Be careful what you root for at Penn State

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Where and when in college football might a 6-6 record be better than 10-3 or 11-2?

That's an easy one.

At Penn State, this season.

A bad year would make it a lot easier to get rid of Joe Paterno.

That's what Penn State administrators want, isn't it? That became clear when they refused to give Paterno, 81, a contract extension in the offseason. This is his 43rd season as head coach and 59th overall in Happy Valley, but he's working in the final year of his current deal.

It seems just as obvious that the Penn State brass want a clean and total break from the Paterno era. Otherwise, they would have named long-time defensive coordinator Tom Bradley as Paterno's successor-in-waiting. There's nothing wrong with that thinking, with wanting to start fresh. Even a storied program such as Penn State's can benefit from new blood, new energy, new ideas. But if it happens that way, it will be a crying shame for Bradley, who deserves better after almost 30 years of terrific work and unimaginable loyalty to the university.

In a perfect world, Penn State wins big this season and sends a willing Paterno into retirement on top. In one way, that's the ending he deserves because, in his day, he was the best college football coach there ever was. But in another way, that's a better ending than Paterno has a right to expect after he has stayed on far too long and worn out his welcome.

It's not hard to picture the Nittany Lions going 10-3 or even 11-2, including a January bowl win, although it would be a little easier if stud linebacker Sean Lee wasn't out all season with a knee injury and top defensive linemen Chris Baker and Phil Taylor hadn't been kicked off the team. The only game Penn State can't win is at Ohio State Oct. 25. The only other game it definitely shouldn't win is at Wisconsin Oct. 11. Notice Michigan isn't an automatic loss this season, the way it is every other year. The Wolverines have a new coach -- Rich Rodriguez -- and will have a new look, one that takes time to get right. If the Nittany Lions can't beat Michigan at home Oct. 18, they might never beat Michigan again.

But we all know this isn't a perfect world. Even if Penn State goes 11-2, Paterno isn't likely to step aside on his own. He had a chance to go out in glory after the 2005 season when the Nittany Lions went 11-1 and finished No. 3 in the polls, but he couldn't bring himself to do it. You might remember it was the previous December that Penn State president Graham Spanier and athletic director Tim Curley went to Paterno's home and asked for his resignation only to be shooed away like annoying flies.

There's no reason to think Paterno will be any more eager to leave after a big season this year. He has talked consistently of coaching three, four, maybe five more years. He was practically defiant with Spanier and Curley this spring -- yet again -- when he said he doesn't need a contract to continue coaching.

What's frightening is that Paterno truly believes that.

It's not hard to imagine Spanier and Curley having to change the locks to keep Paterno out of the school's football complex when they replace him.

Even then, Paterno probably would bang on the door and scream, "Let me in, damn it. I'm still the coach here!"

Sadly, Paterno appears to be that out of touch with reality.

That's why a 6-6 season might be better this season. Not even Paterno's most loyal supporters could back him after that. Many, if not most, already think he has stayed on too long and that the football program needs a new beginning. It's not just the 46 player arrests since 2002 and the embarrassment they caused, especially in a damning ESPN report on "Outside The Lines" earlier this summer. It's that Penn State is a mediocre Big Ten Conference program. It is 32-32 in league games this decade, including 2-6 against Ohio State and an abysmal 0-6 against Michigan.

So be careful what you root for, Penn State fans.

A big season might mean three, four, maybe five more years of Paterno.

Even one more year of Paterno would be one too many.


Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com .


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