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Tomorrow Jack McKeon turns 75


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November 22, 2005

A Touch of Gray Can Revitalize a Troubled Team

UPON answering his cellphone yesterday morning in Elon, N.C., Jack McKeon was leaving church, on his way to the Y.M.C.A. He would go there, as he does most mornings, to hit the weights, run on the track, lounge in the sauna. He would stay three to four hours and eat a light lunch.

 

"Just keeping active, doing what I have to do to take care of myself," he said. "You can't put me in a rocking chair, can't make me sit around and just wait to die."

 

Tomorrow, McKeon will turn 75, and here is his uncompromising outlook on the milestone birthday: "I can do things now that many 50-year-olds can't."

 

Having resigned under pressure this fall as manager of the Florida Marlins, a position that brought him septuagenarian celebrity in 2003 as the oldest manager, then 72, to win the World Series, McKeon insists he is not retiring, just refueling, promoting himself for another recycling. And in the event a team is interested in rescuing him from his current contractual obligation as a Marlins special adviser, he is considering using Joe Paterno as his primary reference.

 

"The guy's an inspiration," McKeon said of Paterno, the Penn State football coach. "I've never met him, but I'm going to send him a note, congratulate him for the season he's had."

 

After a 2005 season that was antithetical to the Marlins' magic of 2003, it is entirely likely that McKeon has come to the end of a long and honorable baseball road. But why, he asked, would he believe that he is any less capable than he was in 2003? This after planting himself on the couch Saturday afternoon to watch the 78-year-old Paterno win his second Big Ten title and his first ticket to a Bowl Championship Series game by virtue of Penn State's 31-22 victory at Michigan State.

 

"I was thrilled for him, really thrilled," McKeon said. He added that if he had a vote for Sportsman of the Year, he would cast it for JoePa, and that isn't such an outrageous notion, given the depth of nationwide conviction that Penn State was finished as a national power for as long as Paterno stubbornly remained.

 

After losing seasons in four of the previous five years, after being called an anachronism and being all but driven out of Unhappy Valley by smart mouths who wouldn't know a trap block from a trap door, Paterno has taken the baton from McKeon as the grand old man of American sports. With a team that was one play (against Michigan) short of a perfect season, he has proved that he isn't too old, was never too old, just in a nasty recruiting slump, when his teams won five games in 2000 and 2001 and a combined seven over the past two years.

 

McKeon said: "I'm a college football guy, and it's not too difficult to figure out that the teams Penn State was beating all those years, Wisconsin and Northwestern and some of those schools in the East, started to build up their programs and compete harder for the same players. But when you hit a certain age and things start to go wrong, the first thing they say is you're too old. You can't communicate. That's a lot of baloney."

 

Where have the Paterno critics gone, those who flooded the chat room forums with invective, who bought insulting T-shirts from the now-defunct Web site called joepamustgo.com, who screamed that Paterno's job was not a lifetime appointment, who dismissed decades of service and success that made him synonymous with the university?

 

If nothing else, Paterno's resurgent season should shut people up long enough to allow him to retire on his own terms. For whatever it's worth, McKeon is offering unsolicited advice for Paterno to take his sweet time.

 

"When I write him my note, I'm going to tell him, 'Keep coaching, keep going, until you're 105,' " McKeon said.

 

By the time the Nittany Lions play again, Paterno will be 79. If it's in the Orange Bowl in Miami, he will be coaching in the same city in which McKeon took over a 16-22 Marlins team and went 75-49 before breaking the Cubs' hearts in the National League Championship Series and besting St. Torre of the Yankees in the 2003 World Series.

 

Then came a flood of letters from appreciative seniors from states far and wide, red and blue.

 

"People 83, 85, 88, saying, thank you so much, you inspired me to start working again, to live life again," McKeon said.

 

He became a regular on the motivational speech circuit for seniors and he wrote a book called "I'm Just Getting Started," which more accurately describes his replacement.

 

"The guy the Marlins replaced me with, has he managed before?" McKeon said, referring to Joe Girardi. "No, he hasn't. Is he going to make mistakes? Of course he is. But I've already made those mistakes. So if you have a team that needs to be turned around, even in midyear, that's what I do. I'm ready to jump back in. Give me a call."

 

Even on the way to working out at the Y, McKeon will answer. Like Paterno, he would prefer to quit on his own terms, or not at all.

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