Ending the Joe Paterno Era in 2011, Part I
In many ways, 84-year-old Joe Paterno is the greatest coach in the history of college athletics. By measures both record-setting (403 wins and counting) and epoch-defining (winning the right way since 1966 - for 45 years!) he has been the ultimate coach. But his tenure will end sometime. And that time should be after the 2011 season.
RFBS always has supported JoePa's continued coaching at Penn State, even during the so-called Dark Era of 2000-2004, through last year's disappointing 7-6 record. (It's worth noting that Paterno guided PSU to much success from 2005-09, and in the Dark Era's bright spot, 2002.)
But the end comes for everyone, even for that seemingly timeless and ageless wonder, JoePa. This conclusion is not reached lightly, or flippantly, as it is for some columnists, who write that "Joe Must Go" simply because it will get a reaction. But the time has come: It's just a matter of exactly when and how and who succeeds him.
The "when" is clear. This should be JoePa's last season. Why? Because he has slowed considerably physically, to the point where it has become a detriment to the program. Every season in recent years brings a new injury or ailment that interferes with his ability to do his job. At 84, he simply cannot quite keep up anymore in one of the most demanding professions imaginable - major college football head coach - and his health and vitality are not going to signifcantly improve, of course. Most major college football head coaches find it too demanding in their 60s, and just hope to be alive and enjoying retirement in their mid-80s. There are no Fortune 500 CEOs in this age bracket. He is alone in his indefatigability. JoePa already has far surpassed all reasonable expectations for longevity and accomplishment, and now is in a natural decline. His tenure cannot go on without significant damage being done to the school he loves, the program he made and the unparalleled reputation he cultivated. It is time for him to retire - and leave the largest shadow in the history of coaching for whomever succeeds him. But more on his possible successors later.
With the "when" firmly established - at the end of this season - that leaves two other exceedingly tricky and important questions: how, and who. The "how" could become a horrible, program-damaging, University-splitting, media quagmire if not handled correctly.
Because, presumably, JoePa does not want to retire soon. He never has given any indication he is near calling it quits. That puts the onus on University leadership, specifically longtime PSU president Graham Spanier, to make it happen, and to do so in a manner that upholds the honor and dignity of Paterno. In other words, not the way Florida State dumped its icon, Bobby Bowden: Rudely, suddenly, with little fanfare, remorse or gratitude, and a full year before it had contractually agreed with Bowden's coach-in-waiting Jimbo Fisher that the transition would take place.
Penn State has no such deals in place for Paterno, and as for contracts, he almost operates on more of a gentlemen's agreement with the school. Spanier reportedly approached JoePa at Paterno's home about seven years ago, when the team was performing poorly, to discuss JoePa's retirement. Spanier was shooed away. With the support of the Board of Trustees (or those members of the Board who must sign off on such decisions, i.e. the smallest number of people possible), Spanier must make this decision now and take this action, firmly and decisively. Let Paterno know how wonderful he is, and has been, but that he has no say in the matter. The decision has been made. There will be no shooing this time, only acceptance. Spanier will tell Paterno what will happen, and how it will happen. Longtime PSU athletic director Tim Curley, a former PSU football player under Paterno, will be at Spanier's side.
On Monday, Nov. 28, two days after the season finale at Wisconsin, Spanier and Curley will make the move. This will allow the season to have run its course, but will give PSU time in December - the prime time for coach hiring - to search for JoePa's successor before the final stretch run of recruiting season begins in January. That is, if they haven't already decided to hire from within and promote Defensive Coordinator Tom Bradley (more on that later). Also, by ending it right after the season finale, the lengthy run-up to the bowl game can be utilized as a time to honor and celebrate Paterno. Unlike FSU, which cast the venerable Bowden aside like yesterday's newspaper.
Spanier will give Paterno two choices: (1) Retire now, and there will be a retirement ceremony for you soon, and the team will go out and win a bowl game in your honor while coached by an interim coach (presumably Bradley) or a new head coach. Or, (2) announce your retirement now, but it is effective at the end of the bowl game, and then go out and win one final bowl to add to your record for bowl wins, and then have the retirement ceremony, etc. Spanier also will present options for the next phase of Paterno's life, most probably involving some sort of an ambassador role for Penn State, maybe some speaking engagements. No options will include being head football coach, because it is time. No options will incude having final say over his successor, because Curley and Spanier are paid to make those decisions.
These are the only two choices. JoePa's only other option will be to figuratively take his ball and go home like a petulant child. In other words, force the University to fire him and deal with all of the ugliness that would entail. Which is why some other crucial characters in this drama might come into play: JoePa's family and friends.
Spanier and Curley have known Paterno for decades, so they know if others need to be there in the room to help the old coach through this moment. Perhaps a longtime friend, perhaps his wife Sue, perhaps his son Jay, or other children or relatives. If so, the family/friend should be told what is happening only a couple of hours before - no need to make them harbor a secret for days or weeks. Maybe Spanier and Curley decide it would be best if no one else is involved at the moment of truth. But they might need that little extra support from someone close to JoePa to help things go smoothly, to help him recognize it is the right decison for all, including him.
Spanier needs to start planning soon. This cannot be done suddenly or haphazardly - he needs full support of all the necessary individuals and a concrete plan. And of course there can be no leaks. Discretion is most important, or the media assault will be ruinous not only to this process, but to the process of identifying JoePa's successor and to the team's ability to focus on the season at hand. Only those essential Board members, Spanier, Curley and perhaps one or two others in the PSU hierarchy need to know. No one leaves the room without swearing on their children they shall not utter a word about this to anyone. The national media attention on all of the conference realignments could be benefical in keeping this plan a secret, as Penn State is not directly involved in that chaos and it will keep the major media outlets preoccupied.
Planning now, two months in advance, has another advantage: No matter how the team plays the rest of the season, the plan is carved in stone. Presumably the Lions will win 7, 8 or 9 games and be selected to a mediocre bowl, but if they perform better or worse than that, it does not matter. This action is independent of the success or failure of the team this season.
(Ending the JoePa Era in 2011, Part II coming soon)