Paterno's sign to president, AD: Keep off the lawn
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Enshrined in the National Football Foundation's College Hall of Fame over the weekend at age 81, you might wonder what's left for Joe Paterno.
I mean except for maybe beating Michigan for the first time since the '60's. Not the 1960s, maybe, but Paterno's 60s.
Few are the octogenarians who are stoked about leading dear ol' State U. against the fighting mud puppies of Coastal Carolina in fewer than six weeks. Few are the octogenarians, you might point out, who are looking six weeks ahead to anything.
And yet, asked for an historic 456,000th time over the weekend how long he plans to continue coaching, Paterno replied for the 456,000th time, "the way I feel right now, four, five, six years."
There's a numbing numerology about all this, right?
Four, five, six years?
I first heard this question and that answer on the terrace of a State College restaurant where Joe was dining with a handful of writers a week or two prior to the opening of football season.
It was August 1978.
Seemed a reasonable answer to a logical question, at least during the Carter Administration. The coach was 51, had been at Penn State University for more than a quarter-century, had sculpted three unbeaten teams in 12 seasons as head coach, and was in perfect health.
He had the intellectual curiosity for politics, the ambition for sweeping post-secondary educational reform, a love of the arts and for literature that might have been taken in a myriad of directions, and had he cared to, he might still have chased the law degree that was his original ambition.
Another four, five, six years? Maybe I misheard it. Maybe he said another four, probably five years, times six.
Thirty years later, Penn State has not only agreed but adopted as policy that the football coach has done so much for the university and for the game at large that he is to leave on his own terms, but the terms have long since become preposterous.
Penn State president Graham Spanier says Paterno won't be offered another contract after the upcoming season, but does Joe need a contract to be head coach?
Not in his mind.
Does he need to be on the sideline to be head coach?
Not necessarily, in his mind.
Does he have to be at practice during the week and in the meeting rooms to be head coach?
Not really, in his mind.
Given its posture to this point, you might wonder if the university thinks it would be overstepping to insist that the head coach be alive.
Spanier and athletic director Tim Curley are in a kind of self-induced paralysis from which there is no evident escape. Shooed off Paterno's lawn once already with their sample resignation papers, the administrators seem no closer to any sort of succession plan than was in place in 1978.
"It's not like we haven't talked about what's going to happen here with the transition," Curley told the PG's Ron Musselman Saturday. "Now is not the time. Our focus is on the season. When the time comes, we'll all get together and try to make the best decision possible."
It was only because Paterno was being inducted into the Hall of Fame that anyone got coerced into comment, but the coach's reaction to his installment -- "I'd rather do it now than when I'm dead," -- marked one of those rare occasions when a joke doubled as advice.
Part of Penn State's predicament is beyond the fact that the head coach seems carbon dated; it's that the head coach keeps coming up with an impressive season or even a string of them just when it wants him to walk the plank.
If Penn State wanted a new coach, as is sorely did in the program's darkest hours of 2003 and 2004, the opportunity was obliterated when Paterno missed another unbeaten season by a mere two points at Michigan in 2005. It was similar to the way he followed non-winning seasons in 2000 and 2001 with a 2002 team that went 9-4, losing twice in overtime, a third time by six against eventual national champion Ohio State on the road, and again in the bowl game to Auburn. Now he has back-to-back 9-4 seasons and can compete for a Big 10 Conference title if he gets some instant solidity at quarterback.
The administration's trump card, if it holds one, is the comportment of Paterno's players, who too often invite the "lack of institutional control" charges Penn State once considered itself above.
Even at that, if the administration desires any continuity, it should announce a succession plan immediately, naming assistant Tom Bradley Paterno's successor and letting him get his staff under contract. If it wants a reinvention, that's its prerogative, but say so and let Bradley and the rest of the staff look for jobs.
If Spanier and Curley do nothing and Joe goes 12-1, he'll chase them off the lawn again.
First Published July 21, 2008 12:00 am