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Joe Paterno's Last Stand

In light of the recent, disgusting events that have come out regarding Jerry Sandusky's alleged sexual child abuse while working as an assistant under Joe Paterno's at Penn State, we feel that some of our archival content regarding Joe Paterno is worth revisiting now. This is expected to be Paterno's last year as head coach.

Athlon Archives: 2004 Big Ten Regional Edition

Through his first 34 years as head coach at Penn State, Joe Paterno and the university kept a tight lid on the details of his contract. That changed in January 2000, when the school issued a press release saying the legendary coach had been re-upped for five years.

The most important reason for the break with tradition was to show recruits that Paterno would be around for the duration of their careers. Penn State was also in the middle of a billion-dollar fundraising drive and in the process of expanding Beaver Stadium, and as the school’s best pitchman, Paterno was needed to help sweet-talk donors and sell seats.

At the time, however, nobody realized the potential downside of the announcement. And that is hitting now, because 2004 marks the final year of Paterno’s deal and everyone knows it. As of the spring, with the Nittany Lions in a slump featuring three losing campaigns in the last four seasons, the university had yet to announce another extension for the 77-year-old coach. For the first time since beginning his career with a 5–5 mark in 1966, Paterno may not control his own future at Penn State.

“I don’t think it is necessary for me to worry about that,” he says. “I would like to coach at least three more years. ... I have told kids when we are recruiting that I want to have another really good football team before I get out of this thing.”

“He said he was staying for sure for my class,” says Jed Hill, an incoming freshman tight end from Struthers, Ohio. “Hopefully, that means all four years. I would love to be coached by him.”

Paterno’s status is the burning issue in what has become a frustrated Nittany nation, with fans falling into either the Joe-Must-Go or Joe-Must-Stay camps. The former has become louder than ever as the program has floundered. Meanwhile, the diehards in the latter are not nearly as vociferous in their defense of Paterno as they’ve been in the past, no doubt realizing the end — whenever it may hit — is creeping closer.

As for the players, they insist the matter is a non-issue within the program. “We don’t really have any control over that whatsoever,” sophomore linebacker BranDon Snow says. “We’re all under the assumption that he’s going to be here.”

Adds junior guard Tyler Reed: “We have no indication that he’s retiring any time soon or anything like that. That’s how Coach Paterno does things. I think he’s going to be around for a while, and we’ll be happy to have him.”

Other programs are pointing to Paterno’s unclear status and his advanced age when recruiting against the Nittany Lions. Critics point to PSU’s poor performance the last few years and say the talent has fallen off. Supporters point to Paterno’s most recent class, which includes the best linebacker (Dan Connor) and one of the two best quarterbacks (Anthony Morelli) from Pennsylvania, as proof the old coach can still charm prospects.

Having no clear successor to the throne is being used against the Lions as well. Offensive coordinator Fran Ganter was long thought to be the logical replacement, but he was bumped into an assistant athletic director’s post in an off-season shuffle. His replacement, Galen Hall, is 63.

High school kids read message boards. And they listen to the opposing recruiters who bash Penn State.

“The only thing that bothers me is when you hear people talking about it that really have no clue about anything,” says Matt Hahn, a running back who signed with Penn State in February. “As far as me worrying about it, I really can’t because it’s something I have no control over.”

As spunky as ever at practice and as adversarial as ever at press conferences, Paterno hardly looks the part of a lame-duck coach.

“As old as he is, he’s still passionate about it,” Snow says. “Obviously, he’s not in it for the money, because I’m pretty sure the man is taken care of. I think for him right now, it’s about returning the program to where it was and going out on top.

“I like Coach Paterno, I really do,” Snow adds. “I can’t see myself playing for anybody else.”