—Wisconsin defensive line coach John Palermo
When Jason Palermo lines up for his first snap as the University of Wisconsin's starting right guard Saturday, watch for something unique:
Palermo, a fifth-year senior, is the only member of the Badgers' offensive line that does not wear gloves.
"He does that because he thinks that's a sign of weakness if you wear gloves," said Jason's father, longtime UW assistant John Palermo. "I know, because he heard it from me."
As John Palermo recalls, when Jason was in high school at Madison Edgewood, he wanted to wear gloves on the football field.
"I go, ‘Get the [heck] out of here, you're not wearing gloves,'" John said.
John Palermo, in his 11th season as UW's defensive line coach after four years as outside linebackers coach, never used to allow his players to wear gloves.
"That was always a pet peeve of mine that guys that would wear gloves were soft…. I let them do it now because I guess I'm getting older," said Palermo, who is 53. "Maybe I'm getting smarter, I don't know. But Jason still doesn't wear gloves."
"He's done well when he's been in the football games. That's just been the thrill of my life," said the elder Palermo, who played at Florida State, won a national title as an assistant at Notre Dame and has won three Rose Bowls at Wisconsin. "As a coach, I'm obviously proud of him because he's a tough kid and a competitor. But as a parent I'm just elated that he's going to graduate in December. He's always done very well in school here. He's thought very highly of by his teammates and by our coaching staff. Those are the things that are important to me."
Growing up in football
By the time Jason was born, his father had been a college assistant for five years. In Jason's lifetime, the elder Palermo has coached at Memphis State, Appalachian State, Minnesota, Notre Dame and Austin Peay, where he was head coach in 1990.
"It's been awesome. I've been able to travel places that most people don't get to go," Jason said. "I don't want to say it's been hard, but he's very, very busy. He's got to wake up early, come home late."
The Palermo family has lived in Madison since 1991, shortly after UW hired John. Jason said that as he was growing up playing football, his father would "try to sneak by, catch a glimpse."
"I probably have a chance to be more of a parent just because I'm around him more now than I ever was," John said. "When he was growing up, I (was) always here working."
When Jason was playing on Friday nights for Edgewood, and the Badgers had a home game, John would skip UW's team movie to watch his son play for a half, before going to UW's team meeting.
"I wouldn't even sit with my wife when I went to his football games because I didn't want to say something or do something stupid," John said. "So I'd always just sit in the corner by myself and watch the game and watch Jason in particular. Then he would ask me afterwards what I saw and I'd tell him."
What he saw was a good football player. Jason was a first-team all-state defensive lineman at Edgewood. In addition to UW, he received scholarship offers from Arizona, Utah and Iowa State, among others.
Calling it "part of the growing up process" John Palermo said that for a time, he and his wife, Donna, wanted Jason to leave Madison for college.
"In the end it was my own decision," Jason said. "They really didn't push me one way or another."
Jason took an official visit to Arizona and enjoyed the experience. But he grew up around the Badgers' sideline and there was a palpable difference in coaching styles that influenced his decision.
"He really liked [then-Arizona coach Dick] Tomey," John said. "But he saw a game and the coaches there were very nice people, very mild-mannered people during the game. And Jason grew up in an environment that wasn't, you know, nice guyish…
"We get after our guys' fannies pretty good. We coach them hard. And that's what he wanted. He wanted somebody to get after his [butt]… And he felt like that's why this was the best place for him to come because he felt like whether it was me or whether it was [offensive line coach] Jim Hueber, we would get the most out of him."
Jason may have wanted to be coached by someone with his father's demeanor, but his persona is more soft spoken, calm.
"He's very much like his mother. He's very polite, he's very mild-mannered, not easily excited," John said. "I think he's a little bit more intense on the football field but not yet overly intense to where he blows his mind, where he spits and huffs and puffs. He doesn't do that. I'm more of that kind of huffer and puffer and spitter and get psyched up person."
Patience pays off
Jason Palermo wanted to be coached by his father. But shortly into his first fall camp four years ago, he was converted from defensive tackle to center.
Jason said that UW was short on scout team players on the offensive line that year.
"I'm like, that's fine, it's for the team," he said.
His father has a different recollection.
"I don't think he talked to me for like a week or something after I switched him over," John said. "But I did it because it was in his best interest to do it because that's where he belongs."
Jason redshirted that first year. In 2002, he was the third-string center behind current Dallas Cowboys starter Al Johnson and current UW senior captain Donovan Raiola. Both years, he spent time with the scout team, working against his father's defensive linemen, players like Wendell Bryant and Anttaj Hawthorne.
"He would try to pump me up," Jason said. "Because his guys were good… I was really trying to work hard, give those guys a good read."
Battling against All-Americans day-in and day-out, Jason never backed down.
"He's the toughest kid I've ever met in my life," John said.
Jason spent the last two years backing up Raiola, patiently working to crack the lineup. When four-year starting guards Dan Buenning and Jonathan Clinkscale exhausted their eligibility, Palermo's time finally arrived. He moved to right guard, and into the starting lineup, last spring.
"Donovan's a great player," Jason said. "Just having patience and being able to watch the game and learn it every day has helped. Now, I'm trying to put learning into action."
Though Jason has not been on the scout team for three years, he still works with his father in practice when the offensive and defensive linemen mingle for drills. And they can spend time together during breaks in the action. John offers words of encouragement or kids around with his son when he has the opportunity.
John Palermo insists that his greatest thrill was watching his son play his first game at Wisconsin three years ago. Saturday, he'll watch his son start for the first time.
"I'm proud of him. I don't think it will be any more exciting than it was the first time he ran out on the field," John said. "That's not to say that I won't be just as impressed when he walks across the graduation stage in December. But for a football coach to see his son out there competing in the Big Ten and doing a good job of it is pretty exciting."