Margaret Mead, the world-renown anthropologist, died in 1978 at the age of 77. She famously had said, "Sooner or later I'm going to die, but I'm not going to retire."
Joe Paterno has adopted this same philosophy and he seems determined to follow in her footsteps.
Saturday should be a magnificent day in Happy Valley. Many this week are reminiscing about the storied gridiron battles from long ago between Alabama's Bear Bryant (who retired at 69, putting his university's best interest over his own) and Paterno. Even if Penn State manages to pull off an upset over the third-ranked Crimson Tide, it will only prolong the longest, saddest and most heartbreaking farewell in sports history.
Who doesn't love Joseph Vincent Paterno? Who doesn't have a favorite JoePa story? Lately though, college football's winningest coach, now in his 46th season, has become another punch line. This is particularly true to a younger generation that doesn't remember what put Paterno on college football's version of Mount Rushmore.
Paterno has become a runaway train. The talking heads always mimic one another ad nauseam, saying "He should have the right to leave on his own terms.'' Perhaps, that was true when he was 65 or even 75. However, Paterno will be 85 in December.
Critics said the same thing about Florida State's Bobby Bowden when he refused to retire. But the FSU president finally pulled the plug. Critics howled, but it was long overdue. At last check, FSU is back among the nation's elite and is ranked No. 5 under Jimbo Fisher.
While some may consider this blasphemy to talk about the retirement of one of college football's deities, it's difficult to feel sorry any longer for Paterno. He's had several chances to exit with grace and has refused. The last best shot was after the 2009 season. The Nittony Lions went 11-2, beat LSU in the Capital One Bowl and finished with a No. 8 ranking.
However, JoePa wasn't satisfied with this Hollywood ending. He kept on going. He had to try to squeeze one last drop out of the turnip. And it blew up all over him. He suffered through a humiliating 7-6 season in 2010. The new debate in Happy Valley was no longer whether Paterno would win another national championship. Instead, it was whether he would be well enough to coach from the field rather than the press box, where he seemingly spends as much time during the games as the scribes who cover him.
Why did he do it?
He's become selfish.
Sadly, like many people his age, he's lost some touch with reality and must believe the school can't win without him being the coach. After a lifetime of giving back millions to the university he loves and cherishes, it's now seemingly all about him.
Realistically, you have to think this year is it, as his contract is up after the season. Paterno may be hoping for a last hurrah. Doesn't every great head coach? But in the process, the man who wrote the book on loyalty -- he's been at Penn State since 1950 -- has become bitterly disloyal to those closest to him who hoped to succeed him. Tom Bradley has been at Penn State for 24 years, biding his time for an opportunity. Jerry Sandusky hung around for 30 years before giving up.
Give Paterno credit for showing up every day. In that respect, he is an inspiration to millions of people who admire his verve. However, the fact that he doesn't recruit much and has to visit with prospects through Skype just makes the situation even more unbearable.
Honestly, why would a top recruit commit right now to Penn State unless his father or grandfather played for Paterno? How many players in recent years have chosen elsewhere (like Terrelle Pryor) thinking Paterno would not be around long? If you're 17 years old and a top player in Pennsylvania, do you really think JoePa is going to be your coach at age 89 when you graduate?
It is not too late to salvage some dignity. Hopefully someone like Penn State's respected president Graham Spanier, or Sue, Paterno's wife of 49 years, or a close coaching friend will have the guts to tell JoePa it is time to go out in style. What Paterno needs to do now is simply announce he is done at the end of the season and get the royal treatment he so richly deserves. That would end the debate, the jokes, the negative recruiting. It would allow Paterno to leave the game with pride. His fans would have good memories and respect for an incredible career, and in the process, the decision would greatly benefit the university and its football program.