The old man is running out of chances, and he knows it. There was a time when Joe Paterno didn't die a little death with every loss. "It's just one football game," he'd remind himself in the shower before heading home, where 40 or 50 people, Penn State donors and would-be donors, would assemble for Saturday night dinner. Once there was always a next week, always a next season. Now the legend is 75. He has coached football for 53 years. You have to figure he's somewhere in the fourth quarter of his coaching career.
It's not as if he's shambling through his final years on the sideline, as did the great Eddie Robinson of Grambling, the alltime leader in career wins. Paterno is still wildly robust, faster than some of his offensive linemen, with better hair than most TV weathermen. He's funny. You remind him that nobody lives forever, and he says, "You only say that because nobody's ever done it." But the deep truth is that he knows the time is coming when he'll coach his final game, and now the losses sting more than they used to. "As I get older, I'm more patient with the kids and less patient with other things," he says. He has less patience for stupid questions, ridiculous NCAA rules, bad officiating.
In Paterno's ledger his Nittany Lions are 4-0 in Big Ten play and not what your newspaper shows them to be, which is 2-2 in the conference after overwhelming Northwestern last Saturday, homecoming day, in State College, Pa. Poor officiating, Paterno believes, helped seal the two Big Ten losses.
Penn State, 5-2 overall, won its first three games this year, then lost its conference opener at home to Iowa on Sept. 28, 42-35, in overtime. It was after that game that Paterno, jogging off the field with his players and coaches, saw head referee Dick Honig out of the corner of his glasses, went sprinting after him, grabbed the back of Honig's shirt to get his attention and told him in one choice sentence what he thought of the officiating crew's work. We hadn't seen Joe Paterno do that before. It brought to mind Woody Hayes of Ohio State, back in the day.
The following Saturday the Nittany Lions eked out a Big Ten win at Wisconsin. Seven days later Penn State, on the road again, endured another overtime conference loss, this time to Michigan, 27-24. Paterno believes that game was decided by a blown call with 40 seconds left in the fourth quarter, when a long Nittany Lions pass play to the Wolverines' 23-yard line was ruled out-of-bounds. A slow-motion video replay showed that Penn State receiver Tony Johnson was in bounds by at least a foot. Whether Johnson had possession of the ball is another question. In any event the Lions didn't have a chance to break the 21-21 tie with a countdown field goal.
For years, for decades, Paterno would have gone into coachspeak—You get some calls, you don't get others. We had our chances. Nah, they don't need instant replay, 'cause cameras, they can be wrong too. This time JoePa didn't do that. In the days after the Michigan game he had Penn State athletic director Tim Curley write a letter to Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney, calling for a top-to-bottom review of conference officiating. Paterno also suspended his automatic dismissal of the idea of video replay for disputed calls. He questioned why three officials who live in Michigan were allowed to work the Michigan game. You would've thought you were listening to Oliver Stone, the director-conspiracy theorist. "The problem is, you've got a bunch of kids who are busting their butts to win a football game, working like dogs," Paterno said, "and I think you owe it to them to make sure the game is won by the players."
By last Friday, the day before his team faced Northwestern, Paterno was sounding contrite. "In 50 years I've never been in the situation I'm in now, in a controversy over whether a guy is a good official or a lousy official and who is appointing them," Paterno said. "Running down the field after the Iowa game, I don't regret that. All I wanted was to talk to the guy. Running my mouth about the officiating, I'm not sure I should have done that."
That's because, as Paterno and every student of the Paterno Way know, only losers complain about officiating. In 1966 Paul Levine was a sophomore sportswriter on the Penn State newspaper, The Daily Collegian, when Paterno was in his rookie year as the Lions' coach. Today Levine is a novelist and screenwriter in Los Angeles, with a life-sized cardboard cutout of Paterno gazing over his shoulder as he types. For 36 years Paterno has been Levine's ideal as a moral leader. "For Joe to complain publicly like that, he must have thought a real injustice had been done," Levine says.
It's unsettling, for Levine and countless others, to see Paterno do something out of character. "The whole point of the Penn State homecoming is that the world can be unraveling and you come back to State College and everything's the same," Levine says. "The Nittany Lion Inn is still serving its seafood buffet on Friday night; the trees and the buildings and the walkways are where they've always been; Joe Paterno is coaching the football team—and Joe Paterno does not change."
Penn State endured sub-.500 seasons in 2000 and '01, the only time Paterno has had consecutive losing teams, but there was not even the hint of a movement for Paterno to step down. There are three main reasons for that: