Posted by Adam Jacobi
Business as usual, business as usual. That approach, that adherence to process is what anybody needs to persevere in a competitive field for 45 years--the amount of time Joe Paterno has spent at the helm of Penn State. Now, the concept of "usual" is pretty loose in college football on a year-to-year basis, but at the end of the day, it's pretty much the same: recruit at a high level, get your defense playing hard, and make sure your playmakers are on the field on offense. Sure, that's overly simplified, but it's a formula Paterno has followed en route to 401 wins at the helm of the Nittany Lions.
But what happens when that formula is no longer applicable? What happens when Paterno can't lean on a veteran QB, a considerable talent differential, or even a psychological edge on his opponents? What if this is the year it all comes tumbling down?
People have been speculating on what year would be Paterno's last since he turned 70. That was 15 years ago. Paterno has always laughed off the speculation and has never set a date of departure, and that's been fine because far more often than not, his teams have backed him up. Even after a rough five-year stretch at the start of last decade, the Nittany Lions returned to form and went 11-1, their only loss coming at the last second at Michigan. Three years later, PSU went 11-1 in the regular season, and again, their only loss came at the last second--this time at Iowa. There have been a slew of nine-win seasons as well. Business as usual.
But this offseason, things looked to be on the precipice of unraveling. Paterno wouldn't let quarterbacks Rob Bolden or Kevin Newsome transfer, much to their chagrin. Both men are now entrenched in a quarterback battle with putative starter Matt McGloin, a former walk-on who struggled with consistency last season. That battle ought to continue as close to the beginning of the season as possible, which hardly does any favors to a quarterback who'll probably want to transfer if he's not given the starting job. That's JoePa's M.O., though. Business as usual.
The offseason was also marked by the potential for serious turmoil. Longtime Paterno assistant Tom Bradley was thisclose to accepting the Pittsburgh head coaching spot, only to have the deal break down over details. If he had taken the spot, there's no telling how many PSU assistants he'd have been able to bring with him. Probably more than one. It's one thing to keep Joe Paterno around as long as he wants. It'd be quite another to keep him around andtask him with rebuilding a coaching staff that he has increasingly come to rely on now that he's in his 80s. The Penn State brass has always been patient with JoePa, and that's a good thing, but that patience is largely due to his ability to maintain stability and high standards of performance. Take those away, and he's just a very old coach in charge of a program in flux, and that's far less appetizing to any athletic director.
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That performance, though, may be on the wane once again. Penn State barely eked out a winning record last season, going 7-6 and losing its bowl appearance against a similarly underachieving Florida squad. The quarterback situation is uninspiring. So is the defense, which allowed more points than it has in 27 years and returns no first-team or second-team All-Big Ten performers (to be fair, DBs Drew Astorino and D'Anton Lynn were honorable mention, as was DT Devon Still; they're all back). Linebacker U's linebackers anchored a rush defense that was 74th nationally against the run -- and two of the top four tacklers in that unit have graduated. Nate Stupar is back, and while he's good, he's not Linebacker U good yet. Michael Mauti might be . PSU had better hope he is.
The recruiting suffered this year, too. The normally dynamic Larry Johnson Sr. didn't have a lot of roster spots to fill, but the recruits he did get weren't terribly impressive. DE signee Anthony Zettel was No. 82 in Tom Lemming's Top 100 list, but that was basically it for incoming future stars. If Johnson can't get top talent to get excited about Penn State anymore, that levels the playing field against the rest of college football -- and widens the growing gap between Penn State and the powerhouses.
All that, and JoePa got one year older. He can't coach forever, and whenever the time is that he physically can't coach anymore might be, he's one year closer to it now than he was a year ago. Time may seem immaterial to him, but make no mistake: his career is in its twilight.
Yes, yes, this is all old hat to Paterno and Penn State now: the growing doubts in the spring, the concerns over his age, the notion of the program being on the precipice of collapse. They've dealt with this for decades, and they've usually dealt with it by going out and whipping their opponents up and down the field anyway. But what if they don't in 2011? What if this is the last chapter in the JoePa Saga? And if that's not a hard enough problem to consider... what comes after that?