Sometime after that horrific spot on the fake punt attempt Saturday afternoon when Alabama was slowly sucking the life out of the Beaver Stadium masses I had the thought, Joe Paterno is killing his own team. Of course, I’ve had this thought on many occasions. I’m not a Penn State grad and I’m certainly not a die-hard fan so I don’t want to give the impression that I’m speaking about the program with any level of intelligence, but I’ve certainly always been a fan of Penn State to some degree.
They are pretty much the default college football team of eastern Pennsylvania and having grown up during a time when they achieved some success, it wasn’t a real stretch for me to get on board. I remember watching their last National Championship if you can believe it, it is actually one of my first sports memories, observing older family member’s investment in the outcome of that Fiesta Bowl. And, I was certainly a die-hard in 1994 and experienced the pain and injustice of that season on a quite real level. The point is, I’d prefer Penn State to be a good team. It’s too late for me to find someone else to root for, so it’s either them, or tune out college football until the national championship game.
Joe Paterno has been getting criticized for a long time. In fact, most Penn State die-hards that I do know are actually through with Joe. They’re ready to move on. He’s faced his share of doubters and bounced back most times, but there was something about the sight of him sitting in the booth last weekend, glasses off (I know he’s far-sighted) that just made me think, how much longer can they keep doing this? I felt badly for Mike McQueary down there on the sidelines and I’m no big fan of McQueary, but just the difference between him down there coaching and Joe up in the booth looking like Al Davis was pretty shocking.
Penn State has obviously missed their chance to get Joe out as coach, and I’m not trying to be morbid here, but there’s got to be a decent chance the end of his coaching tenure will coincide with the end of his life. And, I wouldn’t be surprised if Joe himself thinks that he won’t last very long after he doesn’t have his team to attend to, but it leaves the school and the fans in a very difficult position. I don’t think anyone wanted Joe to end on a 3-9 season like he had in 2003, but I don’t think anyone trusts him to hang it up, even if he were to win another National title. The question is, how does he exit gracefully, or should he even bother with such concerns?
I think there’s a sense that leaving on top is the best way to go. Jim Brown, or Sandy Koufax, or John Elway, or even John Kruk who pulled himself out of a game when his career average leveled off at .300. I wonder if that’s considered the best way to do it because you maintain your dignity, or if it’s because everyone realizes how difficult it is to do. I’m not going to sit here and say something self-serving and totally devoid of perspective like I’d quit as soon as I knew I didn’t have it, because if I was in the actual situation, they’d probably have to drag me kicking and scratching out of the locker room. I’d probably be Steve Carlton pitching for the Twins.
I imagine Joe Pa probably feels a bit of that as well. He’s been the head coach there since 1966, and that has to mean something, even if it’s struggling through a few more years until he finally gets the end he wants, or he really can’t do the job anymore. In the meantime, though, I hope he gets back on the sideline soon, because camera cuts to him in the booth just don’t sit right.