For an alumnus of Penn State who’s a die-hard fan of Nittany Lion football and head coach Joe Paterno, these are the worst of times. It’s not unlike seeing Willie Mays misplay a fly ball as a Met. Or Muhammad Ali rope-a-dope himself at the end. Or Sugar Ray Leonard fail at summoning the reflexes of his prime.
It’s sad to witness.
“JoePa” has embodied winner and class in his nearly four decades at the helm of Penn State football. His “noble experiment” of succeeding without compromising principles long ago secured a place in the pantheon of American sports legends. Along the way he won a couple of national championships and more than once turned down the National Football League.
An Ivy League grad and voracious reader, Paterno is educated far beyond game plans and recruiting strategies. He has always expected his players to be more than one-dimensional extensions of the football program. There is no jocks-only athletic dorm on campus. Paterno’s name is on a wing of the library. He has spoken at commencement.
He has been good for — and to — the game, and he will be missed. But the missing should have commenced by now. He would have been a tough — no, impossible — act to follow. Now, it will be a relief when his successor is announced. This season will be his third loser in the last four. He has overstayed his legacy.
Listen to the take of Ed Christine, the editor of the Scranton Times , a Pennsylvania daily that staffs Penn State football with two reporters. His perspective is dispiriting.
“You watch that team, and it’s apparent they’re getting outplayed, outmanned and outcoached — there’s an air of confusion on the sidelines,” says Christine. “His players aren’t as good — including their character.
“He’s not aging gracefully,” assesses Christine. “The first couple of times he went (running) after officials, it was seen as fiery and kind of cute. Now it’s getting annoying; he’s like an old scold. People wish he had gone out on top. I’m afraid there’s no light at the end of this tunnel.”
The obvious problem is Paterno’s age: 76. In and of itself, however, that’s less of an issue for most alumni and fans than it is for teenaged recruits. For older generations, Paterno has been an icon. But for the 18-year-old blue-chippers, he looks like the guy you take your shoes to. He’s not charismatic and folksy the way down-home, 73-year-old Bobby Bowden is. He’s not, well, ESPN cool. In fact, Paterno can appear downright self-righteous and terminally grumpy.
Moreover, he doesn’t preside over a high-octane program that looks like the perfect place for a player to prep for the pros — as FSU’s still does.
Even PSU’s uniforms conspire against him. When the Lions were winning, they were plain and traditional. Football’s pinstripes. Now that they’re losing, they’re plainly boring. You not only don’t get your name on the back of your jersey, you don’t even get good-play helmet decals.
Paterno is also a holdout from the ranks of coaches who condone and enable a self-congratulating, look-at-me, in-your-face, trash-talking, college football culture.
The BET generation notices.
As a result, he doesn’t get the players anymore. Certainly not like Florida State still does. The name of the college game has always been recruiting. Penn State used to get the Lion’s share of top, in-state talent. It would also cherry pick New Jersey and upstate New York. It no longer does.
But Paterno seems adamant about staying on. The closest thing to an heir apparent, assistant head coach Fran Ganter, has been with Paterno so long that he is arguably part of the problem.
For Paterno, there’s plenty of ego involved. It’s never easy to relinquish center stage — as Mays, Ali and Leonard can attest. And it’s hard to walk away from what has come to define you. He has been at Penn State since 1950. It’s also difficult to stop what you still like doing — in Paterno’s case, working with young people and enjoying the competition — if not the results.
There might also be a Last Hurrah complex. Those who have done it often can’t believe they can’t do it again. Just one more run.
Very few can. Paterno, alas, isn’t likely to be the exception.