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Penn State Football: For Joe Paterno, The Play's The Thing

by on July 08, 2010 6:49 AM

These days, it's called English 400A in Brown University's course catalog – "Introduction to Shakespeare." More than 60 years ago, when Joe Paterno was an undergraduate and roamed the Providence, R.I., campus, you can bet that he took a class just like it.

So he understands Shakespeare a lot more than you (most of you, anyway) and me. The 2010 offseason has been one of some drama for the coach. A bout with the intestinal flu and the lingering effects of an adverse reaction to antibiotic treatments caused him to cancel a number of appearances.

He canceled "An Evening With Joe" appearances in Pittsburgh, Hershey and Philadelphia, events sponsored by the Penn State Alumni Association and the Nittany Lion Club. He also missed a meeting of Big Ten athletic directors, and football and basketball coaches in Chicago.

Paterno did make brief cameo appearances at summer football camps for adult men and women at Penn State.

Otherwise, though, he's been out of sight. But not out of mind.

The chatter is there, on message boards and citizen blogs and among the "Web mob," as the coach calls them. What will be Joe's coaching future?

"To be, or not to be; that is the question." — Hamlet

At age 83 and a half, there is some concern among the aforementioned mob about Paterno's readiness to take the practice field in August and the 110-day grueling run that will follow. It's a stretch that will take him from the first day of summer drills to the sure-to-be frigid regular-season finale on Nov. 27 against Michigan State in Beaver Stadium. (Not to mention the bad cold or flu he seems to get the second half of every season.)

Paterno has dodged two large bullets in the past four seasons. In 2006, he broke his leg in a sideline collision in a November game at Wisconsin. Less than two weeks after undergoing surgery on his left leg, Paterno watched the Nittany Lions' game against Michigan State from the coaches' booth in the press box.

In 2008, he was hampered by a hip injury that again forced him to the coaches' box for the second half of the season. The day after the Big Ten-clinching win over Michigan State, he had successful hip replacement surgery.

By no means are we pushing the legendary coach out the door; personally, I think he should coach as long as he wants to and is able to. It's more than earning the right; it is about him making an impact on all those around him – players, coaches, athletic and university administrators, alumni, fans, the game of college football.

"I am constant as the northern star." — Julius Caesar

Paterno is, in many ways, Penn State. That's nothing new. His longevity points to his loyalty, tenacity, singular focus and a history of good health:

He has been a member of the Nittany Lions' coaching staff spanning the administrations of 13 U.S. presidents (starting with Harry Truman).

He has been a member of the Penn State staff for 682 games, 526 of them as the head coach (a 394-129-3 mark; .751 winning percentage).

He is entering his 61st season on the Nittany Lion staff, and 45th as head coach.

But the day will come, soon in relative terms, when Joe Paterno will retire. Shakespeare's plays come in several varieties — comedy, tragedy, history and romance. They echo the potential endgames that could signal the completion of Paterno's reign as head football coach at Penn State.

"Of thinking too precisely on th' event." — Hamlet

Without further ado, let's take a look at each of those scenarios, borrowing from the titles of some of Shakespeare's most acclaimed plays.

The Tempest

Ala Dean Smith, his health failing Paterno quits before the start of 2010 season. Smith, the legendary North Carolina basketball coach for 36 seasons, abruptly and unexpectedly stepped down as coach two months before the start of the 1997-98 season. That left the Tar Heels with little choice but to name 30-year assistant Gurthridge as head coach (it turned out quite well; Guthridge led N.C. to two Final Fours in three seasons before retiring).

Paterno has often said that he may just show up at the office one day and call it quits.

If he does, and it is this close to the start of summer drills, it is likely that Graham Spanier and Tim Curley will name Tom Bradley head coach. Bradley, entering his 32nd year on the Penn State staff, is in his 11th year as defensive coordinator and the likeliest choice if the timeline for naming a successor is collapsed to weeks, if not days.

Penn State has three assistants on the staff with college football head coaching experience — Galen Hall, Dick Anderson and Ron Vanderlinden. Hall and Anderson are in their upper 60s. And while Vanderlinden has had great success coaching linebackers, Bradley's seniority and his Pennsylvania connections should secure him the job. Larry Johnson Sr. may get some consideration, too.

Penn State has had to deal with this scenario before; in September 1995, men's basketball coach Bruce Parkhill resigned suddenly. With the start of official practice just weeks away, longtime assistant Jerry Dunn was named head coach. Working with Parkhill's players, Dunn led the Nittany Lions to the NCAA tournament. But, eventually, he was shown the door.

Much Ado About Nothing

In 31 years of writing about Paterno and Penn State football for six newspapers, two magazines, a wire service and Statecollege.com, there has been one surety — never underestimate Joe Paterno. So, living by that credo, under this likeliest of scenarios the coach will head the team once again in 2010, as he pursues win No. 400 (he enters the season with 394).

Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

This scenario is not so pleasant. Paterno's health could take a turn for the worse and he's forced to step aside midseason. Now, he's shown incredible hardiness and heart over the pasty few seasons, so there's great precedent for him to grit it out.

But if he's unable to make it to several banquets and a league meeting in the offseason, there has to be some concern about his ability to coach on the road against Ohio State in mid-November. Last time the Nittany Lions were in the Horseshoe, a gutsy 13-6 night-time victory, Paterno watched the game from the coaches' box and needed a golf cart to get from the press box to the locker room after the game.

The Winter's Tale

This theory holds that Paterno makes it through the 2010 campaign in what turns out to be record-breaking fashion. Of the Nittany Lions' 12 regular-season games, Paterno needs only six wins to hit the four-century victory mark. Even with an inexperienced starter at quarterback and an uncertain offensive offensive live, a half-dozen victories is a near certainty.

Then, with record in hand, Paterno decides to retire. Exactly when and in what fashion are certain up to debate (think Dean Smith). But as a master strategist on and off the field, there's no doubt that Paterno will do whatever he can to give him the biggest impact when the Penn State brass goes head-hunting — both in-house and out-of-house.

Bradley may be the clubhouse favorite, but there are some intriguing candidates out there. (I'm not talking about Greg Schiano or Al Golden; scratch them both from the race. Now.)

Instead, think about Mike Munchak, in his 14th season as an NFL assistant coach and currently the offensive line coach of the Tennessee Titans (hmmm, offensive line; gotta like that).

Munchak is a native of Scranton, Pa., a first-round draft pick as a Penn State offensive guard, a nine-time Pro Bowler and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He's from the Penn State family, but has made his mark in the real world of the NFL. And he's 50 years old — mature enough to run the show, young enough to exude youth and energy, and just the right age for a steadying 10- or 12-year run as head coach.

For more about Munchak, click here

All's Well That End Well

Paterno's contract — as it is, with both sides having the ability to opt out — runs until 2011. No doubt the coach would like to go until then. At that point, come bowl time, he will be 85. That may be enough, even for him.

Penn State's 2011 schedule looks attractive for a Paterno farewall lap, especially with a quarterback who will have a year under his belt. Easy games against Indiana State, Temple and Eastern Michigan. Big-time rival Alabama at home. No Michigan. Home games against the toughest conference opponents, Wisconsin and Ohio State.

Of course, a good amount of that could change with the introduction of Nebraska in 2011. You would think the Blue and White would play Big Red in the first Big Ten season for the Cornhuskers.

So, think about it: What better storyline for Paterno to call it quits than a Penn State season that features home games against longtime intersectional rivals Ohio State, Nebraska and Alabama?

"Good night, good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow..." — Romeo and Juliet



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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