Thursday, December 29, 2005

Joe Paterno
"The only thing I wanted to do is try to get us back
to where we were a good football team," Paterno said.

Following Penn State University's 4-7 finish to the 2004 season, the murmurs turned to grumbling, and the grumbling turned to buzzing, and then it was right out there in the open, in the sports headlines of east-Pennsylvanian newspapers: retire, won't you, Joe? After watching the mercurial coach, then 76, chase an official down the sidelines in 2002 following a loss at home to Iowa, there is no ignorance of the fact that Paterno quits on his own terms. As such, he issued a statement in Pittsburgh in May of 2005 that if the Nittany Lions don't turn things around in 2005, he'd consider retiring from the position that made the 5'10" erudite coach Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year in 1986 and AP's Coach of the Year in 2005.

It wasn't just the media and fans pressuring retirement from the coach that brought Penn State 30 bowl games and 2 national titles in 34 years. University president Graham Spanier and athletic director Tim Curley informed Paterno that they asked him to step down from his position as soon as possible. The consensus was that Paterno was running the the football program into the ground with the game having passed him by. "The direction they wanted to take was, 'Maybe it's time to go, Joe. You ought to think about getting out of it.' I had not intended to discuss that with them, because I felt I would know when to get out of it," Paterno expressed.

Joe Jurevicius
Joe Jurevicius was cut before the
Citrus Bowl for cutting classes.

JoePa did turn his team around, to say the least. The Penn State Nittany Lions are 10-1 -- an improvement of six games since last year -- and are due to play in the FedEx Orange Bowl against the Florida State Seminoles on January 3, 2006. Commenting on his remarkable turnaround of his football team, Paterno said, "The only thing I wanted to do is try to get us back to where we were a good football team and we could be very competitive and make some plays we hadn't made. We got that done and I feel good about that." Led on defense by Butkus Award-winner Paul Posluszny, and on offense by agile receivers Justin King and Derrick Williams, the Nittany Lions were one of the few many-faceted teams in college football.

Players, under Paterno's watch, were expected to perform well as a person first, and a football player second. Such was the case with current Seattle Seahawk Joe Jurevicius when he was reprimanded by JoePa for cutting classes. "Jurevicius cut classes and I told him after this summer that every time he cut class, the first time he was going to get suspended for one game, the next time it will be two games and the next time he will be out for the season." Not surprisingly, Penn State football players graduate at one of the highest rates in Division I-A.

Ron Dickerson, an assistant of the Nittany Lions from 1985-1990, reminisced, "First week I was there, I sat to his right in staff meetings -- I kept pinching myself that I had a chance to work for him -- and one day, he addressed the football operations director. He said, 'Listen, I've got the names of two former players, and I want you to find out where they're at. I don't know what happened to them.' He wanted to know why they never finished school. He said, 'Find them, and tell them I'll pay them to come back and finish their degrees.'"

Paterno certainly knows how to deal with the peaks and valleys that come with coaching a football team and dealing with people. Remarkably, he has handled them all with class, dignity, and modesty. He should go down as one of the greatest coaches ever to set foot in a college football stadium, as he is only six wins behind Bobby Bowden for the most wins by a head coach at a Division I-A school. Ironically, they will be opponents in the Orange Bowl on the third day of the new year. Expect the #3-ranked Nittany Lions to culminate Paterno's exceptional accomplishment by beating the #22-ranked Seminoles. Regardless of the outcome, Paterno will never be asked to retire on someone else's terms -- his 2005 Penn State Nittany Lions may be his greatest accomplishment in his storied career.