Way to go, Joe! Paterno has earned this present
By giving up control to assistants, legend will coach as long as he wants
At least we finally know when Joe Paterno will retire. It will be the day he forgot where he left the football stadium. Either that or the day they stop driving him to practice in a golf cart and start driving him in a coffin.
On Dec. 21, the Man Who Wouldn’t Retire turns 82. But he’s already received his birthday present — a three-year contract extension that will run until he’s 85
Hooray for JoePa. He’s found a way to win and a way to remain employed at an age when few others are. And now it’s clear he intends to keep right on coaching — or at least being called a coach — until he dies on the sidelines.
It’s his choice. I say let him go for it — as long as his team keeps winning.
Four years ago, Paterno was putting together a 4-7 season on the heels of a 3-9 2003 season and losing records in 2000 and 2001. I was among the blasphemers who said that it was time for the then 78-year-old legend to retire. And if he wouldn’t go quietly, I wrote, Penn State had to fire him.
I wasn’t wrong then. The game had passed Paterno by, and he wasn’t going to start learning new tricks at his age. It was clear he could no longer do the job for which he was hired — to win football games. He still wouldn’t play freshmen. His offensive and defensive systems no longer worked. He was starting to populate a proud program with aspiring felons. He had to go.
But he’s gone 11-1, 9-4, 9-4 and 11-1 since then. His Nittany Lions are the Big Ten champs and are headed to the Rose Bowl to play USC. If he wants to stay forever, I won’t object. He’s winning football games, and that’s his job.
It’s the only job he’s ever had. He doesn’t golf and he doesn’t fish and has no desire to retire, a move he seems convinced would kill him. He wants to keep on working.
I have to accept that and even applaud it, even though it seems likely that his dream ending is to die with his boots on — stumping the sidelines and popping a crusty old artery while lecturing a ref on the fine points of the game.
There aren’t many other ways it can end, not as long as the team keeps winning and he keeps showing up in his office. He could fall and break another hip — he had one replaced a few weeks ago and is recovering in record time — and not be able to get out of bed. He could decline mentally and forget where the stadium is. But that’s about it.
Much as I’d hate to see anyone keel over on the sidelines during a game, I’d also hate to see a man who’s figured out how to keep getting paid a big salary at his age forced to retire.
Paterno hasn’t gotten smarter in the last four years. In fact, he’s no doubt less capable of running a team today than he was then. But he made one critical decision after that 2004 season that will allow him to keep calling himself the head coach of Penn State football as long as he still draws breath: he took off the headset and handed the team over to as capable a staff of assistants as there is in the game.
Tom Bradley, his top assistant, is the de facto coach. Among his assistants are three former head coaches of major colleges — Dick Anderson, Galen Hall and Ron Vanderlinden. They all seem to be happy with doing the heavy lifting while the old guy with the wavy black hair and thick glasses gets the credit. That’s how much they love JoePa.
Paterno still yells at players and is involved in the team. But he doesn’t get to every practice, and this year his ailing hip forced him to watch games from the press box. But whether on the sidelines or in the box, he doesn’t call the shots anymore.
That’s why the team is so good — his assistants are running the show. He’s the figurehead of the show, but he’s still vitally important to the program. After 45 years and all-time records for wins and bowl victories, he literally can do anything he wants. He’s earned that right.
In his case, nobody should care how the team wins or who’s running it or what his real role is. It’s enough that it does win and he’s seen by players and the coaching staff as the man who holds it all together.
Now we know he’s going to keep right on doing whatever it is he does for another three years. And if he’s still getting around and the team is still winning, there’ll be another three after that and who knows how many more after that? Someday it will end as it does for us all. But it won’t be because he voluntarily left the game. It will be because they carried him out on his shield.
Mike Celizic writes regularly for NBCSports.com and is a freelance writer based in New York.
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