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Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Must Joe Paterno Go?

I've addressed this question here, here, here, here and here, and, from the looks of it, many college football fans, and Penn State fans, remain interested in the topic and won't let it go. I even went so far as to point out who the possible successors to JoePa could be. That list is somewhat dated, but I tried to play recruiter and figure out who JoePa might want to anoint and who might be acceptable in the nirvana that Coach Paterno has tried to create in central Pennsylvania. I even went out on a limb after some college football scandals and defended Coach Paterno, because he is a believer in doing things the right way (and some coaches are not) and did so again when he stuck his neck out and made the right call in the BCS voting.

By way of disclosure, I am not a Penn State alum and am not related to any Penn State alums. I actually rooted against Penn State as a kid because my dad played football at Temple and the Owls quixotically scheduled the Nittany Lions and scared the living daylights out of them twice in the 1970s. I had friends who are Penn State alums, respect Coach Paterno's accomplishments and enjoyed the Penn State football update that was shown at 11 a.m. on Sundays when I was a kid and featured the great broadcasting of Ray Scott, who once had broadcast the Green Bay Packers games. Ray Scott was a standard setter, great to listen to. So I consider myself a neutral in all of this. I am not happy that Penn State is suffering, as others may be, and I am not a defender of Coach Paterno just because he's meant so much to Penn State. After reading about Penn State's barely beating South Florida last weekend, I figured it was time to bring out this old posts again and re-start the discussion.

After considering a variety of factors, I agree with those who say that Joe Paterno must go. Not only has he been great for Penn State, he's been a great beacon for all that is right about college football and a great example as to how to run an outstanding program. But within the past 5-10 years, he has not been a great mentor or succession planner, he has put himself in a position where he's made it impossible for the institution he loves so dearly to make the right move without looking terrible (which, to a degree, means he's made himself more important than the institution, which is contrary to what he teaches to young men in order to mold them into a team), and he is risking leaving the program much worse off when he leaves (whenever that is) than when he got there (he inherited a good program).

But Penn State, returning a defense that was in the top ten statistically despite being on the field probably 5 minutes per game longer than any of the other top ten defensive teams because its offense was so weak, and returning virtually that same offense, is a far cry from the football teams of the 10-20 years ago. People used to fear Penn State. Penn State used to be a major event on the schedule of every opponent who faced it. Those anonymous, faceless uniforms symbolized the ultimate in sacrifice and selfless teamwork.

Today they are an object for pity, for prompting the saying, "well, when he was at the top of his game, they were really something." And while I'm among the first to be in favor of making sure that it's all about the student-athlete, I'm also among the first to make sure that no person becomes bigger than an institution, even if he helped build it. Coach Paterno has seldom, if ever, coached on sentiment. He doesn't play players because he promised something to the kid, to a HS coach, or because the kid's dad played for him; he'd tell you he'd strive to play the best players. That's what any championship coach strives to do.

Unfortunately, he's not honoring the messages he's instilled in his kids for years. He's just not the same coach he used to be, and there's no shame in that. But because he's stayed too long, he's itching for that one shot at redemption, the one shot to tell people that he still has it. And the fear is that the longer he stays at it, the more pathetic and, yes, quixotic, his quest will become. Correspondingly, because he's been in there so long and has overstayed his welcome, he should be easier to ease out of his job. How can anyone argue that it's not time for a change at the top of the Penn State football program?

If they're honest with themselves, as all coaches demand that their players be, they'll agree. If Coach Paterno asked himself these questions, he'd have to agree to.

With all due respect to the so many good things Joe Paterno has done for Penn State, Penn State football and college football, it is time for Joe Paterno to retire.

Penn State will not forget him, and they will be certain to honor their past. At the same time, they must not fear facing the future and what a new coach will bring, and they must let the new coach be himself and coach the way he wants to. Forty years ago they let a long-time assistant with thick glasses take the reigns from a successful coach, and now they must let a coach with a lot of promise -- and not a caretaker -- put his own imprint on Nittany Lion football.

And bring gridiron joy back to Happy Valley.


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