My, how time does fly. Another week has come and gone, so we once more find ourselves in a position to give consideration to a burning question up for discussion in the world of college football.
First, though, I need to answer the most frequent question with which I am confronted by regular readers of my observations, insights, and diatribes; namely: "Do you have a job?" Yes, believe it or not, I actually have time to earn a living and offer college football musings, too. For the benefit of those of you who wonder whether I'm pulling your leg about that whole practicing law thing, check out http://www.ajc.com/news/content/metro/clayton/0805/05lake.html and see for yourself.
Now, back to the matter at hand. Previously, we have thought through offseason coaching changes at Florida and South Carolina; now, though, we take up the matter of the coaching change that hasn't happened. This week's question, therefore, is as follows:
If the Nittany Lions have yet another sub-par season, can Penn State really show Joe Paterno the door?
Yes, Penn State can. Moreover, Penn State should.
During the 2004 presidential campaign, supporters of both major parties' candidates had lots of nasty things to say about the opposing nominee's Vietnam-era military service. Questions were raised about George W. Bush's National Guard days in Texas and about John Kerry's Swift boat command in Southeast Asia.
To me, these questions were beside the point. For me, the issues that mattered in the presidential election were the economy and foreign policy. The outsourcing and off-shoring of manufacturing and white-collar jobs, the war on terror and the war in Iraq, how much I was going to pay in taxes and what was going to be done about Social Security before the Baby Boomers began retiring (which will happen before the 2008 election, by the way)---these were the important considerations for me in determining whether President Bush or Senator Kerry ought to be sworn in as chief executive on January 20, 2005.
In short, I didn't care what either candidate was doing in the late '60s and early '70s; I cared about what both of them had been doing for the last four years, and it was upon that basis that I judged which of them ought to have the top job for the next four years.
So it is with college football.
Joe Paterno may have been a great coach in 1966 or 1973 or 1982 or 1994. The question, though, is whether he is a great---or even a good---coach now. To assume that, because JoePa won a national title in 1986, he can do it again in the future makes no more sense than to assume that, because Cybill Shepherd looked the way she did on "Moonlighting," she can look that good again today. It just doesn't work like that. Coach Paterno's odds of coaching in another Rose Bowl are about as good as Kirstie Alley's chances of fitting into one of the outfits she wore on "Cheers."
In the last five years, the Nittany Lions have gone 5-7, 5-6, 9-4, 3-9, and 4-7. Joe Paterno has averaged more than six losses per season over the last half-decade. His long service in State College entitles him to a certain degree of deference, but there comes a point at which a head coach---any head coach---is no longer entitled to the benefit of the doubt.
A fifth losing record in a six-season span should be sufficient to demonstrate that all Coach Paterno is doing now is tarnishing his own legend, which is tough to do at the institution with the most tepid battle cry in all of sport: "We are Penn State." When your game day cheer reads like a pre-printed name tag at a professional convention ("Hi! My name is Penn State"), you're not exactly setting the bar terribly high, but JoePa hasn't been able to reach even that meager level in the last several years.
2005 will be Joe Paterno's 40th season as the head coach of the Nittany Lions.
Think about that for a minute.
Coach Paterno led the Nittany Lions onto the field for the first time during the autumn immediately following President Bush's 20th birthday. That was the same year the Rolling Stones released "Paint It Black," the year before Katharine Hepburn won an Oscar for "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," and the year after Congress created Medicare.
JoePa has been the head coach in State College, Pa., for more than 18 per cent of the American Constitutional history that began in Philadelphia, Pa., in 1787. Speaking of the Constitution, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its historic ruling in Miranda v. Arizona ("You have the right to remain silent . . ." and all that) about three months before the Nittany Lions played their first game under Coach Paterno's leadership. As a head coach, JoePa is now on his eighth president and his fourth pope. (When I tried to Google the number of Italian prime ministers to have served since 1966, my computer crashed.)
During Joe Paterno's inaugural season as Penn State's head coach, the Bulldogs captured the first of the six S.E.C. championships they would win under Vince Dooley. (It should be noted that Coach Dooley, despite serving the longest coaching tenure in Georgia football history, retired 17 years and three head coaches ago.) Joe Paterno won his first game as Penn State's head coach the same fall that Mark Richt started first grade.
