Paterno losing luster

Posted: Friday, November 12, 2004

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. The coaching legacy and goodwill that Joe Paterno proudly built for five decades at Penn State are slowly unraveling with each humbling loss.

The days of scanning the schedule for gimme victories are over just ask Big Ten foes Purdue and Northwestern, which this season got their first wins in Happy Valley.

Paterno hardly needs his thick, smoky glasses to see he's losing more than games: Thousands of seats at Beaver Stadium have been empty at recent home games, and Paterno is no longer impervious to the criticisms routinely reserved for coaches with lesser pedigrees or without reputations as community patricians.

The message is clear and getting louder from the grumbling dissenters: Joe must go.

Paterno, whose 341-116-3 record puts him second in career victories in Division I-A behind only Florida State's Bobby Bowden, is listening. Just don't expect him to decide his future based on the whims of fickle fans.

''If you think that I am going to back out of it because I am intimidated, you are wrong. If you think I am going to stay when I think I am not doing a good job, you're wrong,'' he said. ''Those things have to develop, they have to evolve. Right now, I think we can get this thing done and do a good job.''

The numbers give little reason for hope.

The Nittany Lions (2-7, 0-6) are the only Big 10 team without a conference victory entering Saturday's game at Indiana. They have lost six consecutive games, including a school-record tying three straight at home.

Penn State has four losing seasons in the last five years and the senior class will leave having played in only one bowl game. When asked about his future, the 77-year-old Paterno often turns cantankerous, using his 55 years on the staff as a sense of entitlement to dismiss his critics.

His determination (or stubbornness?), his unyielding belief (or hope?), and his four-year contract that will keep him on the school's payroll past his 80th birthday give little reason to expect anyone but the coach affectionately known as JoePa will be on the sideline next year.

''I am looking to get this program back to where it belongs and if I can't get it done in a certain amount of time, I have to sit back and say, 'Hey, turn it over to some other guy and can I help?' That is the way it will be,'' he said.

And that time is?

''I haven't got the slightest idea,'' he said. ''I don't see any reason to say, 'I'm going to get out of here this year, next year or what year.' I don't mean that to be cocky, stubborn or anything like that. I am just trying to do what is right.''

What to do with the fading legend seems to be tearing at the conscience of the Penn State community. Has Paterno, who's donated millions to the school in addition to his football success, earned the right to decide his own fate? Or should university officials give him a nudge out the door?

''I think he'll never step down,'' said former Penn State defensive end Michael Haynes, now with the Chicago Bears. ''Right now we're having some issues, but it's still all fixable.''

A bronze statue of Paterno greets visitors to Beaver Stadium. There he is, looking spry, pointing toward the sky with his jacket flown open and tie whipped around as if hit with the wind of another brisk football Saturday.

Engraved near a wall of plaques to the left of the statue is a Paterno quote: ''They asked me what I'd like written about me when I'm gone. I hope they write I've made Penn State a better place, not just that I was a good football coach.''

Those stories will certainly be written one day. But JoePa most certainly can't like what's being written now.

One alumnus paid $350 to take out a half-page ad in the student newspaper's gameday edition which read: ''The talent's there. The coaching is an abomination. TIME FOR JOE TO GO.''

''All I was trying to do was focus some of the dissent I'm hearing all over the place in a way people can see it and read it readily,'' said Joseph Korsak, who said he's been to every home game since 1967 except for a three-year stint in Ohio. ''A few have said it was too harsh, but the vast majority think it's time for a change. A lot of people have been more forgiving and say he should go out on his own terms. Whatever goodwill he's generated ran out at the end of the '02 season.''

The stadium holds over 100,000 people a small city, really and they want results or a new leader.

Penn State athletic director Tim Curley, who gave Paterno the extension before the season, did not return repeated phone calls for comment. However, students are beginning to speak out.

''I think we need a new coach, but I don't think we can fire him,'' senior David Benson said. ''He's done so much for the university. But we need a change.''

A recent column in the student newspaper even suggested gasp! that Paterno is being selfish by staying.

''This season is simply about him proving to himself that he can do what he could 20 years ago. There doesn't seem to be a great concern for others,'' wrote junior Wade Malcolm.

Paterno said he receives support from fans and former players who call and write him letters.

And so far, he's has shown he can still recruit: His latest class was rated among the nation's top 20 by most analysts.

Still, the losing has affected his confidence.

''Yeah, I get shaky once in a while,'' Paterno said. ''I would be less than honest if I told you I didn't. That doesn't mean that I lose faith.''

Junior guard Charles Rush said Paterno tries to maintain a family atmosphere to keep the team close.

''I wouldn't have expected to go through three losing seasons like I have,'' Rush said. ''For the football aspect, it's been kind of bad.''

Paterno publicly protects his players and assistant coaches from criticism, focusing on how everything would have been different but for a play here, a play there.

His supporters worry an unwanted footnote he stuck around too long is being added to the JoePa's legacy.

''If he can't be remembered for his greatness, not only is it sad, it's disastrous,'' former Penn State broadcaster Fran Fisher said. ''It's disturbing to me to see some of the people I've talked to not be more understanding.''

Paterno says he's still coaching because he doesn't want to leave the team when it's down.

''I have never gotten into this thing for the glory or anything like that. I never have,'' he said. ''I don't need to take another trip around the track.''



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