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Paterno beyond reproof?

| Tuesday, May 25, 2004

STATE COLLEGE - It feels kind of spooky around here.

Not sure whether it's the bronze, life-size statue of Joe Paterno outside of Beaver Stadium, the Joe Paterno Library outside of my hotel window or the glossy Joe Paterno cardboard cutout outside of an apparel shop on Atherton St., but the breezes that blow through this quaint little town are spiked with a vague sense of suffocation.

More accurately, with whatever word means the opposite of democracy.

The whole free-exchange-of-ideas thing doesn't seem applicable here. You wonder if it's safe to think critically of Paterno, never mind raise a hard question about his work performance, even after his team gets pushed around by Temple, goes 3-9 or puts a few more entries into the local police blotter.

He has, after all, raised something like $100 million for the university.

Shall I continue, or will some blue-and-white clad officer wearing dark glasses break into my room and smash this computer to pieces?

In the wake of Paterno's four-year contract extension, one that would take him past his 80th birthday, we keep hearing he has earned the right to retire when he pleases.

That's an intriguing, if somewhat disturbing, notion.

Beano Cook will tell you that Paterno has done for Penn State what Knute Rockne did for Notre Dame. No argument here.

Nor is there any doubt that Paterno remains an energetic, honorable man who has won more games than all but one coach in Division I history, who has won without cheating and who has earned the praise of world leaders including the elder George Bush, a fellow who knows something about the relationship between money and power.

But does all that mean Paterno never has to face another job performance evaluation?

He is, after all, a football coach -- one whose performance of late has suffered.

It's not just the losses, although Paterno is 16-17 since he passed Bear Bryant on the wins list in 2001 (and don't think regaining the lead from Bobby Bowden isn't a primary concern).

This is a coach who has allowed as many as five people input on a given play -- as it's called! -- and who has overseen a system whereby one coach calls pass plays and another running plays.

Who calls the halfback option?

This is a coach who claimed his school was the target of an officiating conspiracy two years ago and who tore across a field to berate a referee.

This is a coach whose assistants might as well have their mug shots carved into Mount Rushmore and who has stayed too loyal to his seniors.

This is a coach whose son presides over a quarterbacking situation that has become comical. Paterno named his starting quarterback the morning of some games last year, once after breaking the news a night earlier to listeners of his radio show.

Finally, this is a coach whose players have become increasingly unruly. That hardly makes Paterno unique, but a distinct lack of respect was evident last season when a player was cited for public drunkenness only hours after Paterno, on a charter flight, warned his team to stay out of trouble.

Did you see what ex-PSU player and New York Jets guard Dave Szott told the Harrisburg Patriot-News?

"(Paterno) has brought Penn State to where it is, and he deserves great credit," Szott said. "But now, the program is on its way down. And how many seasons, how many free rides, how many years do you give a guy?"

Excellent question.

Penn State officials, apparently, will not pressure Paterno into assisting them in creating a succession plan. Nor will they enact one themselves.

Nobody's saying Paterno should be fired. I'm just trying to raise a few questions, and ... wait, somebody's pounding at my door.

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