Sunday, September 26, 2010

Should Joe Paterno stay?

Should he stay or should he go now? That is the question that has dogged Joe Paterno for years.

Losing in Happy Valley happens about as often as a politician following through on campaign promises. JoePa has been the
Nittany Lions head coach since 1967 and has suffered five losing seasons. I repeat - five. Obviously, PSU has created and maintained a tradition of winning throughout Paterno's tenure. In the early part of the last decade, Penn State's football team swooned and looked to be fading from prominence. After enduring three consecutive losing seasons (2002-2003 through 2004-2005), those whispers saying it was time for Joe to go became shouts from every corner of the country, not just inside the commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Joe celebrating his 1986 National Championship atop the shoulders of his players

What happened in 2005? The recruiting class was one of Joe's finest (including top talent Derrick Williams at wide receiver) and the team finished with an 11-1 record. The one loss came against Michigan and featured multiple questionable officiating calls in the final drive, allowing the Wolverines the opportunity to win on the last play of the game. Despite the loss, the Penn State program had rebounded. Paterno's job was safe, especially after earning the AP Coach of the Year award, and his doubters rapidly disappeared. While Paterno hasn't been able to duplicate bringing in the top-notch recruits since 2005, his win-loss record has been terrific - 2006 (9-4), 2007 (9-4), 2008 (11-2), 2009 (11-2). The Nittany Lions may not be in the conversation for the national title, but it can't be ignored that the Lions have returned to as a powerhouse.

The return to prominence included an Orange Bowl overtime victory over Florida State in 2005-2006.

But, now the questions surrounding Paterno's job are reappearing.

The first is obvious - his age. At 83, JoePa is not as sprite and lively as he used to be. His voice has become considerably quieter, both literally and figuratively. He still has an eye for the game (perhaps the coke bottle glasses help), as evidenced by his involvement during practice sessions. According to assistant coaches, Coach Paterno has a notebook and frequently catches mistakes across multiple practice fields. Once he writes something in the dreaded notebook, coaches and players know that this will be worked and re-worked to Joe's satisfaction.

Paterno still stalks the sidelines with his pants rolled up to keep his wife happy.

The second is recruiting. Joe is starting to lose his stranglehold on top Pennsylvania and New Jersey recruits to teams like Pitt and Ohio State. This can also be chalked up to his age and questions regarding Paterno's future. Prospective players don't get the personal visits from Joe Paterno like they do from other head coaches, like Dave Wannstedt and Jim Tressel. JoePa is counting on his assistants to allure college kids to State College with PSU's storied legacy, as opposed to providing the personal touch.

Another issue is the growing sentiment that Paterno doesn't have much impact on gameday. JoePa has always been more of a figurehead coach on the sidelines, allowing the coordinators to handle the playcalling while never wearing a headset to have his finger on the pulse of the game. He has always managed gamedays by 'feel,' but outsiders wonder what value he adds while on the sideline. The game plans are constructed by the
Galen Hall (offensive coordinator) and Tom Bradley (defensive coordinator). Paterno has final input on these game plans and makes the traditional gameday decisions (when to go for it on 4th and short, which QB to have in the game, etc). This hasn't changed, and as long as Joe continues to trudge up and down the sidelines with his rolled-up slacks, don't expect anything different.

Why does Joe stay? It's simple - football is all he knows and he still has a passion for it. He's been a coach at Penn State for 61 seasons (44 as the
head coach, 17 as assistant) and coached 530 games. Most folks think that Paterno is motivated to obtain 400 victories (only three away from that milestone). Personally, I think additional motivation might be surpassing Eddie Robinson (Grambling) for most victories in college football history (408). He's already got the mark for Division 1, but hitting #409 would make him the all-time leader.

What will happen when Joe leaves? I believe that Penn State has had a contingency plan in place for at least a decade for when Paterno decides to hang it up. Tom Bradley has been a defensive assistant for 31 years and would provide consistency to the program if he were the head coach's successor.
Penn State University's president could opt to bring in a big name (like Bob Stoops, if he could be lured away from Oklahoma) who could aid in the recruiting process. So, it's not as if Happy Valley would be forgotten on the college football landscape. Anyways, recruits no longer attend based on thinking that Joe Paterno will be their head coach for the next four years.

It is my personal opinion that Joe Paterno should be granted the right to leave Penn State University on his own accord, and not have to endure the ongoing media scrutiny regarding his eventual departure. He has devoted his life to PSU. 36 bowl appearances, 24 bowl wins, 2 national titles, a .751 winning percentage, three Big 10 championships. He is and always will be the face of Penn State football
. As such, the twilight of his career should be celebrated, not marred by constant questions like Bobby Bowden had at Florida State. I don't like Bowden, but him being forced out by program boosters was a cruel fate.

If I were JoePa, this offseason, I would announce that 2011-2012 will be final season. This would allow the opportunity for several things:
1. Perhaps that provides extra motivation to his players for an unbelievable season, knowing that it would be JoePa's last.
2. Joe to get more of a football 'fix'
3. To execute a well-prepared handoff to the next coach
4. Joe to become the all-time winningest coach.

The white out - a fairly recent tradition for the bigger games on the schedule at Beaver Stadium.

Imagine the cacophony of the crowd in JoePa's last home game at Beaver Stadium. I think the center of the state might implode with the volume of "WE ARE.....PENN STATE" chants throughout the game. Dare to dream, but what could be a more fitting tribute than a conference or national championship as a farewell? A man that devoted to his university should get a sendoff like that.

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