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Saturday, October 30, 2004

How Bad Will It Have To Get?

Many of you have been logging onto this blog for this post, which I wrote in late August about the fate of Penn State Nittany Lion football. Some of you have even logged on for this post, which I wrote as a follow up to the original one. And, if you want to see who I think should take over the S.S. Titanic of Division I-A football, click here for my thoughts (and I'd be quick to argue that while Steve Spurrier should not be a candidate, I'd add that Rick Neuheisel should be). Finally, if you want to see how bad it is getting in Happy Valley, there are websites popping up more quickly that political laws signs in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida. One of the most popular is No, I am not making this up. It's out there.

Today, the Penn State Nittany Lions lost 21-10 to an offensively challenged Ohio State team in Columbus. The loss marks Penn State's fifth loss in a row. Their record now stands at 2-6, and their only wins have come against Akron and Central Florida at home. They have 3 games remaining -- against Michigan State, Northwestern and Indiana, and it says here that they'll finish the season with a 3-8 record at best. Michigan State took #11 Michigan to the mat before losing by 3 in OT today, while Northwestern upset #19 Purdue and Indiana upended #25 Minnesota. All is very much sad in Happy Valley.

And, yes, in the tradition of famous Joes past, we must hope that we're having a bad dream, and that someone will tell us when we wake up that it just ain't so. But it is so, and the plain fact of the matter is that Joe Paterno should retire from coaching Penn State football. The Nittany Lions just aren't getting the recruits they need to stay competitive, outstanding QBs usually eschew State College because the program hasn't developed many into pros, and the offensive schemes look like they're run by overmatched Ivy League kids who spend more of their days in a chemistry lab than in a weight room. Click on the rosters of Top 25 programs around the country, and count how many kids are from Pennsylvania and New Jersey especially, once very fertile recruiting grounds for Joe Paterno. Move a few here and there, and you have the Nittany Lions back in the Top 25. But to do that, you'll need a new coach with newer ideas.

It's hard to replace a legend, and many legends do not know when to retire. Coach Paterno should consult with Dean Smith about how the legendary Carolina coach knew when it was time to hang them up. In Coach Smith's case, though, it was because it got time to begin fall practice and he just didn't have the basketball juices flowing anymore. In his case, the decision was easy. But how do you decide, when you are amongs courtiers, sycophants and those who fear you, that it's time to retire because, well, you just aren't that good anymore at what you became a legend at? Because, clearly, you still have the drive to keep on going.

AD Tim Curley has a tough job, doesn't he? And, if he doesn't look out soon, his tenure at Penn State might end really fast. Why? Because if you were to analyze a combined score of Division I-A schools in the two major revenue sports, football and men's basketball, Penn State would be near the bottom, if not right at the bottom. Believe it or not, the men's basketball team is less competitive in Division I basketball than it is in Division I-A football, and that's saying a lot. The Nittany Lions are picked to be last in the Big 10 this year, and they would be hard-pressed to finish in the first division in the Ivy League. The difference between the two programs is that the men's basketball program has a second-year coach, an alum, who had turned East Tennessee State into a winner and might have a chance to do so at Penn State in a few years (and there is hardly the hoops tradition to build on in State College, either, the way there is a football tradition).

But the Penn State football program offers no such hope. The mentor of the program doesn't have the possible future the basketball coach does, as implausbile as that sounds. And the AD probably doesn't have the clout to terminate him, either. At least not with the okay of the University president, and perhaps the nods of several trustees. Which makes the entire situation one awfully tangled web.

There are many times in corporate America when people retire too young. They are either part of a downsizing that comes cloaked in an early retirement package, or they leap because they fear getting pushed out and want to go on their own terms. We're not the most patient of countries, and in many cases we do not honor the wisdom of our elders the way other societies do. And sometimes we are worse off for it.

But the situation is different here. We're not talking about refusing to listen to the wisdom of Joe Paterno, or even a Joe Paterno turned into a village wise man who can provide guidance to younger coaches on all sorts of knotty problems. We're not talking about putting him out on a small skiff near the Outer Banks and pushing it out to sea in the middle of hurricane season.

