Paterno's Fresh Plan Puts Joy Back In Happy Valley

October 09, 2005|By RICK MAESE

STATE COLLEGE, PA. — State College, Pa.-- --With the game in the books, they leapt over the railings. They charged onto the field, scurrying, high-stepping and smiling.

Strangers tackled each other, laughing as they rolled to the ground. Some waved signs - "We're back" and "The valley is happy again." Everyone just wanted to get close.

Five years of frustration burst free onto the Beaver Stadium field after Penn State's 17-10 upset win over No. 6 Ohio State last night. Squeezing through a narrow crack was the old general, Joe Paterno, poking his way through the party.

He'd notched 348 victories before this one, but it's been a long while since one carried this much meaning. Midway through this season, the win over the Buckeyes cemented Penn State's spot among the nation's best and put the Nittany Lions atop the Big Ten standings. Paterno would never say it, but it also served as a redemption of sorts for the much-maligned coach.

Appreciate their roster, love their defense, fawn over their receivers. But what's really different is pacing over there on the sidelines, shielded behind those triple-paned eyeglasses.

They said the 78-year-old head coach was unwilling to change his ways. He was the subject of an infamous Web site, His own fans, who had treated him like a deity for four decades, had suddenly revolted, boldly chanting "Joe must go!"

The Web site is down now, bought out and closed. And the chants have again turned into cheers. All because Paterno violated one of his most rigid rules.

It used to be that Penn State freshmen were treated worse than second-class citizens. At the team's annual media day, the Nittany Lions would pose for a team photograph, and then Paterno would immediately order all the freshmen off the field. They didn't talk, they didn't play and they didn't exist.

Whether he really wanted to or not, the old coach has been forced to utilize his youth this year. His leading scorer - kicker Kevin Kelly - and three leading receivers are all freshmen.

Paterno has turned to six true freshmen and 15 redshirt freshmen this season. And the youngest players are the ones who are making the biggest plays. Last night, it was freshman receiver Derrick Williams who ran for a 13-yard touchdown in the second quarter. Two weeks ago, the Greenbelt native caught a 36-yard game-winning touchdown with less than a minute to play at Northwestern.

In years past, a player like Williams would never have left the bench. A freshman's place was in the background. This is a coach who would've sat Herschel Walker. Adrian Peterson might've been on the scout team.

Paying your dues is great in theory, but at the collegiate level a coach needs to recognize that some players can make an immediate impact. So Paterno relented.

Suddenly, a Penn State team that was ranked 104th last year in total offense was ranked 20th through five games. The No. 16 Nittany Lions are undefeated and in the Top 25 for the first time since August 2003.

This season marks Paterno's 56th on staff at Penn State, his 40th as head coach. There have been 765 Division I coaches hired since he joined the coaching ranks. It's not easy for someone with that much experience to make a fundamental change.

Paterno's concession has restored the faith of a hostile fan base and might ultimately allow the coach to walk away from the game on more graceful terms.

The buzz around the football program is inescapable, even if Paterno is trying not to notice.

"No, I have not been downtown checking pulses," he said last week. "I get up in the morning just checking to see if my heart is going."

He faced doubters and critics at every turn the past couple of years. But how was anyone to know that a 78-year-old could be this flexible? It certainly seemed like the game was passing him by. His team had posted four losing seasons in five years. A man revered as old school was being criticized as an old fool.

Now no one is talking about wheeling JoePa off into the sunset. After a few tough years, there's finally a successful combination, a reluctant union of old and young.

Last night, when it was all over, the excitement was too much for the bleachers. It spilled onto the field. The old-timers, the young kids, the eight guys who painted "Rose Bowl" across their chests.

Nearly 110,000 of them battled rain and chilly temperatures - not just last night, but all week. More than 150 tents had been pitched outside the stadium. "Paternoville," the camping students called it.

They'd looked forward to this party. The game was over and 10 minutes passed. Then 15. Then 30. They were still pouring out of the stands, at least a couple thousand of them.

"Fans, we ask for your cooperation," the voice on the public address system said. "Please clear the field. There is more football to played at Beaver Stadium this season."

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