By Cory Giger
UNIVERSITY PARK -- Could this really be Joe Paterno's final season?
Penn State's legendary coach says no, but depending on how things go this fall, he may not have the last word about his future at the school.
With Paterno preparing for his 43rd season as Nittany Lions head coach, university president Graham Spanier faces the daunting task of deciding if there will be a 44th season on the horizon for JoePa.
It's a classic power struggle between one man whose legacy has long been cemented in college football and another whose legacy forever could be altered by his actions concerning the iconic coach.
JoePa vs. Bowden
Most career wins by a Division I-A coach:
1. Bobby BowdenFlorida State 373
2. Joe PaternoPenn State 372
Note: Bowden had 31 wins at Samford, which was not D-I, from 1959-62, but the NCAA counts those victories toward his total.
Paterno, who doesn't even refer to Spanier by name and instead always calls him the "university president," is in the final year of his contract. Spanier is on record saying Paterno might coach beyond this year but will not get another contract, adding it's not practical "given Coach Paterno's seniority."
"Our preference is to continue to review the status of the program on an annual basis," Spanier wrote in a statement to The Associated Press in April, "and we will next do so at the conclusion of the 2008 season."
Every sports team at every level is reviewed on an annual basis, so taken that way, Spanier's statement seems benign. Taken another way, though, it appears to send a clear message:
Paterno needs a good season to keep his job.
If that is indeed the case, the tough part becomes defining what will be good enough.
Ten or more wins and a New Year's Day bowl seemingly would give Paterno enough leverage in his battle with Spanier. But what about a 9-4 season? Or 8-5, which would mean the Lions likely lost at least two games they were expected to win.
It also may not be as simple as wins and losses. The Penn State football program was embarrassed last month by ESPN's "Outside the Lines" program for a slew of off-the-field legal problems, and Spanier pointedly said on the show those problems have to stop.
If players keep getting in trouble with the law at an alarming rate, Paterno's support within the university may drop off to the point where Spanier has enough backing to make a coaching change.
"Yeah, we made mistakes," Paterno admitted on media day. "I tried to do the best I could to make sure that the team learned from it."
Most of the players must have learned their lesson since the program encountered no major off-the-field problems during the offseason. Paterno also showed he still knows how to lay down the law as he booted defensive tackles Chris Baker and Phil Taylor off the team for reasons the coach would not make public.
Winning cures most ills, and a lot of the off-the-field issues may be forgotten if Penn State enjoys a big season. Spanier likely would find increased resistance to oust the legendary coach under that scenario.
So for all intents and purposes, the ball is in Paterno's court.
The coach will have a lot of weapons at his disposal as the Lions return 16 starters, including senior receivers Derrick Williams, Deon Butler and Jordan Norwood and an experienced offensive line led by senior center A.Q. Shipley and senior left tackle Gerald Cadogan.
There's a major question mark at quarterback, however, and Paterno still has yet to decide if Daryll Clark or Pat Devlin will be the starter. Clark played sparingly the past two years as Anthony Morelli's backup, while Devlin, the Pennsylvania high school career passing leader, has thrown just one pass in a college game.
Paterno repeatedly has said he prefers a one-quarterback system, though he did use a tandem set in the late 1990s with Rashard Casey and Kevin Thompson. The coach had to be reminded of when he last used a rotating system.
"That's ," Paterno replied. "That's 150 years ago. "I don't mean to be, to back away from it, it's just 150 years ago in my mind. OK? There are certain things I want to remember because I think they're important for what I want to do with the particular job I have today."
A big part of the job for Paterno this season will be giving his offensive playmakers more opportunities to make plays.
The talk all summer has been about the Lions' new Spread HD offense, which is designed to take advantage of the team's personnel and speed. All the hype won't mean anything, however, and the offense could sputter if Paterno persists on sticking with his conservative, let-the-defense-win-the-game approach.
Will JoePa open things up on offense?
"I hope so," Williams said. "I really hope so. I believe that he [will]. I feel that we have a veteran team now, and I think that he's ready to let it loose."
Paterno does have high hopes for this season -- "I really like the squad," he said -- and that's especially good for him since his future very well could depend on the team's performance.
"Despite all the distractions and things that have gone on," Paterno said, "they've kind of gathered together and made up their minds that they're going to have a good football team. And I think they have the potential to do that."
Cory Giger is at 949-7031 and email@example.com.