No, we're talking about whether he should be driving the big boat at this stage of his life. And, under the particular set of circumstances that face Penn State football, this might be one instance where the elder has stayed too long. It is clear that he won't go voluntarily, especially after his employer unwisely extended his contract last year for four more years. Someone simply has to tell him that it is time to go.

But in this case there are no elders to turn to, and, perhaps, we have to draw guidance from an old story that we read to our kids. You know the one, it's about the king who is vain and who has these impostors create a new suit of clothes for him made out of special thread. And after this suit's made, the king is standing in his castle, and all those around him tell him how wonderful he looks. So taken with his own kingdom, the king sucks it all up and believes what he's told. Except there's one problem: he isn't wearing anything.

He doesn't know it, of course, and so they hold a parade in his land for all to come and view his new suit of clothing. People ooh and ah and remark how wonderful he looks, until the procession gets to this little boy, who states out loud that the emperor wasn't wearing anything.

Ultimately, the emperor came to his senses, but no doubt there were people who chastised the little boy for speaking the truth.

Today, in Penn State land, there is a swelling chorus of people who are saying that the emperor is naked, that the coach just cannot coach at a championship level anymore. And, of course, there are a bunch of people who are remaining blindly loyal, as there are people who are acknowledging reality but who just don't want to see someone who had done so much for their program get cashiered in any but the most dignified fashion.

But how can that most dignified fashion take place? Unfortunately, the same people who wrote the scripts for the Boston Red Sox are nowhere to be found around Penn State football. There's no gallant comeback from six outs away to an earlier-than-expected trip to the golf course instead of the gleeful trip to Walt Disney World. There's just no way that Penn State football will rise to the cream of the BCS Bowl crop, have an undefeated season and play for the national title any time soon.

So, please, Joe, please decide on your own to go. Those who are chanting that you must go do not mean you any harm, but they are daring to tell you the hard truth that so many others are not. And, as your seniors probably told your freshmen time and time again the first time that you yelled at them, don't listen to how it's said, listen to what's said. And take it to heart.

Gather with your family, talk with your wife and children, and then talk to your A.D. and your university president. And, whatever you do, listen, listen to them, to the voices of the faithful, to the people who have hung on your every word for so many years. Because it's time to listen to those to whom, most likely, you have done most of the talking over the years. Ask the hard question, and be ready for what they're going to tell you. There's no shame in that.

November 20 marks Penn State's final home game of the season, when they host Michigan State. The game could either be something that the fans dread, as they're waiting for the punctuation mark on the final game of another bad season with no great hope for improvement in the next one. Or, it could be a great celebration of a wonderful football career, a retirement party for one of the greatest college football coaches of all time. It could mark not only the closing of a chapter, but of a wonderful book.

And the beginning of a new era. The Rick Neuheisel era? The Urban Meyer era?

No doubt, at this game, your players, current and former, will laud you for all that you've done for them, for the gifts that you had bestowed upon generations of players.

Your fans will do the same, thanking you not only for the great memories, but for the gift that you're giving them that day, the gift of a renewal, the gift of a future that couldn't come any sooner. And in thanking you, they'll be thanking you for making the toughest decision of your life.

So, please, Joe, say it ain't so. Say it ain't so that you're going to fulfill the remaining four years of your contract. Say that it's time to go.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Penn State football is now irrelevant. Looks like PSU joining the Big Ten is the equivalent of Rutgers trying to go big time (and no longer playing Princeton) back in the seventies.

Come to think of it, Penn State vs. Rutgers might be a good game.

OK, comparing PSU and RTSU (Rutgers, the State University) is unfair to PSU.

Too bad for PSU. A great tradition in the dumps. Can they build it back up? I don't know. Even the great Notre Dame tradition hasn't really helped a succession of coaches to bring ND back to national prominence, despite the upset of Michigan this year. And the PSU tradition is not as great as ND's.


10:39 AM  

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