Critics help Paterno's old habits die easier

November 25, 2005|By RICK MAESE

On the cover of this week's Sports Illustrated, you can see Penn State football coach Joe Paterno running onto the field with his players right behind him. "Yo, Joe," the headline reads, followed by some smaller print: "Going great at 78, Joe Paterno has Penn State back in the big time."

The old Nittany Lions coach is certainly getting a lot of ink these days, most of it well-deserved after his team locked up the Big Ten title last weekend. It's apparently impossible, though, to discuss the resurgence of the Penn State program and not mention that JoePa has won - he courageously defeated his detractors.

It'd be a great little theory to rest your head on because it reaffirms Paterno's legacy, reminds us that he's one of the most important men to blow air through a whistle and also gives us a bit of hope for ourselves when we reach that age.

But it's completely wrong. Paterno didn't win football games this season and then suddenly this faceless throng of critics found itself cooked. The old coach didn't outsmart any doubters. In fact, the reason Paterno found success this season is that he yielded to their criticism and finally changed his approach to the game.

The Nittany Lions won football games because Paterno finally used his entire roster, allowing freshmen to play big roles in big games, opening up the offense, and turning to a quarterback who might not have seen a single snap on one Paterno's previous teams.

Not that this will stop anyone from bruising a hand slapping the coach on the back. Dick Weiss, a well-respected writer for the New York Daily News wrote last month that JoePa "has gotten the last laugh on all of us."

"Paterno's critics owe him an apology," Weiss wrote, noting that this year marks Paterno's best coaching performance since the 1994 Nittany Lions went 12-0.

A year removed from a 4-7 finish, Happy Valley is elated again. But the same three words train their way from fan to fan and booster to booster: It's about time. Put simply, if Paterno didn't finally tweak his approach, we're not talking about a 10-1 conference champion right now. We're not talking about a team that is guaranteed a spot in a Bowl Championship Series game, a team that actually has an outside shot at the national championship.

Instead, we'd be shaking our heads over another underperforming Penn State team and wondering which of the talented freshmen would transfer first.

The critics called and Paterno finally answered, which surely wasn't an easy thing to do. Paterno's roots go so deep; the ends are fossilized. They're outdated. He was outdated.

But he finally listened, and the same group that was calling for his resignation is now talking about him as a Coach of the Year candidate.

Paterno has said several times over the years that he prefers to play his veteran players. He has turned to freshmen occasionally in the past, but never like this year.

The team's leading scorer is freshman kicker Kevin Kelly. The Nittany Lions' three leading receivers are all freshmen. Redshirt freshman Deon Butler has nine touchdowns, leading all receivers on the team. And Derrick Williams, a true freshman who suffered a season-ending injury last month, deserves a lot of credit for the on-field turnaround.

As much publicity as the freshmen have received, the offense revolves around senior Michael Robinson, a dual-threat quarterback whose athleticism forced Paterno to bring his offense into the new century - with some prodding.

Offensive coordinator Galen Hall and assistant coaches Jay Paterno and Mike McQueary visited the University of Texas to talk with Longhorns coaches about using a more creative spread option attack.

The result? Penn State, which ranked No. 105 in total offense a year ago, is No. 28 this season. Robinson is 17th in the country in points accounted for. He rushed for a net of 785 yards and had 11 rushing touchdowns in 11 games.

Robinson set a school record for total yards and had his hands in 26 touchdowns. When postseason awards get passed around, his name deserves to be mentioned ahead of many higher-profile quarterbacks.

Penn State's hopes for a spot in the Rose Bowl are tied strongest to today's Texas A&M-Texas game. Regardless, Paterno will continue to receive praise. I prefer to divvy it up: to Robinson, to the freshmen, and to Hall, the offensive coordinator.

Around State College, Pa., they'll always worship JoePa as something otherworldly. While they take joy in their coach's success, there isn't as much clamoring as you might expect for Paterno's long-term future as Nittany Lions leader.

The coach remains mum about how long he'll stick around. Now that Paterno's heels aren't dug so deep in the dirt, there isn't the same urgency attached to the decision.

Penn State's turnaround is certainly impressive, and Paterno does deserve to be lauded. But his team didn't find success in spite of his critics. If anything, it was because of them.

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