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Is JoePa coaching with back to wall?

October 6, 2007
The Altoona Mirror

The last two weeks were big games for the Nittany Lions.

Beating Michigan was necessary in order to stay in the BCS title picture, to maybe oil up the old national championship bandwagon.

In the wake of the Michigan loss, beating Illinois was important to stay in the Big Ten title hunt.

Now that both of those opportunities have been engulfed by Penn State's inability to swim in the red zone, today is another important game -- for a different reason.

This time, it's important for Joe Paterno.

A championship run of any kind aside, the biggest story surrounding Penn State football is how much longer the Paterno Era will last and on whose terms it will conclude.

Paterno signed and/or the university announced a five-year contract extension after the 2003 season. That agreement would expire after 2008.

At the time, even though he was coming off three losing seasons in four years, not to mention losing all of the biggest games in 2002 with a lineup stocked with NFL talent, and even though he was then 76, Penn State stood by its man and went along with JoePa's wishes.

Fastforward four years.

He careened to 4-7 in '04. After a 2-7 start, university officials pushed him on a retirement plan, and he successfully talked them out of it.

He delivered a great year -- in 2005 when the Lions finished 11-1 and ranked No. 3 in the country after beating Florida State in the Orange Bowl.

Last year brought an ordinary 9-4, void of a great Big Ten win but was capped by an encouraging victory over Tennessee in the Outback Bowl.

Which brings us to this year. With hopes high for another 2005-type charge, the Lions once again could not conquer Michigan, and in fact turned in one of the more discouraging performances in recent history, given the expectations, when Paterno tore out the more imaginative plans of the playbook and tried to win the game 16-14.

It didn't work, and the hangover continued last week in a loss at Illinois, embellishing the Lions' away difficulties and sending them to their 19th loss in their last 30 Big Ten road trips.

The upside is they're 16-1 in the last three years at Beaver Stadium.

Iowa has beaten Penn State five straight games, including the 6-4 gem in 2004 -- a game in which the Hawkeye staff practically taunted the Lions by taking a fourth-quarter safety, confident the Nit offense couldn't inch its way into field goal range.

Iowa was right.

Which is all the more reason Paterno has to win today. If he can't stop the bleeding against what this year is a struggling Iowa team, if he slips to 3-3 with visits from Wisconsin and Ohio State sandwiched around a trip to Bloomington looming, not to mention explosive Purdue and improving Michigan State in November, there's reason to think this will be a 7-5 season at best and likely a lot worse.

If that happens, since nobody wants to coach the final year of his contract, obviously preferring to get an extension as a recruiting statement, what does Paterno do?

Does he retire? Does he coach next year? Does he admit to himself that the last time he got the most out of his talent was 1996? Does he push school president Graham Spanier, who recently signed a five-year extension and plans to manage the ultimate transition?

And at 7-5 or less, what does Spanier do?

Since the '04 retirement discussion, the relationship between Paterno and Spanier has been frosty. Paterno has taken a few veiled public digs at Spanier. And during WPSX's "Huddle Up" TV show on the Nittany Lions last week, Spanier said this about the Lion offense: "We clearly did not play to our potential. A lot of our fans I'm hearing from are wondering about the playcalling. We kept trying to run the ball when it wasn't working. We have great wide receivers. I would have thought we would have tried harder to reach them."

At the same time, you'd guess the last thing Spanier wants to do is take Paterno's keys, that his retirement should be graceful, at least a mutual decision, and not a surrender.

But Paterno has resisted a succession plan and clearly created the scenario he's in by staying this long, chasing but unable to catch his 1980s' shadow.

To maintain control of his own destiny, at least through next year if he wants it, JoePa better win today.

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