Into the Woods with Joe Paterno

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Published on January 10th, 2009  |  Discuss This Article  

paternoWith most college football fans still talking about last Thursday’s BCS championship game, I’m still smarting from the thumping Penn State received in the Rose Bowl.

But I know my beloved Nittany Lions will be back. Penn State has announced a three-year contract extension for Coach Joe Paterno, who turned 82 in December.

Paterno, the winningest coach in major college football history, has been with the university for 59 years. For 44 of those years, he has been head coach.

And what gives him this remarkable staying power?

I’d like to think that, at least in some small part, it’s due to open space.

As a Penn State student, I’d love to take hikes in the woodlands north of campus. As wildernesses go, this wasn’t the Amazon, but it was a nice place nonetheless, and I loved the solitude.

So did Coach Paterno, as it turned out. Many times, I’d seem him coming down the trail, always by himself, always far out of town.

On one memorable, miserable March day, I came around a bend in the trail — having seen no one all day — only to meet the legendary coach. He seemed genuinely interested in how my college career was going, but I also had the distinct sense he was ready to get back to working through game plans in his head.

Open space — undeveloped wild land — is good for that.

Let’s face it: When it comes to the world’s most pressing environmental issues, “open space” doesn’t rank very high. With climate change, energy development, clean water and biodiversity loss, who can really get excited about protecting a small patch of undeveloped woods?

Sometimes conservation organizations have an almost obsessive need to justify land conservation — the property being protected must be home to rare species or provide clean water for 8 million people. And absolutely, it’s important that conservation organizations prioritize.

But it can be reason enough to conserve land just because it’s a nice place? I suspect that more conservationists are born in small patches of woods than in the world’s major wildernesses. And the we’re just beginning to quantify significant benefits of having open space nearby — stress relief, exercise, connections to wildlife.

Today, I hope a certain patch of Central Pennsylvania woods also helps my favorite coach dream up some new schemes so next year’s Rose Bowl plays out a little differently.

(Photo: Joe Paterno. Credit: PSUMark2006 via a Creative Commons license.)

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