Nittany Lions impressive on field, but questions remain
On a beautiful spring day in State College last Saturday, a Penn State-record 73,000 fans turned out for the annual Blue-White game, and by all indications, they enjoyed themselves immensely.
They got to see athletic quarterback Daryll Clark, the likely successor to departed starter Anthony Morelli, make several impressive plays with both his feet and his arm. They got to see redshirt freshman running back Stephfon Green show off his blazing speed on a 57-yard run. They got to see a neat little trick play where receiver Derrick Williams threw a 35-yard pass to Deon Butler.
Most of all, for two-plus hours Saturday, they got to focus on football -- a welcome change at a place where most discussion recently has centered around two, less savory topics: Their team's disturbing rash of off-the-field problems and a potentially ugly end to Hall of Fame coach Joe Paterno's distinguished tenure.
The 81-year-old Paterno, entering his 43rd season as head coach, is down to the final year of his current contract. In general, it is almost unheard of for a sitting coach to work with such little tangible security, but then again most coaches aren't 81 and second in the sport in all-time wins.
Earlier this month, university president Graham Spanier announced that he and the Nittany Lions' patriarch had agreed "there will not be a new contract," adding neither deemed it necessary, and that any further discussions about the coach's future would take place after the 2008 season. Many are reading this as a sign that the end is near for JoePa.
Mind you, people have been saying the same thing about Paterno nearly every year for about three decades, and every year, he's still there. What makes this situation seem different is the recent swirl of rumors that both Spanier and certain members of the school's board would like to see Paterno at least unveil a succession plan for whenever he does eventually retire, much like Florida State did recently in naming Jimbo Fisher the "head coach in waiting" whenever the similarly iconic Bobby Bowden decides to step down.
Paterno apparently does not share the same sense of urgency ("I don't even care if I get a contract," he said at a press conference earlier this spring), and it's no secret that the notoriously stubborn Brooklyn native intends to stay on as coach for as long as he damn well pleases. School officials tried to convince him to retire once before, in 2004 (when the Nittany Lions had just endured disastrous 3-9 and 4-7 seasons), to no avail, and the next year his team went 11-1.
Then there's the little matter of Penn State recently turning into college football's newest version of "Thug U." Sound harsh? Take a look at the evidence.
While there are no official NCAA statistics in this category, according to the Centre Daily Times, more than 60 Nittany Lions players have broken the law since 2002. That bears repeating. Sixty. A little more than a year ago, six players were charged with felonies following an incident in which safety Anthony Scirrotto essentially rounded up a posse to confront several men at an apartment party, where all hell broke loose (Scirrotto later pled guilty to defiant trespass). More recently, a since-dismissed player, Chris Bell, allegedly pulled a knife on a teammate.
You could argue that these sorts of incidents take place at nearly every major program in the country these days, and you would be right, but it's hard to imagine any school has topped Penn State recently in terms of the sheer number of transgressions.
Amidst this backdrop, Saturday's spring game was particularly interesting.
Penn State has been fairly ordinary the past two seasons, going a combined 9-7 in the Big Ten. Were the Nittany Lions to turn in a mediocre performance in 2008, it's no stretch to foresee Spanier putting his foot down this time. While many Penn Staters would be furious over any scenario in which the beloved Paterno doesn't get to go out on his own terms, they're also hungry for a return to national prominence.