If JoePa had been hired on the day the Red Sea parted (and sometimes it feels like he was), his tenure would have lasted until the Israelites entered the Promised Land. An American man who was born on the day of Joe Paterno's promotion to head coach will, on his next birthday, be ready to dye his hair, buy a candyapple red convertible, and run off with Jessica Alba. We are reaching the point at which the F.D.A. ought to put a warning label on the door to Coach Paterno's office: "Coaching stints lasting more than 40 years, though rare, require immediate institutional attention."
Those who would argue that JoePa is entitled to leave on his own timetable and on his own terms are forgetting that he is an employee and his employer is well within its rights to release him from his duties if he is no longer getting the job done. No coach is bigger than the institution he serves. Vince Dooley didn't get to decide when it was time for him to retire as Georgia's athletic director. Eddie Robinson didn't get to decide when it was time for him to retire as Grambling's head football coach. Their bosses simply informed them that their contracts would not be renewed after the date on which they were scheduled to expire. Why should Joe Paterno be any different?
JoePa's record of achievement at Penn State, both on and off the field of play, entitles him to many accolades. Certainly, Coach Paterno deserves to have the stadium named after him when he hangs up his whistle and hands over his clipboard. However, he should not be allowed to drag down the program he helped to build up; he should not be allowed to retain the title of captain just so he can remain at the helm of a sinking ship. Who does he think he is? Bob Barker on "The Price is Right"? William O. Douglas on the U.S. Supreme Court? Does he intend to pull a Strom Thurmond and keep his lofty title long enough for Trent Lott to get himself into trouble for saying nice things about JoePa at his 100th birthday party?
If he cares about his institution as much as he says he does, he should recognize the predicament into which he has placed Penn State and save everyone further embarrassment, much as Cal Ripken, Jr., did when he stopped his consecutive games streak voluntarily after it became clear that, although he was no longer performing at the highest level, no Baltimore Orioles manager felt within his rights to bench him.
It is time for the Nittany Lions' head coach to behave with a maturity commensurate to his age. The coach who has been an eloquent spokesman for the N.C.A.A. is now better suited to speaking on behalf of the A.A.R.P. Now that JoePa is JoeGreatGrandPa, he should kick back and enjoy retirement. If Joe Paterno continues to place his own ego above the good of Pennsylvania State University, though, his boss should, as politely as possible, let him know that his coaching days are at an end.
Certainly, we should show respect for our elders, but pretending that Joe Paterno is still the coach he used to be is not respectful, it is cruel. I do not believe JoePa ought to be abandoned out on the ice floes like an elderly Eskimo, but the evidence of recent football seasons strongly calls into question the ability of a man born in 1926 to continue coaching student-athletes born six decades later.
With no team in the Big Ten appearing to stand head and shoulders above the others, this could be an unusual year for college football in the Midwest. It is just possible that the Nittany Lions will creep out of their caves and make it back into postseason play. If they do, good for them. If they don't make it to a bowl game this year, though, it will indicate clearly that Penn State's football program is circling the drain.
Every year Joe Paterno remains on the sidelines will add two more years to the Nittany Lions' eventual rebuilding effort. No coach, no matter how revered or beloved, is entitled to do that to his players, his boosters, or his university. If he's as good a man as everyone says he is, JoePa will accept that fact and act accordingly. If not, then the folks who want to spare the septuagenarian (and, if he remains on the job until December 21 of next year, octogenarian) head coach the pain of concluding his career on a down note need to be reminded of what Katie Holmes's fiancé said in "Cocktail": all things end badly; that's why they end.
In the era in which Joe Paterno's head coaching career began, there was a popular expression to the effect that, if you weren't a part of the solution, you were a part of the problem. Those of us with small children know that much the same sentiment often is expressed by the railroad superintendent on the island of Sodor, Sir Topham Hatt, who either praises Thomas the Tank Engine and his fellow trains for being a "really useful crew" or criticizes them for "causing confusion and delay." Propelled by inertia yet slowed by passing time, JoePa's pendulum has swung from the part-of-the-solution/really-useful-engine portion of its arc over to the part-of-the-problem/confusion-and-delay side of the semicircle.
For Joe Paterno, the 2005 football season will be like the N.C.A.A. basketball tournament: it's win or go home. If this football season turns out like most of the last several in State College, the Nittany Lions' head coach needs to be sent into the boardroom with Donald Trump and given a cab ride to the airport.
That, or maybe Coach Paterno and his Penn State squad should be sent to face the Red and Black so we can even the score for the '83 Sugar Bowl loss.