Sports Nut

Where Have You Gone, Joe Paterno?

The fall of coaching genius.

On the morning of Nov. 8, 1997, Joe Paterno was without question the most respected coach in college football, both for the quality of his teams and the honesty of his program. Since joining the Big 10 conference four years earlier, he had enjoyed one perfect season and, at 8-0 and favored to beat Michigan at Beaver Stadium later that day, seemed likely to do so again.

That afternoon, Penn State suffered a crushing defeat. What no one could have realized at the time was that the 34-8 final score represented merely the first in a series of blowout losses that PSU would suffer over the course of the next four years. In the 41 games it has played since, Penn State has lost 10 times by three touchdowns or more. (By way of comparison, Michigan has lost by more than 20 points exactly once since 1969.) Paterno’s latest debacle—a 33-7 crucifixion last week at the hands of Miami—was notable only because it was so unsurprising. Today, Paterno, no longer a kindly old genius, is regarded at best with fond nostalgia and at worst with pity.

The consensus is that Paterno is too old. But he doesn’t sound any less lucid, and besides, in four years you can only age, well, four years. The only answer seems to be: He’s just having a down stretch.

Fans are comfortable with the idea that players get better and worse. Players get faster and stronger as they mature, and slower and weaker as knees buckle and muscles tear. That yesterday’s bench-warmer can be today’s star—and vice versa—is one of the truisms of sports. We are less comfortable with the idea that coaches are subject to a similar dynamic. Probably this is because coaching is mental. We think of coaches as either smart (Bob Stoops) or dumb (John Cooper), not as professionals who have good years and bad years.

But coaches, like musicians or lawyers, can go up and down. Besides evaluating talent and preparing it to play (the two tasks that define 97 percent of an NFL coach’s job), a college coach is expected to be a father figure, a hall monitor, a university bureaucrat, a legal expert (check out the NCAA rule book), and a public relations whiz. It adds up to a complicated set of tasks, and no one man—even at the peak of his career—is going to be outstanding at every facet of it. Furthermore, his aptitude at any one of these tasks is likely to change over time—perhaps in small ways that may suddenly have large overall effects.

So, what happened to Paterno? Sure, he has less talent these days but not that much less talent. (This is also more a result than a cause of Paterno’s trouble—you lose games, then you have trouble recruiting players who want a chance to win championships.) The most obvious explanation is a breakdown in discipline. In 1997, Paterno suspended his two biggest offensive stars, Curtis Enis and Joe Jurevicius, for relatively minor infractions. Since then, though, things have changed a bit. In 1998 he defended LaVar Arrington, his all-American linebacker, after he brutally assaulted a defenseless Pittsburgh punter in the middle of a game. Last year he allowed his quarterback Rashard Casey to start every game despite being charged with assaulting (this time off the field) a cop. Teams like Miami can win while committing more than a 100 yards in penalties. Paterno’s system depends on discipline. Teams as talented as Penn State only get massacred on a regular basis if they quit playing hard, and they only quit playing hard if they no longer fear their coach.

College football is littered with examples of coaches who were prodigies one year and idiots the next. Four years ago, Gary Barnett had pulled off one of the great triumphs in the history of coaching by leading Northwestern—synonymous with “losing” for generations—to consecutive Big 10 titles. As a consequence, Barnett was considered a coach of transcendent ability. He wrote books expounding upon his motivational brilliance and had Notre Dame panting at his doorstep. Last week, after an embarrassing loss to Fresno State, Barnett’s position as the head man at Colorado was so tenuous that former coach Bill McCartney released a statement of support for the beleaguered ex-genius.

More Big 10 Coaching Embarrassments:

While he may not have attained Paterno-like stature yet, Purdue coach Joe Tiller had to be feeling pretty good about himself heading into opening day last weekend. In four years, he had installed a revolutionary new offense that was the envy of college football, resurrected a moribund program, and brought it to its first Rose Bowl since 1967. But then, last Sunday, Purdue had to fight for its life to eke out a 19-14 win over Cincinnati. To compound the humiliation, ESPN2 play-by-play man Jerry Punch referred to him as “Pat Tiller.” Not once. All game long. Curiously enough, Punch’s broadcast partner, deposed Ohio State coach John Cooper, failed to correct him, despite the fact that he spent the previous four years coaching in the same conference as Tiller and, presumably, knew his name.

Chutzpah of the Week:

Notre Dame officials are complaining that Nebraska has gained an unfair advantage going into their matchup Saturday night by scheduling earlier games against Texas Christian and Troy State. Indeed, this is a completely unfair situation, unique to college football. Nebraska not only gets two warm-ups in which to work out its kinks, it also—by dint of starting the season two weeks earlier—gets two more weeks worth of practices. It’s as if some Major League Baseball teams got spring training while others didn’t. What the Irish didn’t mention, though, was that they have done the exact same thing themselves—most recently in 1999, when they added a preseason “classic” against Kansas to prepare for the following week’s trip to Michigan, which was supposed to have been the opener for both. At the time, Notre Dame coach Bob Davie explained that he added the opener in order to “play for a great cause—the Eddie Robinson Foundation.” No doubt Nebraska was motivated this year by a philanthropic desire to help the cash-strapped Texas Christian athletic department.

Chutzpah of the Week, Part 2:

Last year, Dennis Erickson’s Oregon State Beavers established themselves as the reigning bullies of college football. While winning the Fiesta Bowl, they racked up 174 yards in penalties, including multiple late hits. “You want to call those penalties? Fine,” sneered one Beaver afterward. “Look at the scoreboard. That tells you all you need to know.” Apparently, the long offseason has turned Erickson and his thugs into delicate souls. Last week, in the course of whipping Oregon State 44-24, Fresno State gunner Kendall Edwards mauled a defenseless Beaver punt returner, drawing a 15-yard infraction. This week, Erickson sniffed, “I think what he did was wrong.” Edwards should tell Erickson to look at the scoreboard.

Boneheaded Coaching Move of the Week:

In the wake of several heat-related football deaths this summer, coaches across the land unanimously disavowed the old practice of depriving their players of water and embraced the modern view that physical deprivation for its own sake is not necessarily a good thing. It appeared that, several hundred years after the Enlightenment, humanism had finally caught on in the world of football coaching. But one exception stands out: Fresno State coach Pat Hill. Even during the hottest games, Hill refuses to allow his players to cool off with sideline fans, explaining that “if you give kids an excuse to lose, they will.” Oddly enough, Hill, who has been the subject of the last two (OK, the only two) Slate Boneheaded Coaching Moves of the Week, is also the hottest coach in America, having posted two consecutive upsets. Perhaps his success will inspire other coaches to emulate his throwback style, and it will soon become regular practice for coaches to, say, forbid the wearing of cleats (no using slippery grass as an excuse!) or treat injured players by applying leeches.