His critics have Lions' Paterno by the tail

College football: As Penn State's glory years recede, the cheers for legendary coach Joe Paterno turn into cries that he's overstayed his welcome.

College Football

November 06, 2003|By John Eisenberg | John Eisenberg,SUN STAFF

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - If Penn State's performance Saturday at Beaver Stadium were the only criterion, there would be no debating Joe Paterno's future as head coach of the Nittany Lions.

Playing against defending national champion Ohio State before 108,000 football fans and a regional television audience, the team was tough, motivated and opportunistic and led until the final moments. Other than the outcome, a 21-20 loss, the game was reminiscent of many that Penn State has played through the years under Paterno, who will turn 77 next month.

But the defeat dropped the Nittany Lions to 2-7 (0-5 Big Ten) and extended their losing streak to five games, the longest of Paterno's 38-year tenure. It also guaranteed a losing season for the third time in the past four years. Not since 1999 has the team been highly ranked.

Penn State, quite simply, isn't what it used to be, and the school's passionate football constituency is wondering what has gone wrong with a team that was 316-80-3 under Paterno before a homecoming loss to Minnesota in November 1999 and has been 22-27 since then.

Has the legend known as "JoePa" stayed too long?

"I don't think [the losing trend] is all his fault, but he's responsible for a lot of it," said Gerry Curtin, a former Penn State lacrosse star who graduated in 1970 and now works in the steel industry in Georgia. "The general consensus of people I speak with is that the program is only going to get worse until there's a change, not just at the top, but the whole [coaching] staff."

Some talk show callers, newspaper letter writers and a Philadelphia sports columnist have called for Paterno to end his glorious career. A few fans chanted "Joe must go" early in the game last Saturday. An anti-Paterno Web site is up and running.

Any of that would have been deemed heretical until recently. Paterno has won 20 bowl games and two national championships while maintaining high academic and ethical standards. His program hasn't been sullied by a cheating scandal or many off-field problems. Graduation rates are among the nation's best.

Paterno remains a highly effective fund-raiser and has personally donated more than $4 million to the school for a library expansion, a campus interfaith center and scholarships.

"He is a great guy and a great coach, and he has done so much for the school; that's what makes this so hard to watch," said Jennifer Caracciolo, president of Penn State's greater Baltimore alumni chapter.

His luminous career doesn't seem to matter to an impatient public. Three of every four respondents to an ESPN.com poll last month said Paterno should retire at the end of this season.

"I don't want to see him go. I want to see him turn it around," Caracciolo said. "But I do think [the losing] has something to do with him."

No plans to step aside

Paterno, whose five-year contract expires after the 2004 season, has been dismissive of retirement talk. During his weekly teleconference Tuesday, he said he plans to keep working: "Whether you like it or not, I'm going to be around next year, so relax."

Penn State quarterback Zack Mills, from Urbana High in Frederick County, said Paterno "jokes that he's going to coach another 10 or 20 years."

Jed Donahue, host of a Pennsylvania-wide radio call-in show, said he believes the coach hopes to get back to winning. "He wants to go out on a high note, and a lot of the fans want to see that. But they're losing confidence that a turnaround can happen."

In many ways, Paterno appears as vigorous and competent as ever. Dark-haired, sharp-eyed and trim, he races ahead of his players as they come onto the field before opening kickoffs.

"If you could see him on a daily basis in practice, you would know it's not time for him to go," senior offensive tackle Damone Jones said after the game. "He's all over the place, running around, coaching. ... People who say he should go are just fair-weather people."

His team was well-prepared against Ohio State, rebutting the notion that he no longer gets his teams ready to play.

Just last year, the Nittany Lions won nine of 12 regular-season games and played in a New Year's Day bowl. They went to Orlando, Fla., losing, 13-9, to Auburn in the Capital One Bowl.

But they have lost six straight games to Michigan, four straight to Iowa, three straight to Minnesota and two straight to Ohio State.

A team once known for winning close games has lost eight in a row to ranked opponents, many by narrow margins. Ten of the Nittany Lions' past 13 losses have been by eight points or fewer.

"I'm not one who says it's time for him to go, but I do think it's time for him to look at his coaching staff and figure out what's going on," said WBAL-TV reporter Jayne Miller, a Penn State graduate whose family includes former Nittany Lions players and longtime season-ticket holders.

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