As it does annually, the anticipation of many within college football recruiting circles will rise as the months pass to see which university the top recruit in the country will choose. This year, that player is named Terrelle Pryor, a dual-threat quarterback from Pennsylvania.
However, for Penn State fans, the following needs to be understood: in the grand scheme of the program, this is not about Pryor himself. Would it be great for PSU fans to see him in Blue and White? Certainly. The real issue, though, is the crossroads at which head coach Joe Paterno is with both Penn State President Graham Spanier and his own fate. This year's top recruit could be named "Top Recruit" — it doesn't matter. The more important story here is how the courting of this young man will produce insight into and have an effect on Paterno's future.
This is not meant to be encomium of Paterno's career. That one will be written many times when it's actually over. The man is a living legend and will be remembered as one of the greatest coaches in the history of sports. Everybody knows that. The question at the moment is an official end date, and the answer could live inside the twists and turns of Pryor's decision. Remember when the big worry was that Penn State recruiting would suffer a downward turn when Paterno's tenure was in its final stages? Forget crunch time — that was 10 years ago. This is quadruple overtime.
Twice over the past decade, Spanier and the athletic department have extended Paterno's contract when it proved to be convenient around the time of year when potential recruits needed to be pacified with certainty for their own futures. Paterno, then 73, signed a new five-year deal on Jan. 24, 2000 in an effort to lure Derek Wake and other late stragglers to State College and the plan worked. That new contract, which in a timely fashion was inked nine days prior to national signing day, helped cap a talented 29-player class.
All 29 of those prospects were certain that Paterno would be the head coach for their entire careers.
The next and most recent contract extension that Paterno signed was in May of 2004. The Nittany Lions had completed one of the worst seasons in team history the previous autumn and Paterno felt he needed public stability to get back on track due to the fact that he only had two more seasons remaining on his then-current contract. Later that same year — after the new deal was signed — the nation's top recruit Derrick Williams and his buddy Justin King both signed with Paterno and did so with the knowledge that he would be under contract for their entire careers.
So now it's August of 2007 and, as luck would have it, Paterno has two seasons remaining on his contract and the most coveted prep star in the country hails from his own back yard.
Is this the kid for which Spanier and/or Paterno publicly reveal the future? Spanier is in an impossible position; no matter which course of action is followed, he can't win. If he decides that no extension will be granted and 2008 is the final season, he'll be known as the man who fired Paterno. But if he takes the bait and adds another three years in an attempt to ensure the signing of Pryor, those that crave the post-Paterno transition period sooner than later will decree Spanier's actions as a failure to handle the university's most lucrative asset through his own means.
Pryor will most likely not end up at Penn State. The insufficient funds of Ed DeChellis vs. the millions of Thad Matta are certainly an issue, but the core reason Pryor will probably opt for Ohio State or elsewhere is Paterno's uncertain future. The time has finally arrived when — to the best of knowledge of all those not directly on the inside — recruits are no longer being told with certainty that Paterno will be the head coach during their entire residences in State College. Perhaps this was the decisive factor (eyes rolling) for Shayne Hale and Lucas Nix. The fact that Tom Bradley would be an excellent head coach is not pertinent to this discussion — any coach without the last name Paterno (just the elder one, thank you very much) couldn't possibly have the same appeal for any recruit. It's just not fair.
If you were Pryor, assuming Paterno is not granted an extension prior to February, would you play for an iconic head coach and take the chance that he might not be there after your freshman season? Or would you travel one state over to play for a coach whose future status is cemented with the parenthetical postscript that the same school also has a championship-caliber program in the sport that's your first love?
In the end, this is not personal. Don't be mad at Pryor if he beats Chris Colasanti around the end on a bootleg touchdown in Columbus two years from now. Instead, any frustrations should be pointed at Spanier and Paterno for their collective failure to clearly show Pryor that a succession plan exists even if they are on opposite sides.
If Pryor does choose Penn State without firm knowledge that Paterno will remain head coach throughout his term, the legend of one of the best closers in recruiting history will grow and all those that use his age against him will shake their heads in disbelief. Concurrently, the best-kept coaching secret in college football will continue his role as an assistant with the sustained hope that he'll get his turn someday soon.
And for Spanier, who'll almost certainly take Pryor into account when deciding the future, the handshake he often shares with the head coach on the field prior to home games will continue both before and after Paterno's future is exposed to lift the copious cloud of uncertainty that looms within.
The honorable head coach wouldn't have it any other way — with or without Pryor.
David Pressman is an occasional contributor to FightOnState.com.