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."