Cook: Will this be the year Paterno calls it quits?

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Penn State opens the college football season Sept. 4 at home against Youngstown State. What if it's 85 degrees and muggy? Or how about the final regular-season game Nov. 27 at Beaver Stadium against Michigan State? What if it's 28 that day with snow flurries and a bitter wind?

Is there any doctor out there who thinks it's just fine that Penn State coach Joe Paterno stands for four hours on the sideline in such conditions?

I don't think so, either.

A lot of people are predicting this season -- Paterno's 45th as Penn State head coach and his 61st with the program -- will be his final season.

Heck, I'm worried that he might not make it through it.

I'm with you if you argue it's ridiculous that Paterno insists he continue to coach. He will be 84 Dec. 21, a few days before Penn State figures to play in its record 37th bowl game during his watch. As ESPN.com's Gene Wojciechowski put it so wonderfully the other day, Paterno is older "than the Heisman Trophy, Michigan and Notre Dame Stadiums and the Southeastern Conference."

But there was nothing funny about Paterno's appearance at a couple of news conferences this summer. His weight was down. He was frail. He sounded terrible. All of a sudden, it was understandable why he had to cancel scheduled public appearances earlier in the offseason because of a stomach ailment and a bad reaction to medication. He since has talked of cutting back his off-the-field obligations this season and delegating even more authority to his assistant coaches. That last part might be a bit tricky; Paterno's assistants have been doing most of the coaching and all of the recruiting for some time as he has settled into his role as iconic figurehead.

You have to admit it has worked out pretty well for Paterno and Penn State, against some rather overwhelming odds no less. After the 2004 season -- Penn State's fourth losing season in five years -- not too many people predicted the Nittany Lions would average 10 wins a season in the next five years, win four bowl games and share two Big Ten Conference titles. Remember, it was after that '04 season that Penn State president Graham Spanier and athletic director Tim Curley asked for Paterno's resignation only to have him shoo them away.


Nittany Lions kickoff

First game of 2010 season: No. 19 Penn State vs. Youngstown State.

When: Noon Sept. 4.

Where: Beaver Stadium, University Park, Pa.

TV: Big Ten Network.


It's safe to say Spanier and Curley won't ask Paterno to quit again anytime soon. Not after the Nittany Lions went 11-2 for a second consecutive season last year and beat SEC power LSU in the Capital One Bowl.

But even Paterno's most loyal disciples have to realize the end is near for him as coach. His health isn't the only thing showing signs of slipping. The Penn State program is as well.

Short term, the Nittany Lions will be fortunate if they don't lose at least four games this season. The road schedule is brutal with games at No. 1 Alabama, No. 9 Iowa and No. 2 Ohio State. Beyond that there are major concerns at quarterback.

Long term, Penn State's recruiting finally appears to be suffering after opposing schools used Paterno's age against him for years. The school has just four commitments for the 2011 recruiting class. A lot of the top players in the state and the Northeast are looking at other places to play.

It's almost impossible to imagine Paterno coming back next season.

Really, it's time for him to get out.

That's why it's nice to think Paterno -- the greatest coach in college football history -- will be able to enjoy one final season. His team, despite its shortcomings, is good enough to get the six wins he needs to reach 400 for his marvelous career. That's a given. What isn't so certain is this: Will Paterno's health let him finish the season?

I have serious doubts.

How can you not?

Paterno's best chance is to coach from the press box. He did it from there late in the '06 season after his left leg was broken and two knee ligaments torn in a sideline collision at Wisconsin. He still can be of some value during games there to assistants Tom Bradley, Galen Hall and Jay Paterno, who call the defenses and the plays and make all of the game decisions.

"Joe sees so many things down on the field," Hall said when Paterno was in the coaches' box in '06. "He sees more than anyone I've ever been around."

The guess here is Paterno's doctor is urging him to work upstairs, seated in a comfortable chair. I'm also guessing he will refuse. You might have heard he's pretty stubborn.

Paterno's wife, Sue, needs to step in and convince him it's in his best interests to get off the sideline.

No one wants to see the Paterno story end badly.

No one wants to see him collapse at the 50-yard line.


Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com . Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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