Go Out A Winner, Joe

This is a prediction. But, more importantly, it’s also a preference.

Circle Saturday, Oct. 19. Penn State hosts Northwestern. It will result in a 330-something victory for Joe Paterno.

After the game, which should be one-sided, Paterno will make a dramatic announcement. He will end all the speculation about his status. He’ll announce that he is stepping down after this season.

The timing will be propitious. And not just because he will be doing the university a recruiting favor by giving them a head start to find a successor — and end all the speculation.

Consider that college football’s all time winningest 1-A coach is coming off of consecutive 5-6 seasons. For a coach who transcends the game and the prevalent win-at-all-costs ethic, it’s sad. It’s not right that his last years are marred by un-Paterno-like records.

He deserves better than the college football counterpart of Willie Mays stumbling after a fly ball as a Met or Hank Aaron not hitting his weight for the Brewers. Ted Williams hitting a home run on his last at-bat is more like it.

Paterno has embodied winner in his three-plus decades as Penn State head coach. His “noble experiment” of succeeding without compromising principles long ago secured his place in the pantheon of American sports icons.

An Ivy League grad, Paterno’s educated far beyond game plans and recruiting strategies. He expects his players to be more than one-dimensional extensions of the football program.

He has been good for — and to — the game, and he will be missed. But the nostalgic emotion of Paterno leaving shouldn’t be undermined by dispiriting days at the end. He must go out a winner. This is that season.

After the Northwestern victory, Penn State will have at least five — maybe more — victories to its credit. The remainder of the post NW schedule includes three more, eminently winnable, home games against Illinois, Virginia and Michigan State. Plus a road game against a relatively weak Indiana squad.

Interestingly enough, after Northwestern is a trip to Columbus to play Ohio State. Why not pump up the players a little more and, in effect, exhort them to win one for “Joepa?”

After its impressive start, Penn State is now a lock for a winning season, maybe a major bowl. Next year and those beyond are all wild cards. More 5-6’s could await. Or the pressures not to lose could impact Paterno’s health.

There are too many variables now associated with college football to guarantee more glory years for Penn State under Paterno.

The gradual decrease in the number of scholarships has resulted in a parity of talent nationally. And those prized blue-chip recruits, many of them black kids from inner cities, increasingly see an old guy who looks more like a shoemaker than a legendary coach who’s now supposed to help prep players for the pros.

Even more challenging, however, is a society that condones — and often encourages — boorish on-field behavior that is the antithesis of teamwork, sportsmanship and class. Paterno remains a notable holdout to such a self-congratulating, tasteless, in-your-face culture. But it gets tougher every year.

Go out the winner that you are, Joe. This is the year. Say it’s so, Joe.

And just do it.

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