A surly, dissonant grumble underscored the "We Are ... Penn State" mantra echoing throughout the swatch of central Pennsylvania known as Happy Valley. Never mind that Joe Paterno had built a national football power while fostering the oft-contradictory concept of academic commitment during nearly four decades as head coach. Now his age and job performance were under fire.
In 2004, things had turned sour. "Happy Valley" was a misnomer, paradise seemed lost. Penn State football, widely regarded as what big-time college sports should be, the purveyor of Paterno's "Grand Experiment," looked to be in serious trouble. A five-year dry spell produced 26 victories, no bowl games and most recently, a ninth-place finish in the Big Ten. This, to many, was intolerable.
Paterno, then 77, was thusly accused: He was too old and out of touch. He can't recruit. The football world, to which he contributed mightily, had passed him by. Essentially, he had lost it. And never mind what the outsiders were saying. University president Graham Spanier met with Paterno and floated the idea of retirement.
Paterno not only said he "appreciated" how Spanier handled the situation, he considered the idea. The following May, he told boosters he would quit if the 2005 season went poorly. Then he set out to make sure that wouldn't happen.
Better recruiting added faster, more skilled and explosive players. Staff changes the previous year began to kick in. Also important to the restoration process was Paterno delegating additional responsibilities to his experienced staff. He already was giving his assistants much to do; now he was stepping it up. He would continue to oversee the program like a CEO, leaving most of the on-field coaching to his offensive and defensive coordinators and assistants who handled individual positions. Paterno made no secret of it, although he was careful to add, only half-joking, "I don't want to step back too far, because then they look around, they won't let me in."
Penn State went 11-1 in 2005, capping the season with a triple-overtime Orange Bowl win over Florida State and Paterno's friend and coaching rival, Bobby Bowden. In the five years after the retirement pledge, the Nittany Lions went 51-13, twice tied for the Big Ten championship and won four of five bowl games. This season, Paterno's 45th as head coach and 61st coaching overall—all at Penn State—began with a lopsided win over lightly regarded Youngstown State before losing to No. 1-ranked and defending national champion Alabama.
Today, at 83, Paterno is delegating even more. "Somebody asked me the other day, 'are (the assistants) carrying me?'" he recently told reporters. "Yeah, they probably are carrying me.
"In the old days, I used to grab a couple of kids and shove them around a little bit. There's two things wrong with that. No. 1, I don't want to get (fired) like (Mike Leach) at Texas Tech. Secondly, I prefer to wait, get (the assistants) in a meeting and say, 'Hey, I don't like the way you handled that kid.' I try to stick my two cents in."
Said ESPN analyst and former Penn State quarterback Todd Blackledge, "He's got guys loyal to him who know how he wants things to go. Any good football coach lets his guys coach. I don't think he sits up in the tower and doesn't know what's going on. I think he's still involved."
The players spend most of their football time with the assistant coaches, who handle the bulk of the instruction and hands-on work during practices. Paterno closely observes, although he has been known to jump in and spend a few minutes with a player on a particular technique.
"We go into a staff meeting," he said, "and then there are some things that I don't particularly like that I see on the practice field, and I make it known that I think we want to change this or we want to do this or something like that. But on the field, I don't coach as much as I used to. They're doing most of the coaching on the field."
Paterno still puts his stamp on the big decisions, like naming a "true" freshman to start the season at quarterback for Penn State for the first time since 1910. "He's not taking himself out of the picture," Blackledge said. "That's a decision that he has to make."
Paterno and his wife, Sue, have five children—all Penn State graduates. Their son, Jay, is a Penn State assistant coach. A former Brown University quarterback, Paterno has amassed 395 victories, the most in Division 1-A history and a record-in-progress unlikely to be broken. He has won two national championships. He has raised millions of dollars for the university, personally donated millions himself and turned the program into the third-most profitable in the nation, according to Forbes magazine.
Notwithstanding several unpleasant off-field incidents involving players, the program still adheres to the tenets of Paterno's Grand Experiment, which proved that athletics and academics could coexist. Penn State last year led the Big Ten with an 89 percent graduation rate, tops among schools ranked in the AP Top 25 poll.
Still, some fans and boosters, all of whom acknowledge his huge contributions to his school and the sport, always will clamor for Paterno to step down. He suffered on-field injuries in 2006 and 2008, forcing him to coach from the press box and providing additional fodder to the critics. But the squawking grew louder last month after Paterno showed up at a Big Ten media event looking thin and frail, hunched over, his voice weak. He missed several university functions during the spring and acknowledged he had suffered from a gastrointestinal illness and a reaction to medication.
The first question Paterno took that day was whether he planned to coach until he died. Talk about setting a tone. He shrugged it off, and when he met with local reporters a few days later, he wryly began by joking, "Don't ask me if I'm gonna die tomorrow. Believe me, I've got a few days left."
Paterno no longer travels to recruit and said he will limit his off-field media activities. But he has no plans to relinquish his job, despite such pleas to quit like the one penned by a Pittsburgh columnist who recently wrote: "Will Paterno's health let him finish the season? I have serious doubts."
"His age is a high number, no question about it," Blackledge said. "But I've met guys 20 or 30 years younger that act older than him. Age is not really indicative of who he is, his wit, his enthusiasm, his energy for what he's doing."
The day is coming, however, when Paterno will step down. That, said Blackledge, will be sad.
"It's gonna be hard," he said. "He is the face of Penn State football, the heart and soul of it. It's kind of hard to imagine anyone else leading the team. That's why it's important for us to enjoy, cherish, savor whatever how many years are out there. Penn State won't ever be the same and, frankly, college football won't be the same whenever he rides into the sunset."
Bob Cohn is a veteran sports reporter based in Pittsburgh
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