prudent option. Ohio State’s five sacks were a season high. They came in averaging 3.2 a game against questionable opposition.

Hackenberg often waits too long to throw, but his line let him down. Again.  It got so bad that reserve guards Wendy Laurent and Derek Dowery replaced starters Brian Gaia and Brendan Mahon in the second half.

“The offensive line needs to play better,” said tackle Andrew Nelson said, who on one play was driven halfway to Dayton by Bosa. “Protect Hack better. … Everything starts with the offensive line. At the end of the day, the offensive line, and myself in particular, needs to play better.”

Like a bad movie that keeps showing up on cable, this story is sounding much too familiar.

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October 16, 2015
by Bob Cohn


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Don’t forget Buckeyes’ defense

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Much talk this week about Ohio State’s pair of talented quarterbacks and how they’re used, and super running back Ezekiel Elliott and the Buckeyes’ perceived underachieving despite their 6-0 record, 19 straight wins (26 in the Big Ten) and continued No. 1 ranking.

All are pertinent subjects, but what about the defense?

Simply, it’s very good, although the numbers might not necessarily reflect that, just as as the overall  lackluster effort to date (i.e., being challenged by weak teams) likely does not indicate how good — or great — this team is, or can be. Ohio State currently ranks 19th in total defense, which is OK, and 55th in rushing defense,  roughly middle of the pack, but the Bucks are yielding 3.52 yards per rush, which is OK, too. (Penn State is at 3.02)

The real reason for the higher-than-expected rush defense number is  Ohio State’s opponents are running way more (260 attempts) than most other teams’ opponents, partly to keep the ball away from that explosive offense. Also, the Buckeyes rank sixth overall in pass efficiency defense. And one more thing. Ohio State has faced, and had trouble with, some good, running quarterbacks. No worries in that regard Saturday, though. Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg, despite flashing the ability to tuck the ball in and take off on occasion, is not a running quarterback.

The opinion here is the matchup of Penn State’s offense with the Buckeyes’ defense, particularly its front seven and even more specifically, its front four,  will most determine the game’s outcome. The Nittany Lions’ defense is pretty good, too, and should have some success containing a potent offense, but Penn State will still need to score. And so far, that is not a given. That’s why the greatest PSU concern probably is how a still-erratic offensive line handles a nasty pass rush led by defensive ends Joey Bosa, the 2014 Big Ten defensive player of the year, and Tyquan Lewis.

Bosa, who sacked Hackenberg on the final play to seal the Buckeyes’ double-overtime win last season, has predictably been getting a lot of attention and recorded his first sack only last week against Maryland. But Bosa pinned some of that on himself.

“I think I’m getting to the quarterback a lot,” he told reporters this week. “Maybe not bringing him down, it’s been pretty annoying getting there so many times and not coming up with the sack or the sack and a half, whatever it is. I think I’ve been playing well.”

More than ever, Bosa is moving around the defensive front, primarily inside to a tackle position, causing further headaches for offensive linemen. Co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash told reporters that “some of the things we do on third down are a little unique and different when you’re not counting on them to run the football.”

This is not good news for a Penn State line that has been inconsistent all season – especially tackle Paris Palmer, still trying to figure things out after transferring from junior college  — and still has health issues (center Angelo Mangiro missed last week’s Indiana game after suffering an undisclosed injury the previous week).

All this highlights the urgency for Penn State to somehow avoid obvious passing situations. One proven method is to run effectively, which is why it would be no surprise to see freshman sensation Saquon Barkley return to action at running back after missing the last 2 1/2 games with a “lower-leg injury.” Akeel Lynch, the usual starter and more of an inside runner, might also play. He would help, too.

Against the Buckeyes’ corners, who play press coverage and abandon all run support, Hackenberg will want to take some shots downfield, as he did against Indiana. Not only must he get good blocking, obviously, a strong run game opens up possibilities with play-action. All eyes will be on Palmer, who has been playing left tackle (Andrew Nelson, now healthy, might return to the position), and the other linemen, but Barkley’s importance to the passing game is huge.

 

 

 

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October 9, 2015
by Bob Cohn


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Short-handed PSU isn’t alone

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No doubt about it, Penn State has been banged up this season. Freshman running back sensation Saquon Barkley and veteran RB Akeel Lynch have missed considerable time. So have left offensive tackle Andrew Nelson, safety Marcus Allen, linebacker Brandon Bell and backup  defensive end Evan Schwan. Center Angelo Mangiro got hurt last week against Army, status unknown. And let’s not forget middle linebacker Nyeem Wartman-White, lost for the season in the opener against Temple.

But the Nittany Lions also have benefited from injuries and other factors that have thinned out some of their opponents.

Penn State faced a Rutgers team a few weeks ago missing its top receiver, both starting cornerbacks and other key players due to suspension and dismissals. Also absent for the Scarlet Knights was their head coach, Kyle Flood, suspended three games for impermissable contact with a faculty member. By the way, the receiver, Leonte Carroo, was reinstated this week after an assault charge against him was thrown out in court.

Army came into Beaver Stadium last week without its quarterback and leading rusher, Ahmad Bradshaw, the trigger man for its effective and unfamiliar triple option. His replacement, A.J. Schurr, had a long touchdown run, but had trouble hanging on to the ball and lost 45 yards on runs and scrambles. He threw a nifty 32-yard pass to set up a touchdown, but that was his only throw of the game. Clearly, Bradshaw was missed.

