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Sunday, October 03, 2004

Must Joe Go, Part II (The Curious Saga of Penn State Football)

After last night's loss to a nationally ranked but perhaps not totally nationally respected Minnesota Gophers' squad, Penn State fans have to be reeling. The Nittany Lions are 2-3, winless in the Big 10, and it's an interesting question whether they'll win a game in Big 10 conference play this year. Even perennial doormat Indiana poses a challenge because Penn State has to travel to Bloomington to play the Hoosiers in about a month (although it says here that PSU should win that game). Four of the Lions' last six games are at home, with Purdue, Iowa, Northwestern and Michigan State traveling to Happy Valley and the Lions' traveling to Indiana and Ohio State. And next week they host the Boilermakers. Can you foresee a 3-8 or 4-7 season? Sure you can.

I've blogged on this before (and have gotten a lot of hits), so click here for my earlier post as to whether Joe Paterno should remain as Penn State's coach. Again, I remind the Penn State loyalists that I am fully appreciative of Coach Paterno's major contributions to the Penn State community on and off the field, but I question whether he should be the only person who decides when it's time for him to retire. And, if you're the ultra-, super-lifer loyalist, and question whether Pateron should be sacked without a plan, click here for my applicant pool for the new job.

Penn State has a great tradition. Franco Harris and Lydell Mitchell played there. So did Lenny Moore and Roosevelt Grier. Outstanding DT and country music songwriter Mike Reid went to Penn State, as did Greg Buttle, Mike Munchak, LaVar Arrington, Courtney Brown, Ki-Jana Carter, D.J. Dozier, Blair Thomas, Kerry Collins, Kyle Brady, and a whole host of other outstanding players.

But that was yesterday, and right now the memories of the tradition are all that Penn State fans have to live on. That, perhaps, and rooting for their pro teams. But the difference between their favorite pro teams and their beloved PSU is that the NFL has a draft, and with the salary cap and parity and all of the other code words, this year's 2-14 team could be next year's 8-8 team and the following year's entry in a conference championship game. The same, though, doesn't hold true for Penn State or any other college program trying to rebuild. There is no draft, there are no free agents, and there isn't a whole lot of parity in college football.

Two years ago, Carolina Panthers' fans were wondering how quickly their team would return to the playoffs. They had the right to wonder, given that there is ample precedent in the NFL for a team to fall from grace and then to return to glory in one big hurry. There is a sense of urgency in State College, no one will question that (although they might question whether the PSU football program right now is more a case of activity over achievement), but the Penn State fan has to wonder when the Nittany Lions' football team will return to the national conversation.

It's not a happy thought.

You have a fine stadium, great facilities, a wonderful tradition, a great reputation for graduating players, the throwback uniforms and a great environment in which to play college football.

It's just that you haven't been able to get the players that you used to. And you haven't innovated on offense in decades, and you can no longer rely upon your defense to bail you out when they're on the field a lot more than your offense.

Meanwhile, Urban Meyer's Utah Utes and Jeff Tedford's Cal Bears are putting up impressive numbers. As are Joe Tiller's Purdue Boilermakers.

And you have this lump in your throat, this overwhelming sense of sadness. Joe Paterno is the beloved uncle, the tough but fair grandfather, your connection with excellence and greatness. And the steadfastness that has helped create the Penn State tradition is now, perhaps, a stubbornness that says I'm still as good as I used to be, we still can get it done. But you know that it's time for the chairman of the board to retire, to hand over the reigns, but he just won't do it. And the thing is, he's built the company, took a good tradition and made it much better, and the program and the head of it are identified almost as one and the same. You don't think the administration can terminate his employment without looking awful, without getting absolutely obliterated in the national press, without looking like the Menendez brothers (who killed their parents then virtually asked the court for leniency because they were orphans), without being pilloried as all that's wrong with America. And you know that he won't resign, because, well, that's the guy you know.

It hurts like heck, doesn't it, to see this pillar of the coaching community lose more times in the past 5 years than perhaps he had in the previous 15 combined? It hurts like heck to fathom that he's not going to go out with a national title, a top 10 finish, or even, perhaps, a BCS bowl win. It hurts to think that he might go out on a losing streak, with his team not even ranked in the Top 50. After all that he's done, you think, he deserves better, doesn't he?

Of course he does.

Joe Paterno always coached that there's no "i" in team, that there are no names on the jerseys because the team comes first, that people have to make sacrifices for the greater good of the team. He never cared about individual statistics, just cared about wins, and he got them in droves. I don't know whether he's written a book, but I'm sure that if he were to retire and do so it would be a good read. Coaches of all sports and executives everywhere would read it, to glean tidbits about how to get their teams to interact better. They read Dean Smith's book, they re-read Coach Wooden's, and they'll read Coach Paterno's.

And, perhaps now, it's time for Coach Paterno to take a page out of that book even before he sits down to write it. He's always coached that no individual is bigger than the program, that players have to be honest with themselves about their abilities, their determination and their preparation when wondering why they're not starting or getting more playing time. Now he has to take a hard look in the mirror and ask whether he's applying the principles he has preached for years to his players to himself. Is he being honest with himself? Is he now the best person to lead the Penn State football program? That's a tough assessment, isn't it?

Coach Paterno has never taken the "easy" road, and perhaps he faces the toughest fork in the road of his life. Because, in all practicality, the only person in the Penn State universe who can get Joe Paterno to retire is Joe Paterno.

The Hollywood ending here is that the Penn State squad fires itself up, hits harder on offense, gets its running backs to hit the holes faster, the quarterback to see the field better, and has the team winning out, finishing 8-3 and playing in a bowl around Christmas time, a wild shootout against a top-15 school and pulling out the game on a hook-and-ladder play in the final moments. The Hollywood ending is that the Penn State players carry Coach Paterno off the field, to the thunderous chants of "Joe Paterno" before a standing ovation of Penn State fans.

And then he shakes the hands of every player, every assistant coach, every manager, every staff member. He then addresses the team, giving the most rousing speech of his coaching career. At the end of that speech, he gets to a pregnant pause, and that he announces that he's going to retire.

The players respond with the "Joe Paterno" chant, and they don't stop. The feisty, great coach just stands there, putting up his hands, asking for them to stop. A small tear drops from one of his eyes. The screen goes black, and then all you can hear are the rising, thunderous chants of "Joe Paterno," in a rhythm that they've had 50 years to master in Happy Valley.

That's the Hollywood ending, and I'm still convinced that even if the Nittany Lions were to lose the remainder of their games he'll still get the big cheers from the crowd. After all, a Hollywood career is preferable to a Hollywood ending without the Hollywood career any day of the week.

And while that type of discussion is interesting, the overarching question remains:
When will Joe tell Joe that it is time to go?

Because it is time.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, one year later, JoePa coach of the year, 3rd in the nation... yum yum, how's that crow taste?

Say, could you do a multi-part article on why Jacque Lemaire must go for the MN Wild? They could use a boost right now.

8:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, two years later, blow out losses to OSU and Notre Dame, a listless performance against Michigan (8 straight for Lloyd Carr's boys) - last year was the time to go - while there was still some pride left.

11:41 PM  

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