Go Out A Winner, Joe

This is a prediction. But, more importantly, it’s also a preference.

Circle Saturday, Oct. 19. Penn State hosts Northwestern. It will result in a 330-something victory for Joe Paterno.

After the game, which should be one-sided, Paterno will make a dramatic announcement. He will end all the speculation about his status. He’ll announce that he is stepping down after this season.

The timing will be propitious. And not just because he will be doing the university a recruiting favor by giving them a head start to find a successor — and end all the speculation.

Consider that college football’s all time winningest 1-A coach is coming off of consecutive 5-6 seasons. For a coach who transcends the game and the prevalent win-at-all-costs ethic, it’s sad. It’s not right that his last years are marred by un-Paterno-like records.

He deserves better than the college football counterpart of Willie Mays stumbling after a fly ball as a Met or Hank Aaron not hitting his weight for the Brewers. Ted Williams hitting a home run on his last at-bat is more like it.

Paterno has embodied winner in his three-plus decades as Penn State head coach. His “noble experiment” of succeeding without compromising principles long ago secured his place in the pantheon of American sports icons.

An Ivy League grad, Paterno’s educated far beyond game plans and recruiting strategies. He expects his players to be more than one-dimensional extensions of the football program.

He has been good for — and to — the game, and he will be missed. But the nostalgic emotion of Paterno leaving shouldn’t be undermined by dispiriting days at the end. He must go out a winner. This is that season.

After the Northwestern victory, Penn State will have at least five — maybe more — victories to its credit. The remainder of the post NW schedule includes three more, eminently winnable, home games against Illinois, Virginia and Michigan State. Plus a road game against a relatively weak Indiana squad.

Interestingly enough, after Northwestern is a trip to Columbus to play Ohio State. Why not pump up the players a little more and, in effect, exhort them to win one for “Joepa?”

After its impressive start, Penn State is now a lock for a winning season, maybe a major bowl. Next year and those beyond are all wild cards. More 5-6’s could await. Or the pressures not to lose could impact Paterno’s health.

There are too many variables now associated with college football to guarantee more glory years for Penn State under Paterno.

The gradual decrease in the number of scholarships has resulted in a parity of talent nationally. And those prized blue-chip recruits, many of them black kids from inner cities, increasingly see an old guy who looks more like a shoemaker than a legendary coach who’s now supposed to help prep players for the pros.

Even more challenging, however, is a society that condones — and often encourages — boorish on-field behavior that is the antithesis of teamwork, sportsmanship and class. Paterno remains a notable holdout to such a self-congratulating, tasteless, in-your-face culture. But it gets tougher every year.

Go out the winner that you are, Joe. This is the year. Say it’s so, Joe.

And just do it.

Democracy Survives Another Election

Some musings from election day — and night:

*Voting was a seamless exercise locally. As well it should have been; it needn’t be hard. But still, well done, Pam Iorio and staff — and polls apart from the performances turned in by Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

Here in Hillsborough, poll workers were ready and well trained. Voter education proved more than ample. Should be no different in November, even with a bigger turnout. Touch (screen) of class goes a long way.

*What to say about South Florida ? Bad enough that it persists in comporting itself as a sovereign state, but must it be that of a banana republic? Should Jimmy Carter be sent in next time to monitor? More material for Jay Leno, David Letterman and Fidel Castro.

*And more disenfranchisement fodder for caustic U.S. Civil Rights Commission Chairwoman Mary Frances Berry. She justifiably condemned the condemnable and then heaped criticism on the U.S. Justice Department and “state officials.” But what about (black) Supervisor of Elections Miriam Oliphant , the Peter Principle princess of Broward County?

*No one, of course, was more disappointed in Mimi Osiason’s County Commission District 1 showing than Mimi Osiason . But a close second had to be John Dingfelder . His most viable scenario for winning was for Osiason and Kathy Castor to cancel each other out, enabling well-regarded, lone-male Dingfelder to slip by with a modest plurality. It never came close to happening with Osiason failing to break into double-figure percentage.

