Thursday, November 3, 2011

Ending the JoePa Era in 2011, Part IV: Happy (Valley) Endings? (posted 11.3.11)

Ending the JoePa Era in 2011, Part IV: Options for a Happy Ending?
When PSU president Graham Spanier and AD Tim Curley approach Joe Paterno after the season, the options presented must have finite dates for the conclusion of his epic career. But JoePa likely won't choose his best option.
  • (Part I of this series, posted 9.20.11, explained why this should be Joe Paterno's last season, and how Spanier and Curley should arrange for the end of the Paterno Era immediately after the regular season.)
  • (Part II, posted 10.10.11, looked at what PSU football would be like under Urban Meyer.)
  • (Part III, posted 10.27.11, asserted that the next PSU coach probably is a college coach at another school right now, and detailed the Top 10 possible JoePa successors.)

Joe Paterno's singular status as the greatest of all time (step aside, Muhammad Ali) makes it imperative that Penn State handle the conclusion of his career as gracefully as possible, with the respect and fanfare Paterno's unsurpassed legacy deserves.

But time is running out for a graceful exit. Paterno turns 85 at the end of this season. He is breaking down physically. He has barely been on the sideline this season, instead sitting high up in the coaches booth due to a lingering injury.

It is time for the Paterno Era to end, for the benefit of all. Physically, he can't do it anymore, and it will just get worse. It's not practical for him to continue.

But JoePa has never given any indication he is ready to call it quits. And thus he is making this whole Happy Ending in Happy Valley thing a little testy.

In a perfect world, PSU president Graham Spanier and AD Tim Curley meet with Paterno right after the regular season and lay out the gameplan: Joe, they'll say, next season is your last. It ends in 2012. And it will be spectacular.

No, they'll say, we can't get Russell Wilson to sign a one-year contract with PSU. But each home game will be a special celebration. One will bring back the national championship teams. Another will highlight the undefeated seasons. Yet another will focus on all of the Academic All-Americans. And so on. The road games will feature retirement gifts, kind words and special moments. It will be a 12-game victory parade, they'll say.

It all will be in honor of Paterno. But really it will be for us, and for the players, and for everyone he has influenced in his Titanic career.

But it probably won't happen.

What's preventing such an ideal sendoff? Two things:
  1. According to Spanier, Paterno has shown no inclination to do such a thing.
  2. Unless someone inside the program is named the next coach - Tom Bradley clearly is the most viable candidate on the staff, but there have been no indications he will be chosen - it leaves the question of who will succeed Paterno up in the air. Which would turn into a mess as the 2012 season went along. The entire coaching staff would be wondering about its future, with an eye on their next job. The media speculation would be a quagmire.
Re: No. 1, after speaking at a PSU alumni event in Florida this past spring/summer, Spanier was asked about Paterno. He specifically was asked about announcing a retirement date for Paterno, perhaps 9-10 months in advance, and turning the season into a JoePa Jamboree - just as was suggested above.

Spanier's reply? Paterno wouldn't go for it. The implication was clear: Don't you think we've tried that? Paterno has been asked to do this before, perhaps again recently, and he always has declined.

Re: No. 2, the successor speculation - given months to incubate - would threaten to swallow the season. The media would hover like the Great Ghost of the 2003-04 Seasons. And if Bradley isn't named next coach with a clear-cut date of power transfer, then PSU's coaching staff would become dysfunctional in 2012. Also you can't name someone not on staff as successor 10 months down the road. For example, PSU can't announce in February "This is JoePa's last season, and current Miami coach Al Golden will be our head coach for 2013." It doesn't work that way. (Unless Golden resigns as Miami coach and becomes JoePa's Associate Head Coach for 2012, but that seems implausible, right?)

JoePa's stubbornness means Spanier/Curley must do two things: First, bring those closest to Paterno into the process of ending his career - such as his wife Sue, and perhaps son/assistant coach Jay, and PSU icon/longtime Board of Trustees member Jesse Arnelle - to help them help JoePa reach the unavoidable conclusion: The end is near, and it must be specifically planned for, very soon.

Second, they must approach Paterno right after the regular season - along with the aforementioned close Paterno confidants - and tell JoePa that since he has declined to accept the season-long celebration ending his career in 2012, then this is it: the 2011 season and upcoming bowl game will be his last.

Faced with those choices, Paterno possibly could change his mind and accept the 2012 victory lap, which would properly honor JoePa but make finding the successor complicated and likely lead to the previously discussed staff dysfunction. Or, if Paterno chooses Option 2, Spanier and Curley could begin their search for a successor immediately upon announcing JoePa's retirement. About 10-14 days later, PSU likely would have its next coach.

Then, December 2011 would be about celebrating two icons, Santa Claus and JoePa. The bowl game would be dedicated to one thing: Joe Paterno.

Really, there can be no other choices. Time catches up with everyone, even the greatest of the great.

That said, this needs to be different than the Bobby Bowden-Florida State debacle after the 2009 season. In 2007, FSU established a concrete transition-of-power date. A coach-in-waiting, offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher, was announced, and the transition was contractually established to be shortly after the 2010 season bowl game. Then FSU reneged on the deal and yanked the rug out from Bowden a little more than year early. The celebrations for Bowden were minimal and uncomfortable because he had been forced to resign a year early despite 28 straight bowl appearances and the incredible impact he'd had on FSU football. It was shameful.

Also, this is much different than 2004, when reportedly Spanier and Curley tried to get Paterno to resign because of disgruntled boosters and a bad Nittany Lions team in 2003-04 (combined 7-16 record). That was wrong. After all, Paterno was one of the winningest coaches in history (second only to Bowden among major college coaches at that moment) and had meant more financially to PSU than all of the disgruntled boosters combined, in addition to his sterling reputation and all he had done for the school, the program and the sport. He was turning 78 but was in good health. He certainly had earned the opportunity to turn things around, and to retire with the program doing well.

Which, amazingly, he has done. PSU is 66-20 since then.

Except he won't retire.

This time, though, the reasons are different than in 2004. He is being asked to retire simply because it is time.

Spanier and Curley apparently didn't have the support to force JoePa's resignation in 2004 (thankfully), but who would oppose them now? Few can possibly think an 85-year-old in declining health - there is a visible, tangible difference in his physical state between 2004 and 2011 - can perform the duties necessary to coach a major college football team. And this time he would be going out after a good season.

Spanier and Curley need to do the right thing for all involved and make it happen after this season, and make it happen the best way possible.

Good luck, gentlemen. Everyone affiliated with Penn State and the college football universe is watching.

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