Records of Skill, Records of Will

(published November 3, 2011)

Joe Paterno set a record last week.  Or didn’t.

His Penn State Nittany Lions beat Illinois, 10-7, for his 409th victory.  That eclipses the record set by Eddie Robinson of Grambling, who went 408-165-15 in his 55 seasons.

John Gagliardi of St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, has won 478 games so far, but they don’t count because his players are college students who play football rather than football players who live at a college.

That’s a separate issue.  My quarrel is with the record itself.  It leaves me cold.

Paterno is 84 years old, God bless ‘im.  He has ten assistant coaches, who have very specific areas of responsibility.  Centers and guards have one coach, tackles and tight ends another.  Cornerbacks and safeties are considered different areas of expertise.

Football, like every endeavor, has grown increasingly complex in the last ten to twenty years.  Offensive and defensive schemes are the result of detailed study and analysis that was impossible in the days of film projectors.

To what extent is Paterno responsible for Penn State’s won-lost record today?  If he were not a coaching icon chasing a record, would he still have the job?

A record like this perpetuates itself.  Because it exists, people will chase it, and by doing so they distort the thing it is supposed to measure.

All records are not alike; some are meaningful, others are just static.  The meaningful ones reflect the body of work of an athlete and feel as though they were set in the natural course of events.

Mariano Rivera passed Trevor Hoffman in September to take the all-time lead in saves.  It is fitting and right that the man who is almost certainly the greatest closer in baseball history should have the record for saves.  There was nothing ceremonial about the occasion; he came in to finish the game, not to achieve a number.

Contrast this with Pete Rose’s pursuit of the all-time hits record.  Over the last five years of his career, his triple-slash averages (batting/on-base/slugging) were .261/.348/.315, for an OPS of .662 – as a first baseman.  Using’s Wins Above Replacement numbers, Rose had a WAR from 1982-86 of -2.4; his performance cost his teams nearly two and a half wins compared not to the league average, but to the level of readily available players in AAA.

He averaged nearly 500 plate appearances in those five seasons.  His name was written into the lineup – 217 times in his own handwriting – solely so he could break a record.  The number 4256 is a product of that distortion, not an accounting of his accomplishments as a useful ballplayer.

Nolan Ryan obliterated the career strikeout record formerly held by Walter Johnson, passing the Big Train’s total of 3,509 in 1983 when Ryan still had eleven seasons and 2,204 Ks left in his arm.  Jerry Rice owns the record book for receiving and touchdowns, having left the prior leaders Art Monk (receptions), James Lofton (yards), and Jim Brown (TDs) far behind in the dust.

The record for single-season and career total offense or touchdowns or touchdown passes in college?  Couldn’t care less.  These records are a matter of choice; they reflect the style of offense, willingness to run up the score, and quality of opposition more than they do the individual’s merits.

The ultimate record of choice is Cal Ripken’s mark of 2,632 consecutive games played.  Day in, day out, there he was at shortstop and in the meat of the batting order.  Am I alone in thinking this record is not only not worth much, but it’s not even all that admirable?  Might Cal have benefitted from a day off every now and then?  Might his late season performances — .748 OPS in regular-season September and October games versus .796 in the other months – have been better if he’d gotten some rest?  Regardless of what you think of the man and his character, The Streak is undeniably a record he chose to set.

I feel more charitably towards Brett Favre’s streak of 297 consecutive starts; simply being able to play every football game is an accomplishment.  Still, it pales in comparison to Johnny Unitas’s streak of 47 consecutive games throwing a touchdown pass – a record set through the play of the game itself.

We often see the tyranny of numbers when a player is approaching a round milestone: 300 wins, 3000 hits, 500 or 600 home runs.  There is a tendency for players to hang on in the hope of reaching such a number, believing immortality is attached to statistic rather than the player.

Derek Jeter is a Hall of Famer whether or not he reached 3000 hits.  Johnny Damon is not, whether or not he hangs around to get there.  Five hundred home runs won’t get Gary Sheffield into the Hall of Fame; his last two seasons got him past the number, but his negative WAR for the seasons is a better reflection of what he gave his teams.

Is Paterno’s mark at this point a record of will or of skill?  Of choice, or of accomplishment?

There are many reasons to consider Joe Paterno one of the greatest college football coaches who ever lived.  The fact that he won more games than Eddie Robinson or Bear Bryant or Amos Alonzo Stagg (but not John Gagliardi) is one of the lesser ones.



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