Joe Paterno and the Penn State Nittany Lions: Has the End Begun?

Tim KingCorrespondent IJuly 30, 2010

ORLANDO, FL - JANUARY 1: Head coach Joe Paterno of the Penn State Nittany Lions leaves the field following the 2010 Capital One Bowl against the LSU Tigers at the Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium on January 1, 2010 in Orlando, Florida. Penn State won 19-17. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Joe Paterno has had one of those summers that he would rather forget.

For a guy who hates doctors, he’s seen one too many of them this summer. For a guy who likes some down time at his beach house in the summer, he hasn’t had enough of it. For a guy who loves the structure of his life, all of it has been disrupted.

Joe looks OK these days. You’d hardly know that he’s spent most of the summer fighting an infection that forced him to cancel a handful of very public events across the state. His son Jay says that his dad’s appetite has returned, but that’s not really news until you understand just how sick Paterno was this offseason.

Don’t bother asking Joe about any of this either. Some fool will try to get Joe to open up about this at the press conference that opens fall camp, and he’ll get an answer that starts with: “Ehhhhh, you guys………”

The alarm bells have not been ringing in Happy Valley over this. As Joe wants it, the story largely flew beneath the radar, but it is a story, and in fact, it might be the beginning of the biggest story in Penn State history.

The beginning of the end for JoePa.

Joe Paterno is the brightest 83-year-old you will ever meet. The mental gymnastics that he is still capable of would shame a man half his age, and his schedule in-season would wear down all but the heartiest of souls. But 83 is 83, and this is now the third summer in the last five where Joe has found himself recovering from some medical setback.

Had this latest malady struck in midseason, we would have been subject to another year where Joe spends his Saturday afternoons in the press box while Tom Bradley runs the show at field level. Had this happened during the season, the headlines would be blaring and the fanbase in an uproar. For the moment, at least, we have been spared all of that. But again 83 is 83.

Unless the sky comes crashing down in Central Pennsylvania, 2010 will be a milestone year. At some point during this season, likely before you are chasing trick-or-treaters off of your porch, Paterno will have earned career win number 400. That is a mind-bending number in a field where a godly number of its practitioners never reach 400 games. Joe will tell you the number doesn’t mean that much, but like his hero Joe DiMaggio, he’s put the number so high that it’s unlikely that anyone will touch it again.

Paterno’s contract is essentially a handshake deal between him and Penn State president Graham Spanier, where the two men sit down at the end of the season and see where things stand. If Joe spends the season on the sidelines and gets his team to another bowl game, the answer is easy.

But what if the summer-long battle spills over into the season? What if he’s back in the press box or even takes in a couple of games from his study? If you are Spanier, where do you have to draw the line?

Joe promised long ago that when it came time to leave, he would not “leave the cupboard bare”, and at this juncture he has not. While the 2010 edition of his team is young and untested, it boasts two of his better recruiting classes. If he sticks around long enough, this group might give Joe one last chance at a national title. That is one of the things that keeps Joe going through hip surgeries and summers like this one.

But how many times can a man come back? How much is left, and where as a university president overseeing a $100 million athletic program do you draw that line?

Is this the year Graham Spanier has to take out his pen?