Penn State Football: Is This Joe Paterno's Last Year at Penn State?

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Penn State Football: Is This Joe Paterno's Last Year at Penn State?
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Paterno (right) enters the final year of his contract at Penn State

Lyndon B. Johnson was president, the cost of a gallon of regular gas was $0.32, Star Trek aired for the first time and man had not yet landed on the moon.

What do all of these items have in common? The year was 1966, which also happens to be Joe Paterno's first year as head coach at Penn State.

Fast forward 45 years, 401 wins and two national championships later and the legendary coach is still roaming the sidelines in Beaver Stadium. While it's a forgone conclusion that the stadium will be renamed in honor of Paterno, the question remains just how long he will be under the helm in Happy Valley.

To say Penn State is loyal to its football coaches is like saying Glen Beck is slightly conservative.

Penn State has had just four head coaches (Bob Higgins, Joe Bedenk, Rip Engle and Paterno) since 1930. Meanwhile, in-state rival Pittsburgh has had three head coaches in the last four months.

The days of guys like Paterno, Bobby Bowden and Eddie Robinson coaching into their late 70s and 80s will be a thing of the past as the game continues to evolve and the pressure to win championships expand. Urban Meyer re-signed twice at Florida due to fatigue and health issues, and he was only 46.

“I have been a Division I football coach for the last 25 years and, during that time, my primary focus has been helping my teams win titles,” Meyer said in an official statement released by the school following his decision. “I have thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it, and I am a fierce competitor to my core. At this time in my life, however, I appreciate the sacrifices my 24/7 profession has demanded of me, and I know it is time to put my focus on my family and life away from the field. The decision to step down was a difficult one."

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While Meyer's decision to retire was his own, Paterno has been under pressure of late to make a choice so the university doesn't get stuck in a situation similar to the one at Florida State. The Seminoles, stuck in unenviable position, put the pressure on Bowden to step down after the team had fallen to the middle of the pack in the ACC.

Bowden never wanted to retire but did so allowing Jimbo Fisher a shot at changing the direction of the program. In just his first year in Tallahassee, Fisher had Florida State in the ACC championship game last season and he recently brought in the nation's No. 2 rated recruiting class according to Rivals.com.

Critics in Happy Valley have pointed to situations like the one at Florida State where a switch to a more energetic and eager coach can create positive energy for the football program. However, there are also those who would look to Michigan as a way of how things can go down hill in a hurry.

With this being Paterno's final year under contract there's no question the national media, recruits, fans and players will be focused entirely on what will be his future status with the program. If Paterno does not receive an extension during the season, it will be extremely difficult for Penn State to bring in highly recruited prospects with the notion that there will be a new coach in the 2012 season.

Previous guesses at Paterno's successor always pointed towards someone on his staff, but this winter proved that may not necessarily be the case. Defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, regarded as the most likely to take over if it's someone on the staff, threw his hat in the ring for the head coaching job at Pittsburgh but was turned down.

Jeff Gross/Getty Images
Could Patterson be on Penn State's wish list to be its next head coach?

Bradley's flirtation with the Panthers created ramped speculation on message boards that this was a clear indication that Paterno would not be back at Penn State after the 2011 campaign. If that's the case, and Penn State doesn't hire someone on the staff, who would the university choose as the next head coach?

Two candidates that immediately were scratched off include former Penn State players Mike Munchak and Al Golden, who were hired as head coaches by the Tennessee Titans and University of Miami, respectively.

Other people with Penn State ties that could potentially be on the list include Rutgers' coach Greg Schiano and Green Bay Packers' secondary coach Darren Perry (who was an All-American selection in 1991 at the hero spot for the Lions).

But if the hiring for the football position is consistent with those selections for the baseball, wrestling, men's lacrosse and Lady's basketball teams at Penn State, then athletic director Tim Curley will be searching for someone outside the program. Curley's coup in landing Cael Sanderson as the wrestling coach helped the Lions earn a national championship over the weekend for its first title since 1953. It also happens to be just Sanderson's second year at the helm.

If Curley goes outside the program and looks for a big name comparable to Sanderson in football, then you would expect the names of Boise State's Chris Petersen and TCU's Gary Patterson to be on that short list. Both Peterson and Patterson have moved the Broncos and Horned Frogs to national prominence and have become the hottest names in college football.

As spring practice approaches, Paterno's uncertainty regarding his contract will be on the front burner.

Curley can take the heat off by giving Paterno a new deal, or he can fan the flames by entering the season with a coaching legend in the final year of his contract.

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