STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - The way Joe Paterno sees it, his team could be playing for a bowl spot if not for a couple of plays.
Perhaps, but what he and the Nittany Lions are going through this season is far worse than just a run of bad luck.
One of college football’s greatest coaches ever is struggling through the toughest stretch of his career, and his future in Happy Valley is being debated as never before.
Many Penn State fans believe it’s time for the 76-year-old Paterno to retire, and they’re not showing up for games like they used to. The coach hears the cries, but he isn’t about to give in.
He points to a missed block against Minnesota, a blown call against Ohio State, and a pass deflected into the arms of a Northwestern receiver as bad breaks that doomed Penn State (2-8, 0-6 Big Ten) this season.
“When you have been in it as long as I have been in it and you have had some good luck and you have some bad luck, you can’t sit around and moan about it. That’s the way it goes,” Paterno said. “We have just had a little bad luck, but it will turn one of these days.”
The optimism is understandable for a man nearing the end of his 38th year as Penn State’s head coach, his 54th since becoming an assistant with the team.
Paterno’s 338 victories place him second among the winningest coaches in major-college football. He won national championships in 1982 and ’86, and finished unbeaten and untied five times. His teams have won 20 of 31 bowl games, and Paterno is the only coach who has won at the Orange, Cotton, Sugar, Fiesta and Rose bowls.
He was beloved by fans, not just for his coaching legacy. Paterno and his wife, Sue, have given about $4 million to the university and raised probably 10 times that from others. And Paterno’s “Grand Experiment” has largely been a success — more than 80 percent of Penn State football players graduate.
But that unmatched legacy stands in stark contrast to Penn State’s more recent past, which has been marred by trouble on and off the field. Seven current or former players have been arrested or cited since March, and many accused Paterno of lowering his standards when he allowed Anwar Phillips to play in last year’s Capital One Bowl after an alleged sexual assault on campus. Phillips was expelled from the university for two semesters, but was acquitted in court.
The 2000 and 2001 seasons were the first back-to-back losing seasons since 1931 and ’32, and Penn State’s current six-game losing streak is the longest since the Nittany Lions lost seven straight in ’31. That was also the last time a Penn State team lost eight games in a season — they’ve never lost nine, a record that may yet fall this year. The Nittany Lions play Indiana on Saturday, then close the season at No. 21 Michigan State.
Paterno acknowledged two weeks ago that this has been his most difficult season, his 11th since joining the Big Ten.
“I don’t think there is any question about that,” Paterno said. “It is tough, but what are you going to do about it? I can go home and cry or I can come out fighting.”
Since then, things have only gotten worse.
The Nittany Lions seemed poised to upset then-No. 8 Ohio State until a late drive gave the Buckeyes a 21-20 win. Last week at Northwestern, Penn State led the entire game before giving up 17 unanswered points in the fourth quarter in a 17-7 loss.
Paterno said he “broke down” in front of his assistants after the Ohio State game, believing he had failed the players and coaches who’d worked so hard for the win.
But by practice time, he was back to his old self.
“He’s pretty much been himself this entire year — nothing different since I’ve been here,” said quarterback Zack Mills, a junior. “He’s the same fiery guy who’s going to get on us in practice ... trying to do everything he can to get a win for us.”
Paterno’s unwavering consistency, though, might be part of the problem. Three years ago, after a humbling loss to Toledo, tailback Larry Johnson criticized Penn State’s offense as being too predictable, saying the plays hadn’t changed in 30 years.
That same criticism is being repeated by Penn State fans, a surprising number of whom are saying Paterno should retire when his contract expires next year.
“I do know this much — when people get older they’re not very adaptable,” said 60-year-old Paul Morrison of suburban Pittsburgh. “I do it myself, and I’m old enough to say that.”
Morrison, a Nittany Lion Club member and longtime season-ticket holder, won’t make the trip for the Indiana game. Nor will many others. Thousands of seats sit empty in the newly expanded Beaver Stadium, the second largest in college football.
Paterno has heard complaints before, after his first losing season in 1988, after the failed seasons of 2000 and 2001. Even last year, when the Nittany Lions finished 9-4, there were those who said it was time for Paterno to go.
“There is always going to be some of that. There is none of which I really have paid any attention to,” Paterno said last week, even joking that he would leave only if the White House asked him to go to Iraq.
Jerry Sandusky, Paterno’s former defensive coordinator, dismisses talk that Paterno has lost his edge.
“I don’t see any signs that Joe has changed, or needs to change, or anything. I think that things go in cycles, and they’re going through one of those cycles right now,” Sandusky said.
Since the Ohio State game, several former Penn State players have visited or called Paterno to offer support. New York Giants quarterback Kerry Collins wrote to the coach.
“I think it is going to get turned around, and I think Joe is going to do it,” Collins said. “The Big Ten is very competitive. ... I think there are some dynamics in there that made a difference, but I don’t think it’s going to keep them down long.”
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
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