Opinion: Joe Must Know
During the “Dark Years” at the beginning of this decade, the calls for Joe Paterno’s retirement resonated from alumni, students and fans alike. Headlines of “Joe Must Go!” were seen all across Pennsylvania newspapers and other sports publications until an Orange Bowl campaign in 2005 brought the Nittany Lions back to prominence.
Since that season, Penn State has compiled 54 wins against 16 losses, but with a 3-3 record and an uncertain bowl fate staring Penn State straight in the eyes, critics are creeping out of the woodwork again, saying JoePa is too old to be running a football program of this caliber.
I have always been of the thought that a man who has done so much for this football program, for this university as a whole, should not be forced out of his position (a la Bobby Bowden), but should be able to leave on his own terms. The coach who holds the FBS record for wins and bowl wins has earned that much. And while I still believe this, I have also turned to the thinking that Joe must KNOW WHEN to go, and in reality, that time is no more apparent than right now.
Everyone was calling this a rebuilding year for the Nittany Lions, a term that cannot be used when talking about an elite program. Take a look at the Oklahomas and USCs of this decade, the Nebraskas and Florida States of the nineties and the Miamis of the late eighties and early part of the nineties. There were no rebuilding years for these elite programs–they were always reloading and retooling, which led to at least of decade of success. While these past five years have been a bright spot for Penn State, it only includes the work of one or two recruiting classes, considering Paterno’s M.O. to only play his most experienced players.
This is the first reason Joe has to know it’s time to go. He hasn’t been on the recruiting trail in years. His last visit to a recruit outside of Happy Valley was a trip to Jeanette, Pennsylvania to lure Terrelle Pryor to State College. This proved to be a feeble attempt as Pryor took his talents to Ohio State saying he did not want to play next to the “cow pastures” of central Pennsylvania.
The head coach is the figurehead of a college athletic program, and when recruits don’t see this person until they make an official campus visit, it proves hard to bring in five-star recruits, let alone have them consider the university. It becomes even harder for recruits to take notice of the program when they don’t know if their head coach will be there for the full four years. The last number one recruit to choose Penn State was Derrick Williams in the 2005 freshman class and he came to bring Penn State back to prominence (which he did have a big part in), but honestly, how many five-star, number-one rated recruits are choosing a school based on the fact they can restore it to the top of the college football world?
Secondly, watching the Ohio State-Wisconsin game Saturday night led me to another thought. When Wisconsin started to lose momentum at the start of the second half, they did something never before heard of at Penn State: they changed their game plan! In the loss to Illinois, you wouldn’t have known if we were tied up or down twenty as the play sequence went run-run-screen or run-run/screen-scrambled throw if it was a long distance second and third down situation. The game plan is always the same and always conservative, something that will continue to occur with this coaching staff who will be here as long as JoePa is.
None of the game planning can be blamed directly at Joe, because honestly, he has nothing to do with the planning anymore. The assistants are the ones who do the coaching. Paterno’s title could be changed to Head Motivator. According to Internet chat boards, this is doing more harm than good, with sources saying that infighting between the coaches is causing disruptions during practices, since the 83-year old coach is only at practice for maybe a half hour. Their combined game plan doesn’t make its way to Joe’s desk until Friday night, not that it makes much difference whether he sees it or not.
Maybe I’m sounding the alarms a bit too soon. Maybe it is just a one-year thing. Maybe next year, Rob Bolden will have gained the equivalent of three years of experience and the defense will have had time to congeal and we’ll party like it’s 2005. But for some reason, I find that very unlikely.
This team needs a new direction and Joe has to realize that. Whether the head coach comes from within the program or is brought in from a national search is a different conversation (a national search is a must, I do not want Tom Bradley coaching this team), but a new direction must be sought and there is no better time for it than at the start of the new Big Ten. Joe should never be forced out, but he has to face facts. He is not senile, he can see reality. The game is passing him by and I think he may be realizing that. I think as much as he denying the fact that 400 wins isn’t important to him, he wants it, and he wants it bad.
You’ve done a great job here, Coach, and we cannot be more thankful. We will never be able to fully repay you, but please consider riding off into the sunset and letting Penn State move onto a new chapter, a chapter that would not have been possible if it weren’t for all of your contributions.