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September 10, 2008
Paterno's contract status creates uncertainty
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Penn State had just completed its second consecutive blowout victory to open the season, yet much of the attention afterward focused on events that had taken place off the field.
Worth noting: Joe Paterno has been coach at Penn State since 1966. Since he was hired, there have been 817 head-coaching changes in Division I.
Paterno had announced that he was suspending defensive end Maurice Evans, defensive tackle Abe Koroma and tight end Andrew Quarless after police reported finding marijuana in their apartment. Quarless ended up dressing for the game, though he didn't play. Paterno was asked if the preseason scrutiny of Penn State's recent off-field problems played any role in his decision.
"I can't react to anything but what I think is the best thing for the team and the kid," Paterno said. "I can't react to what's in the papers. I can't react to what's on the Web sites. I can't react to anything. I just can't. When you start doing that, you lose sight of what you should (be focusing on).
"I don't know whether I reacted faster for this one or slower for this one than I did two years ago or four years ago. I just reacted the way I thought I should."
That scene underscored a major theme developing in Happy Valley. Penn State's explosive offense could make for an interesting season, but the real intrigue should come after the season.
Paterno's contract runs out at the end of the year, and negotiations for a new deal have been tabled until after the season. Penn State president Graham Spanier has criticized the recent flurry of player arrests, an uncharacteristic problem for a program that has been beyond reproach for most of Paterno's 43-year tenure.
All those facts create uncertainty about whether one of the game's most legendary figures will remain at Penn State after this season. Paterno, 81, enters this week's game at Syracuse with a 374-125-3 career record, tying him with Florida State's Bobby Bowden as the winningest coach in major-college football history.
"He pretty much built this place," said Blair Thomas, an All-America tailback in 1989 who remains the third-leading rusher in Penn State history. "He should be able to go out on his own terms."
Paterno's contract situation is all the more intriguing because Penn State doesn't have a succession plan in place.
Florida State already has announced that offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher will take over the program as soon as Bowden steps down. Kentucky has selected offensive coordinator Joker Phillips as Rich Brooks' eventual successor, while Purdue offensive line coach Danny Hope takes over for Joe Tiller next year.
Penn State hasn't followed suit, though Paterno has said he would like to see one of his assistants replace him.
Paterno's staff includes his son, quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno. Offensive coordinator Galen Hall and linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden have head-coaching experience. But the staff member most often mentioned as Paterno's potential replacement is defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, his longest-tenured assistant.
Bradley played defensive back at Penn State and has coached at his alma mater since 1979. His defenses have ranked among the top 15 teams in the nation in points and yards allowed each of the past four seasons.
Penn State also could go against Paterno's request and hire someone unaffiliated with the school. Rutgers coach Greg Schiano knows the area well as a former Penn State graduate assistant, though he already has turned down overtures from Miami and Michigan.
And we may be getting ahead of ourselves in discussing potential successors. Paterno still hasn't indicated when he might step down, though he wants to leave the program in good shape for his eventual successor. Paterno went 35-7-1 his first four years at Penn State – including back-to-back undefeated seasons in 1968 and '69 – and said he benefited from the groundwork laid by his predecessor.
"I'd like to retire when I feel as if I cannot make a contribution to Penn State," Paterno said before the season. "I'm very obligated to the university. I've been at it for 58 years (as a head coach and assistant). Five kids graduated from there. My wife graduated from there. … And I want to get out of it when I think it's appropriate. And I want to make sure that when I do it, I do it the way Rip Engle did it. When Rip Engle retired and gave me a shot, he left an awful lot of meat on the bones. I inherited a really good football team."
On the field, Paterno has Penn State's program back on the right track. Paterno felt some heat for the first time in his career after suffering four losing seasons in a five-year span from 2000-04, but the Nittany Lions' 33-9 record in their last 42 games is tied for the seventh-best mark in the nation during that span.
That recent record explains why some of Paterno's former players can't understand his uncertain future.
"Obviously with what he's done for the university, he deserves to be able to go out on his own terms no matter what," said O.J. McDuffie, an All-America wide receiver in 1992 who ranks second in school history with 1,988 career receiving yards. "They've already tried to get rid of Joe a few times. I know for a fact they have tried to get rid of Joe a few times, and it's ridiculous to try to get rid of a man who's done so much for the university off the field and what he's done on the field.
"Three years ago when (former quarterback) Mike Robinson was here, we're one game away from playing for the national championship. And you're trying to get rid of the man? It doesn't make any sense. He's still bringing in some good recruits. It's sad. It really is sad. It's personal to me."
Paterno is held in such high regard for his victories on the field and contributions off the field that a 7-foot, 900-pound statue of him already is in place outside Beaver Stadium alongside a plaque with the words "Joseph Vincent Paterno: Educator, Coach, Humanitarian" and the following Paterno quote:
"They ask me what I'd like written about me when I'm gone. I hope they write I made Penn State a better place, not just that I was a good football coach."
Nobody can doubt he's accomplished that during his extraordinary career. The Paternos have donated more than $4 million to Penn State during his coaching tenure. He has helped build the Paterno Library and the Pasquerilla Spiritual Center on campus. Of the teams that finished the 2007 season ranked in the coaches' poll, only Boston College and Texas Tech had higher Graduation Success Rates than Penn State.
Yet Penn State's football program also has made plenty of the wrong kind of headlines the past few years. An ESPN "Outside The Lines" report this summer revealed that 46 Penn State football players have faced 163 criminal charges since 2002.
"It's embarrassing to the university and not consistent with the history of exemplary behavior that we're much more accustomed to with our athletes," Spanier said in the report.
It's worth nothing that Spanier also offered support when Paterno issued suspensions last week. Paterno's current players insist he remains the same guy who won universal praise most of his career for building a program that did things the right way.
"As everybody knows, he is a disciplinarian," Penn State wide receiver Jordan Norwood said. "Guys on the team are scared to slip up and things like that. It's been unfortunate, really, that guys have slipped up. Hopefully, that will be the end of it."
Paterno continues to command such respect from former players that he now has coached 24 father-son combinations. Eight members of Penn State's current roster have fathers who played for Paterno.
That fraternity includes guard Stefen Wisniewski. His father, Leo Wisniewski, played defensive line at Penn State from 1979-81 and served as a team captain his final season. His uncle, Steve Wisniewski, was a two-time All-America guard at Penn State from 1985-88 before beginning a standout NFL career with the Oakland and Los Angeles Raiders.
Stefen Wisniewski said Paterno has prevented his contract uncertainty from hindering the team's focus this season. Penn State has beaten its first two opponents by an average margin of 43.5 points.
"I definitely didn't look at it as a distraction," Wisniewski said. "I think he played it well, just (that) he's going to be here this year, and this year right now is the only year that matters. That's really all we needed to worry about."
Wisniewski knows from experience that it makes little sense to worry about a coach's future status. Knowing the risk involved in agreeing to play for the oldest coach in major college football, Wisniewski still selected Penn State over Michigan, North Carolina and Boston College.
"The other three schools have new coaches already," Wisniewski pointed out. "That would have probably been not what people would think, with Penn State having the 80-year-old coach."
Wisniewski's story underscores that just about every college football coaching position has at least some instability. Coaches on the hot seat could get fired. Coaches on the rise might leave for a bigger program or for NFL glory.
When that uncertainty happens to involve one of the most recognizable names in college football, it's just bound to get more attention.
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.