Saturday, Indiana is Penn State’s Homecoming opponent  with  the status of its two key offensive players questionable. Quarterback Nate Sudfeld and running back Jordan Howard both suffered ankle injuries and were knocked out of last week’s 34-27 loss to No. 1 Ohio State. Sudfeld’s replacement, Zander Diamont, ripped off a 79-yard touchdown run, but the Hoosiers are better with Sudfeld, who is second in the Big Ten in total offense and third in passing efficiency.

Howard, meanwhile, was held to 34 yards on 14 carries before he departed, but his 709 rushing yards is still good enough for sixth in Division 1. The Hoosiers also will be missing Darius Latham, their best defensive lineman, who was suspended for a second time this season the week of the Ohio State game for undisclosed reasons.

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October 8, 2015
by Bob Cohn


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TV change

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Saturday’s Penn State game against Indiana at noon has been moved from ESPN2 to ESPN to accommodate the shift in venue of the South Carolina-LSU game because of serious weather-related issues.

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September 30, 2015
by Bob Cohn


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Schedule conflicts

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It’s a little muddy knowing just how good (or not) Penn State is at 3-1,  because of how bad their schedule has been. As others have noted, the Nittany Lions are the only Big Ten team whose non-conference schedule does not include a Power 5 opponent.

The cupcake diet this week features Army (or Army West Point, as the new branding goes) visiting Beaver Stadium Saturday, fresh off its first win of the season, 58-36 win over Eastern Michigan.

The Black Knights, (at least that stayed the same), who lost 21 straight road games prior to that, dropped their opener to FCS-member Fordham, and followed that with losses to Connecticut and  Wake Forest.

Penn State last week beat San Diego State, although the Aztecs, probably hung in longer than they should have. Two weeks ago, Penn State caught a break when a decimated Rutgers team came in besieged by dismissals and suspensions that included the head coach. And prior to that it was Buffalo.

Those were the three wins. The loss, of course, came in the opener to Temple, which is 3-0 and leading the American Athletic Conference. What everybody remembers, though, are the 10 sacks the Owls laid on the Lions in a 27-10 loss so ugly that Penn State coach James Franklin shook up not just his offensive line but elements of the entire offense so quarterback Christian Hackenberg would have more time to throw.

Temple is pretty good, but it is interesting to note the Owls recorded just two sacks and yielded 49 points in subsequent wins over Cincinnati and UMass.

Buffalo, Rutgers, San Diego State and Army are not as good. These Penn State opponents are respectively ranked, 99th, 97th, 83rd and 115th among the 128 Division I programs, according to the ESPN Power Index. Penn State, by the way, is No. 44, but six 2-2 teams and three 1-3 teams are ranked higher.

Obviously such rankings are not the final word, but they do provide a reasonably accurate assessment of Penn State’s schedule, beyond what the eye can see. Which isn’t much.

Cupcake, anyone?

 

 

 

 

 

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July 29, 2015
by Chris Adamski


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Live interviews with James Franklin, Franco Harris and Steve Jones

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“Tonight we’ll blow off the doors, and darling we won’t look back”

 

Fitting that I’m up here in Latrobe at Steelers training camp hanging with our fine columnist, Mr. Rob Rossi. It’s long been his schtick to drop relevant Springsteen lyrics into his blog, broadcast and social media postings. I asked him for one for today.

 

I’ve long since had my duties changed at Trib Total Media from Penn State sports beat writer to the Steelers’ beat alongside Mark Kaboly and Ralph Paulk. The final vestige of my PSU coverage was the weekly show on TribLive Radio, which began almost exactly a year ago.

 

Its run — at least with me as its host — ended Wednesday morning. And if I was going out, I wanted to “blow off the doors.”

 

So we had the best guests of the show’s long and illustrious (well, illustrious? OK, neither…) tenure: Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin, Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris and The Voice of PSU, Steve Jones.

 

Franklin talks about, among other things, dealing with the media, rivalries and the college football postseason format.

 

Harris discusses his recruitment to Penn State, the team going 40-4 while he was at the school, and compares/contrasts Joe Paterno and Chuck Noll.

 

Jones expounds upon the skills and temperament needed to perform his duties as a play-by-play man (and talk show host) successfully.

 

 

Hope you enjoy listening here:

http://sportstalk.triblive.com/download/729PSU15.MP3+share

 

 

 

I’m still, of course, part of the Trib Total Media team. And I still will even appear on the TribLive Radio airwaves (the Steelers Roundtable for the 2015 season begins Thursday, and I’m exploring beginning a weekly Steelers show).

 

But I wanted to send a public thank you to all the radio-show guests over the past year, and all the PSU players/coaches/media-relations personnel/sources for their help. Mostly, though, I appreciated the interaction with all of you.

 

Be it for the written product or the radio show, I got a lot of feedback. Some of it negative, but most of it positive. I don’t run from being a Penn State alum; I’m proud of that (most of the time, at least) — but I also had a job to do, and I’d be critical when it was called for. The radio show was a little different than writing when it comes to giving an opinion, but even if I had something negative to say you might not have liked, I appreciate your reading and listening.

 

Now the great Bob Cohn is covering all things Penn State, and he will do a better job than me. As I said on the show, me describing Bob as “veteran” and “experienced” aren’t merely euphemisms for “old” (although I’ll tell him they are) — he knows what he’s doing and I can only wish to be as good a writer as him someday.

 

Check me out on the Trib’s Steelers page and blog. (At very least, Penn State fans, you’ll get some periodic updates on Jesse James and Miles Dieffenbach, no?).

 

Yes, this all is a little over-the-top for a show on the air about a calendar year. But that said, for the final time on this forum, I wish you all a lovely day.

 

 

 

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