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The Lion in Winter
Franz Lidz
October 13, 2003
Penn State is losing (again) and there's groaning in Happy Valley. Will Joe Paterno go on forever?
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October 13, 2003

The Lion In Winter

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

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Earlier this year a headline caught our attention at the website 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 Ms 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 is right, he's got until he's 157 to turn this thing around.