*At his election party at Pipo’s on Davis Islands, Dingfelder acknowledged the uphill race against name recognition and how the campaign had to “go to the mattresses” at the end. Literally. With a brother in from Philadelphia, a best friend in from Seattle, plus parents and grown kids briefly returning to the nest, the Dingfelder house was awash in ad hoc bedding.

*Speaking of District 1 , it was obviously top-heavy with quality Democratic candidates. Too bad one or more couldn’t have been parceled out elsewhere for an infusion of sorely needed, progressive, non-confrontational, new blood.

*At Castor’s Cactus Club campaign party, Castor’s husband Bill Lewis was the conduit for election updates. At each juncture, Lewis referenced the candidates as “Kathy,” “John,” and “Mimi.” It’s not a big deal, but symbolically reflective of the civility and respect that uniquely characterized this race. Doubt if there were comparable “Jim-and-Stacey Lynn” or “Ronda-and-Arlene” scenarios. Moreover, Dingfelder wasted no time in making a contribution — $100 — to the Castor Campaign. The combination of District 1 candidate chemistry and sense of party unity should bode well for Castor against Chris Hart .

*When asked who was most nervous about the District 1 race, mom-of-the-candidate-and-Democratic-icon Betty Castor didn’t miss a beat — and nodded at Lewis. No wonder he was kept so busy.

*What happened to all those seething, anti-Storms Democrats who had a golden opportunity (with the universal primary) to rid the county commission of Tropical Storm Ronda? Thanks for nothing.

* “Victory parties” are unique gatherings. Starting with the premise that there might not even be a “victory.” It’s an eclectic gathering of family, friends, campaign workers, party activists, minor luminaries, VIPols and political groupies. One or more bars and televisions are de rigueur .

A dynamic of back-slapping and glad-handing

Rays Get Reprieve: Four Years to Shape Up

First the good news. For now, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays have dodged the contraction bullet.

Now the bad news. Managing General Partner Vince Naimoli and General Manager Chuck LaMar, the folks most responsible for such an eminently contractible franchise, are still in charge.

As we now know, baseball’s strike-averting labor agreement will infuse the Rays with additional millions from revenue sharing, a luxury tax and a national television package. But after four years, all bets — and contraction bans — are off. In 2007 the owners will be free to rid the game of two loser franchises, and the players won’t contest it.

This means the Rays, saddled with the wrong owner in the wrong facility in an area that offers so many leisure alternatives to indoor baseball, will have four years to be competitive — or be gone.

Having a cache of cash won’t necessarily save the Rays from themselves. Not when there’s a track record of having ladled too much of it out to the Vinny Castillas, Greg Vaughns, Juan Guzmans and Wilson Alvarezes. Or trading prospects for the Danny Clyburns and Kevin Stockers. Only in a perverse D-Rays context, would Ben Grieve and Esteban Yan look like veritable bargains.

The Rays will never be the Yankees, but neither will any other George Steinbrenner-less franchise not located in New York. But there are models in Oakland and Minnesota. Emulating those efforts, however, requires prudent investment in the product, astute personnel decisions and aggressive marketing. And luck. And then winning.

But there are no guarantees — except that absent winning, this franchise is history in four years.

Bern’s: Reflected World Class Glory

It’s not often that the New York Times obituary page references one of Tampa’s own, let alone prominently. But such was the case recently because such was the reputation of Bern Laxer, creator of Bern’s Steak House.

Before there were Super Bowls and amenities dubbed “world class,” there was Bern’s. Since the 1950s, Tampa has basked in its reflected glory. Bern’s is “one of the country’s more unusual and most popular restaurants,” understated the Times’ obit.

And not unlike his restaurant, Laxer was also one of a kind. He was as eccentric as he was exacting.

His passing jogged my memory to when I first met him. I was doing a profile piece for the Tampa Bay Business Journal . The 1981 interview was at 10 p.m. Any earlier, he had made abundantly clear, would have conflicted with his hands-on approach to running his restaurant the way it should be run.

Personally, Laxer was as low key as his restaurant was high profile; as nondescript looking as it was over-decorated in that SoHo-meets-the-Renaissance motif. With a cluster of keys hitched to his green Bermuda shorts, the wiry restaurateur looked like some culinary custodian.

After a tour of the huge, spotless kitchen and a peek inside the cavernous wine cellar, we adjourned to his second-floor office — a cramped, cluttered cubicle. The focal point was his paper-strewn desk where nine television monitors were mounted, affording various vantage points of the kitchen. Between books, within nooks, under piles and atop heaps were hints of the myriad awards, local and national, that Bern’s had won through the years. None were on display.

I inquired about the seeming insouciance. Most folks can’t get their chamber of commerce appreciation plaques hung quickly enough, let alone testimonials to being the best in their field.

Laxer’s pithy answer spoke volumes. “They really don’t mean a damn thing to me,” he said. “I don’t want to be looking back just because I won an award. That makes me a big shot. I want to be better than that. I want to pretend that I haven’t won any awards. So I can be a better restaurant.”

As a result, Laxer’s legacy now transcends a restaurant that catered to VIP palates and helped put Tampa on the map — and globe. By his work ethic and attention to detail, Bern Laxer also served up food for thought — and what it meant to be “world class.”

Trying Times for Tribsters

It sounds more like a seminar at the Poynter Institute, but the St. Pete Times Forum is the name downtown is now stuck with for the Ice Palace. But no one, of course, is stuck more than the Tampa Tribune . Its reporters and editors will be forced to mention the St. Pete Times Forum in copy about major concerts, Lightning games and maybe even a GOP coronation. Ouch.

For anyone keeping score, the House of Chutzpah is merely the latest Times’ coup in what has long ceased being a newspaper war. For too long the Times has cherry-picked Trib staffers and outhustled the competition on metro stories. It also planted its flag atop a downtown Tampa office building and debuted the weekly CityTimes .

The Times , which can be arrogant, self-righteous and journalistically first rate, is also promotionally pugnacious and street smart. Witness the sponsorship arrangements with Cento Ybor and International Plaza. Now this. Even its naming rights-announcing press release, which didn’t deign to disclose relevant information about financial terms, couldn’t resist lobbing another round across the bow of the Trib .

Paul Tash, the Times’ editor and president, fired off a vintage, take-advantage-of-this-high-profile-local-news-story quote. “This deal demonstrates that the Tampa Bay area is growing steadily into a single metro region,” matter-of-factly noted Tash, who didn’t stop there. “And that the St. Petersburg Times is the premier newspaper for that region,” he then sniffed.

At least no one was editorially asleep for the Trib . The self-serving second part of Tash’s quote never saw the light of Trib print. So there.

Image Building or a Forum for Arrogance?

To anyone familiar with the competition between the St. Petersburg Times and the Tampa Tribune over the last decade and a half, news of the “St. Pete Times Forum” is no shock. No more than public-records hypocrisy.

When the Times secured the naming rights to the Ice Palace, it was a logical, if arrogant, extension of its modus operandi . It’s known for its aggressive marketing, such as sponsorship arrangements with Centro Ybor and International Plaza, as well as its penchant for putting it to the Trib .

Ever since the gentlemen’s no-poaching agreement was discarded in the late ’80s, the Times has cherry picked Trib staffers, often outhustled the competition on metro stories, added the CityTimes and planted its flag in downtown Tampa with the high-profile Times building.

Now the Times name will perforce show up in copy of Trib coverage of events, such as Lightning games and concerts, at the erstwhile Ice Palace. Call it the House of Chutzpah — and a lot worse. But call it hardball marketing — and tough to take for the Trib — and any number of downtown Tampa interests.

Finding The Right Fit for 9/11

Don’t get me wrong. I can be as jingoistic as the next guy. I’ll be among the thousands on Bayshore Boulevard Wednesday morning. I’ll be there with a flag, a ladder and a camera. I want to be part of something good that comes out of something evil. I also want to update my seared consciousness with united-we-stand images.

