From the Stands: Pondering Paterno

Until about five years ago, Joe Paterno's retirement - right around the corner for what seemed like forever - was a black hole for Penn State football. Aside from that "Joe Must Go" subtext, the answer to "what next?" wasn't really an answer at all, just a queasy hunch that some lean years were lurking; Most didn't want to fathom life after Joe.

Lately, though, the "Joe Must Go" crowd has adopted an obnoxious "told you so" tone and is probably more popular than ever (witness, as one example, the recent sale on Ebay of the web URL, "Joemustgo.com").

Still, I'm one of those who'd still rather not ponder post-Joe. Among other things, I'm old enough to remember some glorious seasons and appreciate the privilege of rooting for a program with some integrity; while the last few campaigns have been just excruciating, I wonder if we all really think enough before squawking about "Why did we run a draw play on third and 8?" and things like that. Some perspective seems in order and so, really, does some respect.

But beyond my own biases I happen to think the university is lucky that Paterno is standing by this program and that just maybe, these lean years came at the right time. At a minimum, if JoePa's legend seems "diminished" at all, or if he's somehow more "human" to some than he was in 1999, this will only help his successor. New Guy will be win credibility faster not only with recruits but with fans and alums, and the program will gain an immediate foothold in the post-Joe era. And better yet, "New Guy" will inherit a program that already has seen and found its way out of its Dark Ages (every program has theirs, eventually), instead of one nervously jumping off a cliff.

More significantly - and also more overlooked - is that for a program needing a tune-up, Joe Paterno may be the nation's most qualified coach. Are we really to forget his toiling and tweaking, or that he transformed a quaint tradition into a national mega-beast, then calibrated and tinkered and sustained it year after year, all for longer than most people reading this column have been alive? Or, believe someone else could "replace" his horse sense? I mean, really. Penn State football - Paterno's program, and his life's work may seem adrift, but to wish him away, especially if we're talking in terms of "rebuilding," is just plain foolish.

This winter, though 2004's angst lingers, positive signs have been aplenty, and the college football world would be foolish, too, to see those merely as signs of a dead cat bouncing. Despite the doubts - and let's not forget that putrid luck - the roster is stacked with players smart enough to look beyond the vacuous "fun-and-gun" glitz of recruiting promises and believe in the Penn State Way. Next season Paterno will field a team that listens to what players like Dan Connor say about the coach and the program, and the team will be one worth pulling for, which (let's face it) is itself a "W." There's plenty of momentum, and reason for optimism; This program is one of maybe five that could absorb the recent hits and still fairly expect a reversal within a year.

Within a few years on a cold November night we'll watch with heavy hearts as Joe Paterno looks up toward that sea of blue and white and bright lights, salutes the crowd once more, and his team, and fades away into the south tunnel. And maybe I'm a closet idealist, but when I imagine that day, I think we'll look ahead with some confidence, rather than dread, and that when we do maybe we'll think of that silliness that's said to be "used against" Penn State these days: that "Joe Paterno may never retire."

Penn State fans should be so lucky.

Bill Lalor offers opinions from the fans' perspective for FightOnState.com.


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