Until this year’s 10-1 Big Ten co-championship team, Penn State had four losing seasons in the last five years. For bringing the Nittany Lions back from the brink of irrelevance, Joe Paterno was deservedly named the AP’s college football coach of the year. It’s certainly possible that the 79-year-old Paterno will never have such a glorious season again. Until this year, the coach was on the Eddie Robinson career path. The ex-Grambling great, like many athletes and coaches, hung on too long. Still, no one cares that his last three teams went 11-22—all anyone remembers are his 408 victories.
Even if a few more losing seasons won’t tarnish his legacy, Paterno should still step aside after this season. No matter if the Nittany Lions regress on the field, it seems increasingly likely that JoePa will do or say something to trash his reputation.
The first suggestions that Paterno might be off his rocker came in 2002, when the coach started hatching conspiracy theories about Big Ten officials. As Jonathan Chait wrote, Paterno ran across the field to hector a referee after a loss to Iowa. Later, he hanged a ref in effigy from his front door.
Baiting the refs might make fans and the media think you’re nuts, but it probably won’t get you fired. Talking off the cuff about race is another thing. Paterno nearly had an “Al Campanis moment” this fall when he defended fellow coach Fisher DeBerry. The Air Force coach got some unwelcome attention when he said his team got blown out by TCU because they “had a lot more Afro-American players than we did and they ran a lot faster than we did.” In defending DeBerry, Paterno nearly repeated his remarks. “The black athlete has made a big difference,” he said. “They have changed the whole tempo of the game. Black athletes have just done a great job as athletes and as people in turning the game around.”
While it seems clear that Paterno’s intentions were good, the coach did go right up to the line of social acceptability. It seems that his outdated attitude toward women inches over the line. According to Frank Fitzpatrick’s book The Lion In Autumn, a chronicle of Penn State’s long 2004 season, Paterno doesn’t quite get female beat writers: “I sit there and I’ve got to answer questions from a young lady who’s never played football.” The beat reporter in question, Heather Dinich, says Paterno told her during her first year on the job that “you can’t cover Penn State if you have a boyfriend.”
While it would be uncharitable to say these are signs that Paterno is slipping mentally, they do indicate that he’s slipping culturally. Paterno’s assistant coach/son Jay Paterno, for example, told Sports Illustrated this year that his dad is vaguely aware of his players’ interest in video games. According to Jay, he warns them not to “stay up all night playing television games.”
Compare Paterno to his Orange Bowl counterpart, Florida State’s Bobby Bowden. At the age of 76, Bowden at least projects the image that he’s still with it. Despite FSU’s annual legal entanglement—this time a sexual-assault allegation at the team hotel involving linebacker A.J. Nicholson—Saint Bobby, as he’s commonly called in Tallahassee, has seemed as jovial as ever this week. He simply sent Nicholson home, and he has otherwise entertained with his folksy, homespun talking points.
Meanwhile, it was somehow Paterno who stuck his foot in his mouth by defending the alleged perpetrator. “He may not have known what he was getting into, Nicholson,” Paterno said. “Somebody may knock on the door; a cute girl knocks on the door. What do you do? Thank God they don’t knock on my door. I’d refer them to a couple other rooms.”
Perhaps these Paternoisms are merely the innocuous gruntings of a harmless, nearly 80-year-old man. But maybe these are the signs that the coach needs to step away before he really hurts himself. Remember Ohio State coach Woody Hayes, who, at the age of 65, punched Clemson’s Charlie Bauman after his game-clinching interception in the Gator Bowl. The disgraced Hayes was fired the next day.
Paterno’s probably not going to haul off and slug an opposing player. Still, it’s worth bearing in mind the words of noted sports scribe Red Smith in the days after Hayes’ ouster: “The saddest part of the whole affair is that nobody at Ohio State saw the denouement approaching and protected Hayes from himself.”