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Penn State Football: Can Joe Paterno’s Staff Provide Comfort?

by on August 09, 2011 3:00 AM

The thing that folks are forgetting about Joe Paterno’s latest rash of injuries is this:

It’s not about Paterno, it’s about The Paterno Way.

The 1971 classic book, “Football My Way,” was a salivating look at Paterno just six years into his Penn State head coaching career.

The hagiography lauded Paterno’s gambling nature on the field (not a misprint), his academic blueprint of the student-athlete in the “Grand Experiment” and his extreme micro-managing of the program, down to every t, i, X and 0.

It was a formula for fairly rapid-fire success: The Nittany Lions had a 31-game unbeaten streak, Joe ended up on “60 Minutes” and the cover of Sports Illustrated, and Penn State won two national titles in five seasons.

And yes, on the playing field that was the zenith of Penn State football. And it happened a very long time ago.

Since Penn State’s 14-10 Fiesta Bowl victory over Miami on Jan. 1, 1987, Paterno has won 202 more games. So has Penn State. But not another title.

Along the way he has crafted a football program -- and, in many ways (library, fundraising campaign, spiritual center, moral compass) a university -- that forever will be molded by him, but can now run just fine without him.

THE FUTURE IS NOW

Joe has prepared for his successor for decades. He said he wouldn’t retire until he had everything in place so that whoever followed in his footsteps -- Sandusky, Anderson, Ganter, Bradley, Phil In Thegap -- would have an easy time.

Well, Joe has made things go so smoothly that the thing practically runs itself these days – how well on game day is another matter. And of course the recruiting experts might beg to differ with that premise too.

The ones who will miss him the most are the players. They feed off of the Old Guy. They love him, respect him, need him.

Logistically, though, Joe’s not super-essential. So, if Paterno doesn’t make it back to practice for a day – or week – or two, he’ll be missed. But folks inside Lasch and the BJC and on the football practice field might not notice it very much for awhile.

That may seem like a knock on the guy. And perhaps it is. But it is also a compliment.

A compliment to the coach and a compliment to a bevy of lifelong Penn Staters – by degree and/or by decree following lifelong servitude -- who have largely, anonymously, made Penn State football what it is.

And now, they are doing football as they always have, The Paterno Way.

REPEAT AFTER ME: WWJWMTD

Often, from the halls of the Bryce Jordan Center to shores of the Lasch Building, they are driven by the tenet, WWJWMTD – What Would Joe Want Me To Do.

Even when Joe’s not there, which is the case once again.

They are disciples who are there to keep the ark afloat, even when Joe himself is kicked in the Old Testament. And that – as was shown again on the most recent Sabbath – is happening with much greater frequency these days.

An empire has been built that cannot only sustain the temporarily loss of its leader, but now knows Plan B nearly as well as it knows Plan A.

The genesis hit five years ago, when Paterno broke three ribs in practice, then broke his shin and tore up his ligaments in Madison. The coaches in the locker room looked around, knew they knew their stuff Joe or no Joe, and the next week they led the Nittany Lions to a 47-0 pasting of Temple that Joe watched from his easy chair two miles away in College Heights.

It was the start of a new era.

Soon thereafter, a busted hip led to no recruiting trips led to no more booster banquet quips.

IT’S (OFTEN) ACADEMIC

Through it all, academically, Penn State has been in good shape – a paragon, actually. (Important, right, since there is that word “University” after Penn State?) Over the past five years PSU football has led the nation in Academic All-Americans – three each in 2009 and 2010, and five in 2008.

Todd Kulka, a former Nittany Lion linebacker, heads the Penn State Football Academic Support Center and has worked in academic counseling at PSU for 15 years. As a teacher, I’ve worked with Todd professionally, and he’s all about tough love. I have seen him pointedly tell a player to shape up or he wasn’t making a roadtrip – without even consulting with Paterno.

Kulka didn’t have to. WWJWMTD.

Dollars-wise, there’s hardly a more prudently run program in the nation. In the most recent fiscal year (2009-2010) for which statistics are available, Penn State football grossed $70.2 million, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Thanks to a corporate atmosphere of penny-pinching that’s been led by Paterno himself, Nittany Lion football netted $50.4 million two years ago -- a neighborhood seen only by a handful of collegiate football programs and just about every fracking natural gas interloper in the Commonwealth.

A VETERAN STAFF

Football-wise, it’s easy for Paterno, whether he’s there or not. He has three former Division I-A college football head coaches on his staff.

He has two sons, one genetic, who coaches the quarterbacks and has been at Penn State for 17 years. The other, of the surrogate variety, coordinates the defense and has been a Nittany Lion coach for 33 years.

The other four assistant coaches have been at Penn State for 60 years.

The guy who runs Joe’s football operations, Tom Venturino, has been with Paterno for 28 years. (Venturino drove Paterno around in a golf cart in 2008, and could very well reprise that role.)

Fran Ganter, the associate athletic director for football administration, came to Penn State a freshman running back and never left – that’s 44 years of Penn State football.

(And get this: Joe’s has had two personal secretaries -- OK, administrative assistants -- since the 1970s, both of them very devoted and talented.)

Add up the total years at Penn State for the assistant coaches, Venturino and Ganter, and the number is a staggering 233.

At Michigan, which has yet another new head coach this fall, the people in those 11 key positions -- plus head coach Brady Hoke -- have been Michigan Men for a total of 36 years. Total.

Indiana’s new coaching staff and two top admins had a combined 14 years on the Hoosiers’ payroll heading into 2011.

And at Minnesota, its new coaching staff, A.D. and ops person had three years of prior experience on the Gopher staff.

Want Joe to retire and someone new to come in? Those three above paragraphs are what a “new regime” looks like in the Big Ten these days -- even at Michigan.

IT’S THE VICTORIES, STUPID

But listen, I’m not (too) dumb. All that Nittany Lion coaching experience wrought a wreck of a 7-6 season in 2010 that was a mess, no matter how you position the injuries and inexperience and sideline ineptness.

Joe knew it. That’s why he walked his butt off all over Happy Valley this summer. He knew that if he didn’t do that, he couldn’t make sure his coaches would work their butts off too.

This is the final year of Paterno’s contract. He doesn’t need a formal agreement to continue, if that happens. But he does for all of those loyal lieutenants. They have cast their lot with him, and if Paterno leaves, there by the grace of Michigan, Minnesota and Indiana go they.

Injured or healthy, Paterno can only make a case for his continued employment – and that of his many minions – if the Nittany Lions win. An injury-prone octogenarian as coach with a 5-7 record and an aging staff isn’t a strong negotiating position. Even if your name is Joe Paterno.

Joe, who is a lot smarter than me, certainly knows that to be true.

As good as his assistants may potentially still be, without the Old Coach’s rod riding herd in meetings and on the field, the staff may feel too much comfort. The Psalm old story as 2010.

Not good, especially when the Crimson Tide is coming in 32 days and someone has to figure out how to part the Red Sea.

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Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979. He is a senior lecturer in Penn State's College of Communications and teaches a pair of classes in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism: “Sports Writing” and “Introduction to the Sports Industry.” He created and taught for several years the Center’s course on “Joe Paterno, Communications and The Media.” Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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