Following an interview in Joe Paterno's office last week, a television reporter cautiously asked the famously straitlaced 78-year-old coach if he would record a promo for last Saturday's Penn State-- Ohio State broadcast. Paterno's eyes lit up. Without hesitation, he turned to the camera and boomed, "Hey, all you guys out there watching, I just want you to know: Hey baby, we are Penn State."
Whoa, what's next--a pair of leather pants to replace his trademark khaki highwaters? JoePa has been full of surprises in this, his 40th season in Happy Valley. After a 17-10 upset of the sixth-ranked Buckeyes, the Nittany Lions are 6-0 for the first time since 1999; ranked eighth in the nation, they head to Michigan this Saturday with visions of a national title. The coach, whose teams had losing records in four of the previous five seasons (after just one sub-.500 mark in Paterno's first 34 years), has proved a point to critics, including some at this magazine, who said he was hurting the program by refusing to retire. Asked whether the Ohio State victory was an indication that Penn State is back, Paterno replied, "I don't know that we ever left."
That was classic Paterno--candid, confident, oblivious to the very notion of going out of style. Yet beneath that familiar blue windbreaker, the coach has had a change of heart. He might never admit it, but Paterno has finally done what his critics wish he had done long ago: remade Penn State into a 21st-century program.
For decades the Nittany Lions dominated their competition by running the ball down opponents' throats with bruising backs like Franco Harris and D.J. Dozier. But in this age of scholarship limits and conference parity, it's impossible to outmuscle everyone, and Paterno now admits he was slow to recognize the need for speedy skill players to counter modern Big Ten defenses. The 2004 Nittany Lions had a dominating defense that kept them in games--but lacked a single game-breaking offensive weapon. No wonder they started 2-7 before winning their last two games against Indiana and Michigan State.
People doubted a man so far beyond the standard retirement age could recruit coveted players. But behind the scenes Paterno was turning on the charm, taking the unusual--for him--steps of sending handwritten notes and impassioned voice mail messages. (He even sang Happy Birthday to wideout Derrick Williams's answering machine last year.) He let Williams and Justin King work with the first team in spring practice after they graduated from high school early, something other programs have been doing for years but Paterno had frowned upon because he disliked rushing along young talent. And in a drastic change, the once freshman-phobic coach plugged them into the lineup immediately; he even dropped his prohibition on freshmen speaking to the media early in the season. "He still battles with [relying on freshmen]," said Terry Smith, King's stepfather and one of Paterno's former players. "He wants to take the pressure off young guys, but they're too good to hold back."
Williams and King are two key reasons why Penn State's offense, which averaged only 12.8 points in conference play last year (lowest in the Big Ten since 1997), is scoring 31.7 this season. But the offensive changes run deeper. Last spring Paterno sent his staff to Texas to study how the Longhorns used mobile quarterback Vince Young. Last year Paterno stubbornly stuck with the struggling Zack Mills, a more traditional drop-back passer, under center and used the fleet-footed Michael Robinson mostly at wide receiver. But now he's letting offensive coordinator Galen Hall get creative with Robinson, a fifth-year senior, at QB, using the shotgun and sometimes spreading the field with four wideouts or lining up one of the freshman receivers in the backfield.
Even his teaching methods have changed. This summer quarterbacks and receivers received copies of the playbook on a PlayStation2 memory card they could plug into Madden 2006. Does Paterno even know what PlayStation is? "He's aware of it," says his son Jay, the quarterbacks coach. "Only he refers to them as 'television games.' As in, 'Don't stay up all night playing television games.'" The coach's well-known crankiness is now dispensed in moderation. "When he thinks we're too uptight, he'll call us together and tell a joke," said Robinson. "He definitely never did anything like that before." Adds Jay, "He's even breaking into an occasional smile on the sideline."
Once, observers felt JoePa just wanted to get the team respectable again so he could finally retire. But the coach may be having too much fun to quit. Jay recently overheard his dad telling a recruit, "With all these great young guys here, I'm not going anywhere for a while."
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