The enmity of the hometown crowd towards the local football team's head coach left an indelible mark on me. I recall in the late 1960's attending a few Philadelphia Eagles games at Franklin Field, the football stadium on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, with my dad. We would park in the western part of Center City, walk across the Schuykill River on the South Street Bridge, and make our way to our seats on the north side of the stadium. We were bundled up, drinking hot chocolate, watching Tim Brown, Ben Hawkins, Hall of Fame tackle Bob Brown, slow-footed QB Norman Snead and company take on any and all comers. The team wasn't that good, but the place was always packed. 60,000 strong.
The coach at the time was the one-time Notre Dame mentor, Joe Kuharich, who, for reasons still unknown to me, was absolutely hated by the local fans. I honestly cannot think of another coach on any level who caught more grief than this guy in the past 35 years. I was very young then, didn't read the sports pages (and back then, the Philadelphia writers were really vicious; today they get labeled with that tag, but with the exception of a few dyspetic writers who probably have had a few too many press box hot dogs, the label really isn't that fair).
"Joe must go," they would chant in unison, even before the game began. And, during a lull in the game, with the Birds trailing, they would pick up the chant again. "Joe must go, Joe must go." And it would get louder and louder, to the point where the chant would turn into thunder because the increased decibels only ensured even more decibels. Once, a fan snuck onto the track that surrounds the field with a sign that read, predictably, "Joe Must Go." Roundly cheered, he made his way for about 100 yards before getting nabbed by security. At which time, the boos cascaded. And then that chant started up again. "Joe must go. Joe must go." As haunting as any chant from a black-robed choir in the rafters of a cobweb-laden church somewhere in the heart of Transylvania in medieval times.
The lowlight (or highlight, depending on your vantage point), was when a bi-plane, the kind which would fly over one of the Jersey shore beaches touting a low-priced seafood buffet at Zaberer's or some such place, flew nearby with a trailer that read, "Joe Must Go." I'm almost sure that this happened, although I concede that perhaps my memory added something to its files here given that the sonorous, Gregorian-like chants of "Joe must go" left such a mark on a young kid.
And, in fact, Joe did go and wasn't heard from again. In an interview after his Hall of Fame induction, Bob Brown said that after the 1968 season, after Joe Kuharich was fired, he asked to be traded, because he didn't think that the losing that took place was Kuharich's fault. Bob Brown, always a stand-up guy, said that Joe Kuharich was a good guy in the wrong place.
If only the fans knew that. Heck, way back then, they probably wouldn't have cared.
Today, there's a different Joe on the ropes in Pennsylvania, albeit one with a much better reputation and with a much better Q rating than Joe Kuharich. He's an institution in Pennsylvania circles for his team's plain uniforms, for his thick glasses, and for wearing white socks with his football cleats. He is 77 years old, he's been head coach for over 40 years. His name: Joe Paterno.
The facts are that Penn State hasn't been a bona fide Top 20 team for several years, that the America in which we live is a brutal meritocracy, and that a football team will win its games because it has better talent, a better game plan and, overall, is better prepared. Some cognoscenti think that the game has passed Joe Paterno by, that Penn State has suffered from gridiron thinking that has refused to adapt, that Penn State hasn't had a good succession plan for Paterno, that State College is a lovely place but never offered the coach the opportunity to develop a hobby that he might retire to. The alums would love to have an alum, someone from the Penn State family, as JoePa's successor. But long-time top aide Fran Ganter is now part of the athletic department, new offensive guru Galen Hall is 62 and has a checkered history with the NCAA, and son Jay Paterno was demoted after last year, proving that for the most part, public universities cannot be family businesses.
But Joe Paterno has showed no signs of wanting to give up the reigns, of wanting to exit gracefully the way, for example, John Wooden and Dean Smith did. He still hangs in there, still tells people in a voice that suggests he is trying to convince himself as much as the listener that he still can do it, and still is a great ambassador for running a college football program the right way.
The problem for Penn State and Joe Paterno is that both must live in the present, with all of its complications, and not in the past. Yes, JoePa won national titles, yes, he created "Linebacker U" (with the help of former defensive coordinator John Sandusky), and yes he made those plain vanilla uniforms a symbol of selflessness and team. And for all of the great contributions he has made to college football and the Penn State community, he deserves the accolades that he has received.
But the present is a tough, unsentimental place. You don't win because Rip Engle was your mentor, because you coached LaVar Arrington, Lydell Mitchell, Jack Ham and Franco Harris. You don't win because you and your wife donated millions to the Penn State library, or because you always stayed loyal to Penn State when you had many suitors over the years. You win because you're the fittest program. You get the best kids, you know how to shape them into a team, you make sure they get it done off the field, and you make sure that those who can develop into pros do. That's the life that you chose, and that's its Darwinism.
It's time for all involved in the Penn State football situation to take a hard look at their current program and where they want it to go. And it's time to basically say to a great coach and honorable man that the team must improve this year, and, if it doesn't, it's time to hand over the reigns to perhaps another energetic, bright young assistant who perhaps, like JoePa, had once entertained the idea of coaching to make some money before going to graduate school, the way you did. It's time to give that next dynamic coach his opportunity, whoever he may be.
And it's time for Coach Joe Paterno to come to this realization himself, and to take charge of the situation the way he has every other, and to be as honest with himself as he has been with his players in terms of whether he has thought they deserved to get meaningful playing time. It's time for Joe Paterno, this year, to hold himself to the same performance standards that he has his kids over the years.
It probably is the case that in the next year or so, Joe must go.
Let's hope it's because he comes to that conclusion before someone reaches it for him.
And let's hope that we do not hear those haunting, unbending, chants ever again, even in this different context.
Let's hope not, for this Joe's sake.