Dear JoePa, Please Retire for Good of Penn State
A 97-year-old Bear would tell Paterno to do himself a favor. Retire after this season. Don't put yourself and your school through the ugliness that neither deserves.
In short, learn from history.
It says that the greatest coaches know how to do everything except quit. It happened with Bobby Bowden, it happened with Eddie Robinson and you can see the freight train barreling toward State College.
Illinois humiliated Penn State 33-13 last Saturday. There's a Joe's-Too-Old reaction after every bad bump. But when Ron Zook ruins your Homecoming, it's time for some serious reflection.
The 3-3 Nittany Lions are lifeless and there's no pulse in sight. Yes, Paterno has been here before. Things were so bad in 2004 that the school president asked him to step aside.
JoePa told the president what he could do with his resignation letter. He then went out and averaged 10 wins over the next five seasons. Good for him, but that has only made things stickier now.
Paterno is convinced he can do it again, and he has the power to stare down anyone who says differently. But he can't do it again, no matter how badly we'd like him to.
The guy was born in 1926, for chrissakes. You know who else happened that year? NBC formed its first radio network. Annie Oakley died. Fidel Castro was born.
The difference is Castro realizes even he can't be dictator for life. Paterno is looking almost as frail as El Presidente. His assistants have long done the heavy lifting, but the Delegator-in-Chief system is starting to crack.
Penn State has only four recruiting commitments. Paterno doesn't even go on the road recruiting any more. And what's he going to tell a visiting prospect?
"Forget what Ohio State told you about me not being here. Even if we redshirt you, I'll only be 89 when you graduate."
Penn State finds itself in the prickly position FSU and Grambling were in.
"I don't think I can go on forever," Robinson said before the 1996 season. "But I think I have the right to decide when I want to go out."
National sentiment and a lot of fans agree. But with every loss it becomes more apparent that things aren't going to get better. The fan base splits. The program founders. Nobody wins except the opposition.
Grambling officials were crucified for wanting Robinson to retire. It was easy to sit in New York and say how disgraceful the whole thing was. Those people didn't have to sit through back-to-back 3-8 seasons.
At FSU the past couple of seasons, a lot of fans just stopped showing up. Somebody had to play the heavy, and president T.K. Wetherell caught Grambling-type grief for sticking Bowden on the ice floe.
After this past weekend, even the staunchest Bowden believers are seeing the light. Beating Miami 45-17 will do that. Glory days are not here again, but at least Jimbo Fisher has FSU excited about the future.
Penn State doesn't have a coach in waiting. It does have has the legacy, the facilities and the support to be a consistent national power. It won't find another JoePa, but chances are it could land a promising replacement.
The last thing he'd need is to walk into the scene of a bitter divorce. The best thing would be for Paterno to win at least three more games to get to 400 career wins. Then call a press conference and say 45 seasons is enough.
You don't win hundreds of games like Robinson, Bowden and Paterno without a load of self-confidence, however. Unless his health completely deserts him, JoePa will be his usual irascible self. His comments after Bowden was bounced make his position on early retirement clear.
"He didn't want to get out of it (coaching), and I don't think he should have. I don't think Florida State did what was right."
Most FSU fans would disagree. As much as they love Bowden, they now see the last few years were basically sacrificed so he could go out on his own terms. What the Great Ones fail to see is how those terms not only damage their legacies, they damage their programs.
"There comes a time when it still has to be about the university," Doug Williams said during the Grambling mess.
As one of Robinson's greatest players, he probably hated to say it. But the coach who had more victories than anyone had put everyone in a no-win position.
That's why the Greatest of the Greats is Bryant. After one 7-4 season, Bear felt he was losing it and wasn't sure he could get it back. He wasn't about to put Alabama through a retirement soap opera.
"Four losses is too many around here," he said. "And I'm surrounded by young alligators."
So he quit after the 1982 Liberty Bowl. Four weeks later, he died of a heart attack. Bowden often referred to that when asked why he wanted to keep coaching. Maybe that's another reason Paterno keeps hanging on.
He didn't want to talk about Bryant when Penn State played Alabama last month. But in his 1989 biography, "Paterno: By the Book," he wrote about the Crimson Tide's 14-7 win over Penn State in the 1979 Sugar Bowl.
"It haunted my ego," he wrote. "When I stood toe to toe with Bear Bryant, he outcoached me."
The old Bear could teach people a lesson or two. Too bad Paterno didn't learn when it's time to get out.