The 2008 season dawned ripe with drama at Penn State, and it had little to do with the success of the football team, of which not much was expected. The Nittany Lions again had the look of a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team.
The drama of the season was supposed to be all about coach Joe Paterno, 81, and his desire to retire on his own terms and not at the end of this season. It was supposed to be about a contest of wills between Paterno, who maintains massive support from appreciative alumni who know and understand what he has done for the school, and high-ranking university administrators, who had failed to give him a contract extension and, by most accounts, were trying to gather the necessary strength to force him out of the job he has held since 1966.
But midway through the season, much has changed and the drama will play out on two fronts:
• The Lions are not an ordinary team. They're 6-0 and ranked sixth in the nation. The championship of the Big Ten, a conference that looks to be substandard this season, is within reach and with that comes the possibility of playing for the national title.
• Paterno's physical health has declined to the point where it could cause him to do something no one expected: retire of his own accord.
The Lions begin the most crucial part of their season this week when on successive Saturdays they play at Wisconsin, at Beaver Stadium against Michigan and at Ohio State.
Sadly, Paterno will probably be watching some or all of those games from the press box instead of the sidelines. There is some mystery about the exact condition of Paterno's right knee, but he is hobbling badly and looked like a man who will be 82 in two months when he made a brief appearance on the field before the game Saturday against Purdue.
The injury is said to have occurred three days before the season opener when Paterno was demonstrating a kicking technique. It appears to be getting worse instead of better, not all that surprising for someone his age. Some have speculated he has a ligament injury that will require surgery. A more authoritative source has said the problem is with his hip and that Paterno will require hip-replacement surgery after the season.
Paterno was on a golf cart at practice this week, a further indication that he is not getting better.
Having the head coach missing from the sidelines would be a critical issue for some teams, but it does not figure to much affect Penn State.
The Penn State players are used to Paterno not being around. He missed games in 2006 when he was injured in a sideline collision with two players in a game against Wisconsin. The accident broke a bone in his left leg and tore two ligaments in the knee.
Beyond that, Paterno often works from home during the week and doesn't have the presence with his players that most head coaches do. He delegates much of his decision-making power to assistant coaches.
Where it would be unfathomable to expect some teams to proceed without so much as a blip with their head coach absent, that would not be the case at Penn State.
Paterno is a proud man. He is understandably proud of his accomplishments on and off the football field and proud that he was still fit to lead a football team in his 80s, when most people have retired. He also prided himself in running onto the field with the team, something he did after recovering from the injury at Wisconsin but something he can do no more.
If there is anything that can make him walk away from the job he loves, it's being seen as a man not physically capable of doing his job. He denied accusations he was not mentally up to the challenge of coaching.
He laughed when people suggested the game had passed him by. But physically the evidence is there for all to see: He's a coach who's not coaching.
For a long time it seemed Paterno would lose out to Bobby Bowden in their ongoing contest to be the winningest major college coach in football history. When Paterno was going 21-26 from 2001-04 and Bowden was 36-15 in those same seasons, the contest looked over. But in the succeeding four seasons, Paterno is 35-9 and Bowden, under considerable pressure to step down at Florida State, 25-18.
Paterno has one more win than Bowden.
Paterno deserves this record because all his wins came at Penn State, a major-college program. Bowden's first 31 wins came at Howard College, now Stamford University, against teams such as Mississippi Delta, Millsaps (twice), Maryville, Memphis Navy, Louisiana College and National University of Mexico. Under incredibly stupid NCAA rules, those wins count.
What could be the perfect ending is advancing. It goes like this:
Penn State finished the season in glory -- Big Ten champions, maybe national champion, and with Paterno the all-time leader in wins and Bowden retiring. The stage is set and Paterno agrees to resign, reluctantly but proudly, amid a massive outpouring of congratulations. His once-tarnished image has been repaired by his final four seasons.
It could end that way. It should end that way.
Bob Smizik can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .