The Lion In Winter Penn State is losing (again) and there's groaning in Happy Valley. Will Joe Paterno go on forever?

October 12, 2003

Earlier this year a headline caught our attention at the website
scrappleface.com: PATERNO SIGNS FINAL CONTRACT TO COACH UNTIL
2084.

Joe Paterno, we were led to believe, had, at age 76, finally put
a definitive end point on his football career at Penn State.
After 37 seasons at the Nittany Lions' helm, the alltime
winningest coach in Division I-A (336 victories at the time) had
revealed he'd only be hanging on for another 81 more.

"I know my assistant coaches will be excited to hear this," he
was quoted as saying. "Now they know when they'll get their
shot."

Well, we may have been duped. There's no sign of quit in Paterno.
In fact, to the chagrin of some not-so-happy folks in Happy
Valley, he looks as if he wants to coach there forever. In the
adoring new documentary Paterno that airs Oct. 10 on ESPN, Joe Pa
proclaims, "I think it was Tennessee Williams who said, 'Nobody
is immortal, but I think maybe I'm the exception.'"

Immortal, maybe. Invincible, maybe never again. The Lions'
slipshod 30-23 defeat to Wisconsin on Saturday left them a dismal
2-4. With prohibitive overdogs Purdue, Iowa and Ohio State up
next, PSU appears headed for its third losing campaign in four
years, a phenomenon unprecedented in the Age of Paterno.

Though Joe Pa's play-calling has often seemed unimaginative,
until now his players have never appeared unprepared. It's bad
enough that the Lions have been outscored 55-10 in the first
quarter this season; worse that they're 11th in the Big Ten in
pass efficiency and rushing defense. Fumbling two kicks against
Wisconsin didn't improve their conference-worst turnover ratio.
After the game, in the glare of TV lights as bright as those in
an operating room, Paterno looked very weary and very, very old.
In his unobstructed Brooklyn accent, a high nasal blat like a
clarinet full of paper clips, he sighed, "It's hard when you have
a bunch of kids who have worked as these kids have and you can't
help them win a game." Asked if he worried about their morale, he
said, "I'm more worried about my morale."

The Lions haven't challenged for Paterno's third national
championship since 1999, when, bubbling at 9-0, they suddenly,
inexplicably, lost their fizz. Since then their record is 22-24.
And lately Monday morning quarterbacks have been questioning
Paterno on Saturday. Against the Badgers he had 10 defenders line
up on one play, 12 on another, forcing him to call timeout,
leaving him with none for the final 10:22 of the first half.

Last year, with the team coming off a 5-6 season and Paterno
maniacally chasing down referees, he silenced the "Joe must go"
grumblings by going 9-3 and making the Capital One Bowl. Nobody
expects such an outcome this time. "Joe has lost control of the
team," says Chris Korman, sports editor of PSU's Daily Collegian.
"He's trying to give more responsibility to his assistants, but
he's been the sole person in charge for so long that he doesn't
know how."

Trailing Minnesota 17-14 in the third quarter on Sept. 27, Joe
handed the reins to his son Jay, 34, the quarterbacks coach and
an heir apparent. On fourth-and-three Jay Pa passed up a 50-yard
field goal attempt for a play--apparently a busted one--that
ended with quarterback Michael Robinson throwing the ball away.
Offensive coordinator Fran Ganter was livid. The longtime Lions
assistant (himself an heir apparent) hurled his headset to the
ground and screamed, "That was a s--- play!"

Ultimately nobody, not even Penn State's president, could make
the still-beloved Joe go--not that any administrator is even
suggesting it. When Joe goes is entirely up to Joe, and he
continues to sidestep the retirement question. If
scrappleface.com is right, he's got until he's 157 to turn this
thing around.

--Franz Lidz

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY STEVE BRODNER

"ESPN knew what it was getting when they hired Rush Limbaugh"
--WELCOME TO RUSH WEEK, PAGE 22

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)