But the media-led, societal countdown to Sept. 11 — and all of the planned remembrances for that day — may be so much more than we need right now. It’s the patriotic counterpart of media drum beating for hurricane season. It’s important; it’s necessary; it’s just overdone.

In the name of good taste, it mustn’t be festive. In the name of good mental health, it must be more than a haunting memory of America under attack and a solemn eulogy to the fallen.

Here is a modest suggestion. It’s offered in the good name of remembering victims and heroes, recalling who and what we are, and reaffirming why we must win the war against Islamic extremism.

Wouldn’t it be fitting if, at 8:46 a.m. — when American Flight 11 crashed into the World Trade Center north tower — every church, mosque and synagogue with a bell would ring it? It would call all Americans to a collective, reflective moment. And it would do so inclusively. No hyphens allowed.

It would remind us — regardless of where we are and what we’re doing — to stop and reflect. And remember what we all lost; what we still have; and why we fight to keep it.

Stopped at a red light? Smile and nod to the motorist next to you. At the office? Extend a hand or give a hug. At home? Kiss the kids again.

It wouldn’t be a spectacle and wouldn’t require choreography. And that’s the point.

Cathedral As Fortress

How appropriate that the newly dedicated, asymmetrical Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral in Los Angeles looks like a cross between a penal institution and a fortress. Given the Catholic Church’s bunker mentality borne of its sexual abuse scandal, it’s surprising there isn’t a moat around it.

Among the celebrants and protestors was someone carrying a sign that asked: “What would Jesus do with $200 million?” It’s no longer a rhetorical question.

More Manifest Signs: Speaking of signs, there was an ironic one on display recently at the University of South Florida. In a photo carried by the Tampa Tribune, we see a number of students rallying on behalf of controversial Palestinian professor Sami Al-Arian.

The most prominent sign said “Don’t B an Oppressor, Reinstate the ‘Proffessor.'” The point, at least, was unmistakable. The Al-Arian case is less about terrorist ties than it is about academic freedumb.

Helpful Ronda? Not The Storms Trooper

The old line about going to a fight and a hockey game breaking out seemed all too apropos the other day. In this case, amid the shrill display of a high-powered, political assault weapon, a decorous candidate forum kept threatening to break out.

It was the Tampa Bay Tiger Bay Club gathering for county commission candidates representing Districts 4 and 5. Also known this day as the Ronda Storms Show. No wonder Stacey Easterling was a no-show. When the whole world is a stage, no one wants to be a floorboard upon which this actor treads. Storms, the poster pol for the dysfunctional body that is the Board of County Commissioners, is that perversely transcendent.

The Storms Trooper caricature as the brashly insulting, avenging angel of Southeast Hillsborough County precedes her. And she lives down to it.

She attacked her opponent, Arlene Waldron, from the get-go, launching right from her opening remarks. No perfunctory thank you’s to the forum sponsor or the attendees. Just ready, fire, aim; much of it personal.

But here’s what’s most disconcerting. Because of her pugnacious personality, cheeky body language and insensitive soundbites on issues, Storms becomes the issue. Arguably, to the detriment of the “issue.”

She acknowledged as much.

“I know that happens,” she said afterwards, “but I can’t help it. I’m not desperate to be popular. I don’t know how to be different. Then I would come across as a fake.”

Like it or not, Storms represents a legitimate point of view, inflammatory, off-putting rhetoric notwithstanding. She’s not the only one, for example, who saw through the FAMU Law School charade. Nor the only one who thinks sophomorically sleazy programming isn’t proper fare for public access television. And she induced a put-up-or-shut-up response out of those soapboxing about building moratoriums.

She’s not liked — let alone endorsed — by mainstream newspapers, watchdog organizations or the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce. And she clearly doesn’t care. But she does represent a bona fide constituency. Sure, she panders to it, but that’s hardly a novel concept.

“I have been the woman I have promised my constituents I would be,” she’s prone — and proud — to say. Often.

Ironically, she’s one politician who keeps her word.