FOX Sports Exclusive
Only Paterno can say when he's done
Joe Paterno’s latest injury came when a Penn State wide receiver crashed full-speed into the coach during practice.
The 84-year-old Paterno didn’t see his player coming. Let us all hope that, when the time comes for JoePa to retire, he does see it coming.
Believe it or not, the winningest Division I coach in NCAA history eventually will decide to hang it up. Time always wins, beating even the most invincible of us.
But Joe Paterno’s time is not now.
Penn State fans must accept that JoePa will coach as long as JoePa wants to coach. And though the body is showing signs of frailty, the desire is still there. We’re talking about a man who finished out practice Sunday before heading to Mount Nittany Medical Center, then conducted a coaches meeting the next morning from his hospital bed.
It’s a difficult position for Nittany Lions fans to be in. How do you balance this man’s legend and legacy with his increasing frailty and the fact that, eventually, we all age and diminish? And at what point does JoePa’s well-earned ego get in the way of Penn State’s football future?
There’s no shortage of elder statesmen in sports finding unlikely success after people thought they should have retired. A 72-year-old Jack McKeon won a World Series with the Florida Marlins and is back with the team again at age 80. Connie Mack managed until he was 87. Marv Levy retired at age 72 from his coaching post with the Buffalo Bills.
And John Gagliardi, the only NCAA football coach older than Paterno, is still going strong.
On Tuesday, Gagliardi picked up the phone in his office at St. John’s University, 80 miles north of Minneapolis, where he has been the Johnnies’ head coach since 1953. He was doing what he’s always doing in August: drawing up plans for training camp, worrying like hell for the first game of the season.
The Division III coach had heard about JoePa’s injury. Should JoePa keep coaching? Would Gagliardi keep coaching, if he were in Paterno’s shoes?
“It’s nice to be around the game,” said Gagliardi, who is one month older than Paterno. “They pay you to enjoy a kids’ game. That’s all I’ve done for all my life. So as long as I keep winning, I’ll keep at it.”
The game, Gagliardi said, keeps him young. He assumes it’s the same for Paterno, who, like Gagliardi, has a son on his coaching staff.
But how do you know when to hang it up? Should Paterno coach until he’s 100? How do you know when enough is enough?
“There’s three things you gotta watch for,” Gagliardi said. “Number one, when you start to forget to zip up, you got to start thinking about it a little bit. Then you really gotta get serious when you start to forget to zip down.”
He paused for timing.
“Then the third thing?” he said. “Hell, I can’t remember the third thing.”
Calls for Paterno to step down reached a height in the early 2000s, when Penn State went through a miserable time. Paterno had four losing seasons in a five-year span after only one losing season at Penn State before then. His teams those five years were a combined 26-33. Paterno’s age, the chorus went, had caught up with him. He couldn’t relate to players 60 years his junior.
Then came the magical 2005 season, when JoePa went 11-1 and finished with the third-ranked team in the country. Age, it seemed, was an issue no more.
At least not until the next year, when he broke a leg in a sideline collision during a game in Wisconsin. And then two years later, when Paterno hurt his hip demonstrating an onside kick to his players. He coached that season from the press box, later undergoing a hip replacement. (His doctor told The New York Times that year that Paterno was “20 years younger than what his stated age is in terms of his energy level.”)
The calls for a graceful Paterno resignation bubbled up again this week after his most recent injury. The hit during practice injured Paterno’s right arm and pelvis and sent him to the hospital for two days.
As usual, grumblers cited Paterno’s age.
“There’s a lot of pressure on people that are older to not screw up, because as soon as they screw up it becomes a factor of age,” said Hugh Delehanty, editor in chief of AARP’s Media Properties. “A 35-year-old coach screws up, he just screws up.”
The tradition Paterno has cultivated in his 45 years as Penn State’s head coach is a gift and includes two consensus national championships.
COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2011
- Week 14: Scoreboard | Gallery
- Updated: BCS | AP | Coaches
- Pages: FX GOTW | TTT | Pereira
- Gallery: LSU vs. Alabama, Part I
- Gallery: It's Rivalry Week
- Gallery: Crazy CFB uniforms
- Gallery: Nebraska vs. Penn St.
- Gallery: It's Halloween time
- Gallery: CFB remembers 9/11
- Video: Highlights and interviews
- Latest updates: CFN | Scout | YB
But Paterno’s down-to-earth style is what deifies him among the all-time greats: the modest house he lives in near Beaver Stadium; the five-mile walks he still takes around campus, saying hello to every student he passes; and the focus on the things that matter, evidenced by his players always graduating at a higher rate than just about any other school.
Let us hope that Paterno ends his career with the same kind of class he’s shown since he started as a Penn State assistant coach in 1950.
And let us hope that there’s still a bit of time left.
The good spirits that coaches like Paterno and Gagliardi continue to show are what we need to remember when Paterno inevitably says he’ll keep coaching ad infinitum, and Penn State inevitably says Paterno can do whatever he damn well pleases. The school shouldn’t offer him some figurehead post, like a title of head coach emeritus — not that JoePa would take that anyway.
The legend has earned the right to say when he wants to leave. We can only hope it’s with grace. But if he chooses to limp out the door — which, given his old-school, Vince Lombardi/Bear Bryant demeanor, he just might — JoePa has earned the right to do that, too.
More Stories From Reid Forgrave