Cook: Paterno's stance puts Penn State in bind
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I hate to call anyone a liar, but that's exactly what Joe Paterno was Tuesday when he announced that he plans on returning next year at 84 for his 46th season as the Penn State head football coach and his 62nd season with the program.
When asked whose call it is for him to retire, Paterno said, "Oh, hell, I don't think it's entirely my call. I'm not running the university ... "
That's a flat-out lie.
Paterno does run Penn State.
Not only that, he's holding the university hostage.
Penn State president Graham Spanier must have choked on his lunch when he heard of Paterno's plans to coach at least one more season. "I didn't say I hope to. I'm gonna," Paterno said with -- what? -- great resolve, defiance, perhaps even arrogance. The old man's spunk is admirable, I'll give you that. But what if Spanier doesn't want Paterno back? That possibility certainly seems reasonable, although Spanier would never admit it publicly. What if he thinks it's silly, as so many of us do, that Paterno continues to hang on even though he doesn't coach much or recruit at all anymore and is little more than a figurehead? What if he thinks it's time for a change in his football program, that maybe a younger coach could do better? Penn State is 7-4 heading into its final regular-season game Saturday at home against No. 11 Michigan State, has been blown out by its three opponents that are ranked and lost by 20 points to Illinois on homecoming.
Good luck to Spanier trying to make that change.
Did I mention Paterno runs Penn State?
Paterno knows it, too. He knows there still are many Penn State fans, alumni and donors who think he has earned the right to retire on his terms. That number is fewer than it once was; even many of Paterno's most loyal supporters have come around to thinking he has stayed on too long. But it's still a sizable group, probably too big of a group for Spanier to act. If he tried to force the retirement issue with Paterno, things would get really ugly. He and athletic director Tim Curley went to Paterno's house after the 2004 season -- Penn State's fourth losing season in five years -- to ask for the coach's resignation only to be shooed away by Paterno, who let news of the meeting leak to the media, making Spanier and Curley look soft and small.
Of course, they are soft and small when it comes to Paterno.
It's funny, I thought getting his 400th career win against Northwestern Nov. 6 might be enough for Paterno. That was one of the grand nights in college football history. Spanier and Curley threw a postgame celebration for Paterno on the field at Beaver Stadium befitting the greatest coach that the college game has known. Those 400 wins will never be matched by one coach at one school at college football's highest level. Paterno seemed to revel in the extraordinary accomplishment, if only for a few moments. It was nice to see him so happy for a change, surrounded on the makeshift stage by his wife, Sue, and the rest of his big family. For years, I had looked at him and saw only a cranky old man.
But, no, that wasn't enough for Paterno. I should have realized that before the announcement Tuesday. I don't think he really cares all that much about his number of wins, anyway. I believed him last month when he said 399 or 401 won't make much difference to him when he's dead and gone.
Speaking of which ...
It's the fear of dying that keeps Paterno going. I refuse to believe it has anything to do with wanting his son, Jay, the Penn State quarterbacks coach, to succeed him, as many have speculated. I'm convinced he truly believes he will live forever if he keeps coaching. He has admitted as much since his good friend, Paul Bryant, retired as the Alabama coach after the 1982 season and died four weeks later.
You might guess Paterno didn't mention that Tuesday. He talked of this Penn State team being set back by youth and injuries. There are only 11 seniors to honor on Senior Day Saturday at Beaver Stadium.
"I think we can be a pretty good football team next year, and I'd like to be a part of it," Paterno said.
"It's been a good situation and I don't see any reason to leave it right now."
Of course, Paterno loves the situation.
Maybe not so much.
• Joe Paterno's decision doesn't seem to catch anyone by surprise, Story, Page C-4.
• A look at the 2011 schedule,
First Published November 24, 2010 12:00 am