Penn State Football: An Age-Old Question
Among the most ardent college football fans, it is an age-old question. Or, rather, an old age question:
How much longer can the coaching legend continue?
There's no doubt that he is a pioneer of the game who looks at it differently than anyone else. He is in the College Football Hall of Fame and, although it was so long ago that few remember, was an outstanding college football player before he became a coach.
At the end of his career, his win total is higher than anyone in big-time college football, past or present. What Eddie Robinson did at Grambling and John Gagliardi is still doing at St. John's are nearly without peer. But our coach has no peer, really.
That is, in part, because he has gone on, decade after decade. It may be the clear skies, clean air and small-town life in the heart of Pennsylvania. His health is typically hale and hearty, the coach teaching boys who technically are young enough to be his great-grandsons. But a flu here, a cough there, and people start wondering if it's all too much.
After all, what is left to prove? There will never be another one like him.
And course that his son is on the staff certainly adds to the joy of coaching, working daily side-by-side with his own child.
So, just how long can he go?
In this case, "he" went until he was 98. The man we are talking about is Amos Alonzo Stagg.
JOE AND AMOS
Stagg had the longest coaching career, 71 years, in the history of college football. As Paterno approaches 400 wins and as his age becomes more of an issue, Stagg's history will become more germane.
In two days, Joe Paterno will turn 83-1/2 years old. The 2010 season will be his 61st at Penn State and his 45th as head coach.
The comparisons were first made a decade ago, when Paterno passed Stagg's record of 314 victories on his way to surpassing what was then the all-time major college football record of 323 wins, set by Paul "Bear" Bryant.
Now is a good time to look at the two of them again, if only for simple longevity. Paterno canceled a number of summertime events, due to the flu and a reaction to antibiotics after a dental procedure. He did make appearances at Penn State's two football fantasy camps, one for men and one for women. In videos of them both, he was sharp and looking to be in good health.
But his cancellation of a couple of "Evening With Joe"s has to bring into question, if only a little bit, his fitness. That certainly would not have been the case 20, perhaps even 10, years ago. And this is not to say that he is not hale and hearty, but after all 30,497 days is 30,497 days.
Still, the coach can most probably continue his legendary career for a few more years. He has turned into a master delegator. He carefully parcels out his time, with the help of a few close confidantes and family members. Since his hip surgery after the 2008 season, he's been mobile and engaged in the two team practice sessions I've seen. And longevity is in his blood; his mother lived well into her 90s.
Most of all, he loves it. Still.
In January 2002, at the American Football Coaches Association's annual convention in San Antonio, Paterno gave a lengthy, on-the-cuff acceptance speech after being presented with, not so ironically enough, the Amos Alonzo Stagg Award. As Paterno preached to the thousands of coaches in attendance, coaching is a higher calling.
"We've reached into peoples' – literally – souls, as nobody else can do. We have more influence on kids than anybody. So God bless you all, it's great to be around. I've been here for 52 years, and it's been a great experience."
And, for Paterno, it continues to be.
THE STAGG EXPERIENCE
No one has ever gotten anywhere by underestimating Joe Paterno. Ditto Amos Alonzo Stagg.
Stagg first retired from coaching college football in 1932 after 41 seasons at the University of Chicago. Mandatory retirement. He was 70 years old.
This was the man who is credited with inventing the tackling dummy, the shift, the huddle (also credited to Bob Zuppke, coach at the University of Illinois), the reverse and man-in-motion plays, the lateral pass, uniform numbers and awarding varsity letters.
Told to retire. But he didn't. (I wonder if they went to his house.)
Instead, Stagg moved on to Stockton, Calif., just west of San Francisco. There, he coached the University of the Pacific football team for 14 seasons, winning five conference championships. In 1943, after a 7-2 season, at age 81 Stagg was named national coach of the year by the American Football Coaches Association, an organization he helped found.
Two years later, he had a 0-10-1 record, and the year after that, Pacific went 5-7. It was 1946. And Stagg was 84. He thought about retiring. But he didn't.
He headed to Selinsgrove, Pa. – just 63.4 miles from State College – to continue his coaching career at Susquehanna University. From 1947-52, he served as an "advisory coach" to his son, Susquehanna head coach Amos Alonzo Stagg Jr. Now, we don't know to what extent he coached or advised, but if Paterno is a model, you would think it was substantial.
Stagg finished his coaching career at Stockton Junior College, again serving as an advisory coach, from 1953-1960. ("Hit that tackling dummy harder, son. Did you know I invented it? Now get in the huddle, I created it.")
Stagg hung up his cleats when he was 98. He died in 1965, at age 102-1/2. In many ways, he was college football. And today, Paterno is college football. Still.
A PATERNAL OPTION
I'm not the first to surmise that there's a chance Jay Paterno will succeed his dad as head coach, however unlikely that may be (12-1 odds, increasing every year). But I would wager that I am the first to suggest that Jay might succeed his dad as head coach and his dad would succeed him as an assistant.
The Staggs did the son-dad thing. So do the Kiffins: Monte works for his son Lane, the head coach at Southern Cal; the two had the same set-up for a season at Tennessee.
That's exactly the kind of thing Joe could do. Turn convention on its ear, reward loyalty, keep his hand in it. Because even when he finally admits it is time to quit as head coach, Joe most certainly will think – and rightly so – he still has something to offer. And as much as the game of college football in general, and Penn State in particular, needs Joe Paterno, the coach needs them as well.
Joe the Assistant – he did it for 16 years, from 1950-66; no reason he can't do it again.
It's a Stagg-ering idea.