Plenty of issues surround Lions, starting at the top
UNIVERSITY PARK - If it's hard to remember Penn State entering a football season with this much uncertainty, that's probably because there's never been one.
* There's a possibility the Nittany Lions will start a freshman quarterback and a more likely probability they'll end the season with one at the helm.n Concern surrounding the quarterback has to be exacerbated by an offensive line that Joe Paterno himself admitted Thursday, "We've got troubles there."
* Linebacker U., though still stocked with potential standouts, returns no starters at the defense's most important position.
* The team that will have to rely on defense and field position, especially early, will be breaking in a new punter.
* After struggling to win the Blue-White Game, the Lions' schedule is loaded with land mines as they will visit three Top-10 teams (Alabama, Iowa and Ohio State).
But of all the questions, there's none bigger than the one at the top, and it's this: Is the most magnificent coaching run in sports history, college or pro, about to strike midnight?
All signs indicate Joe Paterno has finally reached his last season.
The beloved leader of the Nittany Lions has long advocated that in football "you're always fighting time." Twenty years ago, he showed up at Media Day and, trying to convince himself, said, "I'm not 63, I'm 53."
Well, he's 83 now, and clearly time has closed the gap on the incredible pace he's set since stepping foot on the Penn State campus in 1950.
As he slowly made his way Thursday to take his place in the middle of the annual team picture at Beaver Stadium, followed by traditional shots with his assistants, freshman class and quarterbacks, longtime observers got the distinct sense that this would be JoePa's last such posing.
Typically, he'd change into coaching attire for pictures. This time, he just took off his sport coat and wore his white dress shirt.
Either for health issues that have weakened him or by choice and probably both, he backed off public appearances this summer and has already confirmed he won't be part of the Thursday night radio show. Whether he'll be up to the weekly Quarterback Club sessions, the pre-game radio interview and the Tuesday media gatherings is questionable, too.
Standing up for three-plus hours on the sidelines and negotiating all the pre- and post-game commotion figures to present physical and logistical challenges as well - especially on the road where it may be tougher to get him on and off the field safely. That's if he's even on the field.
JoePa is focused solely on channeling all of the energy he has left toward coaching, and he's six wins from the magical 400 plateau. Not many of them, particularly after September, will come too easily.
He admits of his coaching staff, "They probably are carrying me."
But no succession plan has been announced, and that's because it's not in place, which creates further uncertainty around the program.
For so many years, most have said, and rightly so, that JoePa deserves to write his own final chapter and go out on his own terms.
It now appears he's facing the last dozen games of a career that will undoubtedly chisel his face on the Mount Rushmore wing of coaching greats, and that 2010 will be his final hurrah.
And if that's the case, how and where it ends for the only head coach the vast majority of the Nittany Nation has ever known, will totally overshadow any other game, win or lose, this season.
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.