He had charisma and was a great leader; he was interested in politics and was the state’s most recognizable figure.
Maybe as the years have turned to decades, it’s become more clear why he never ventured down that road: term limits.
He couldn’t have dealt with those.
Paterno will be deservedly enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame in New York on Tuesday night, and he took the time to sit down with members of the media Thursday. Mostly, it was a feel-good nostalgic lookback at his career, but make no mistake: Paterno also was doing some politicking during the 90-minute session.
His contract runs through the 2008 season. To this point, there has been no public extension or addressing of the subject by Penn State’s administration. Paterno said Thursday he hopes to coach “three, four, five more years,” and with that declaration, perhaps he wants to get out in front of school president Graham Spanier, who is expected to manage the transition.
Paterno also politicked for the public’s confidence. Two players, Anthony Scirrotto and Chris Baker, face a December trial on felony charges, and Baker and two others were suspended for the season’s final game following charges stemming from a midseason brawl.
“We have to settle down and get over some of the junk we’ve gone through,” he said. “Some people want to make them look like a bunch of bums because they got into one fight, then another fight.”
Paterno then made the mistake of trying to downplay the situation by saying “there were no knives, no guns.”
He insisted his team is comprised of character, not characters.
“They’re good kids,” he said. “I have four or five jerks right now, but they won’t be jerks forever. They’ll grow up. We’re not perfect. I know I have a job to do with some of them, and we’ll get it done. But there has to be some consistency and some trust. I hope people understand we’re on the right road.”
Most don’t. The cries have been louder than ever for Paterno, who turns 81 in three weeks, to retire. The Lions have consistently fallen short of their potential on the field and embarrassed themselves off it.
Paterno doesn’t see the big picture or is blinded by it. He’s too busy looking back at an inexplicable second-half collapse at Michigan State — “I’m still sick about that game,” he said — and eager to find out the Lions’ bowl opponent and venue.
That short-term vision has been a blessing and a curse. It’s kept him going week to week, but the program has suffered from a lack of long-range planning.
He knows this year’s team fell short.
“I thought we’d be better,” he said. “We should have been a 10-2 team, and I blame myself.”
Still, he says, “I think we should be right in the thick of things next year for the national championship.”
Paterno also is politicking for the future staff. He mentioned how Rip Engle kept all the assistants when he was hired in 1950 and how Paterno did the same when he succeeded Engle in 1966.
“I would hope it would remain that way,” he said. “I would be concerned with making sure they get the right guy, if they ask me. They may not ask me.”
This offseason should be interesting. The lack of a contract extension may make recruiting more difficult, and while Paterno doesn’t anticipate staff changes, movement could be an indicator of whether current assistants sense the end is near.
The annual Rick Neuheisel rumor got some legs when the Baltimore Ravens assistant, during an open date, was spotted at Beaver Stadium for a midseason game.
“I have no indication anybody’s [leaving],” Paterno said. “I think we’re all right. That’s the biggest job I have right now.”
On retirement, Paterno said he knows “it’s coming,” but he hasn’t spent time envisioning his life without football. In fact, he practically has a death wish.
Asked the perfect ending, without much hesitation, he said, “I think the perfect ending is you drop dead ... at the end of the game after you’ve kicked the winning field goal, and you’re carried off the field, and everyone’s singing, ‘So long, Joe. It’s been wonderful.’”
Maybe we all should, too.
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or email@example.com.