Since becoming head coach in 1966, Joe Paterno has five undefeated seasons, and two national titles. Since joining the Big Ten in 1993, he has 2 Big Ten Titles. He's also won more bowl games than any coach in history with 24.
He is the face of the school and the football program. Some may argue he is the face of college football over the last 50 years. He is the longest standing head coach at one school, ever. He is one game behind Bobby Bowden for the title of winningest Division 1A coach of all time. (Although 31 of Bowdens wins are at D1-AA Howard College.)
He has had several offers over his years to leave the college ranks and jump to the NFL. He has declined each time. He loves where he is, and he loves his football program.
But can there be a point of loving it too much?
It's now 2008 and with the recruiting season coming to an end, many Penn State football fans are questioning where this program Joe's put on the map is headed. He has obviously been a great coach and a great recruiter. However, things are looking down now as far as recruiting and big game wins.
Joe is now in a position where he can decide what he wants to do. However, what he decides will have a great impact on the program's future.
If he decides that 2008—being his last contracted year—is his last, we need to know this now.
This will motivate the team—with 17 returning starters—to send Joe off on a high note. The team will come out fired up and focused and know that they are part of a team about to send a legendary coach off into the sunset. This will also help the program set up a succession plan now, and hopefully have a new coach lined up. Whether the coach is an internal promotion (hopefully not Jay Paterno) or an outside big name (like Greg Schiano who has said Penn State is his dream job,) this needs to be known now.
If Joe decides he wants to stay past 2008, this also needs to be known now.
Recruits do not like the uncertainty of the situation. They need to know who their coach will be for their time at the school. Boosters and alumni do not like the uncertainty of the situation, and as we know, money and alumni support is very important to college football. However, if he does decide to stay, the question becomes: Is he staying too long? Has the game passed him by?
Those close to Joe, like Todd Blackledge, say the game has not passed him by. They say he is still as sharp as ever and knows his football. This may be true, but there is something to be said about being too "old school."
Joe is from a time when the Big Ten and other power programs were known for a "3 yards and a cloud of dust" style of play. Woody Hayes, legendary coach of Ohio State, was known for being all about the run. He claimed there was no reason to pass because two out of three outcomes of the pass are bad (incomplete or intercepted). Joe is part of that generation of coaching.
Before I get verbally murdered by too many die hard Penn State fans, I will say Joe has adjusted to the times—to an extent. Clearly, 2005 showed that he can use the new popular spread offense if the opportunity is there with the quarterback (Michael Robinson, at the time). Word is that if Daryll Clark wins the starting job for 2008, this offense will be applied again.
However, even in 2005, a season when Penn State went 11-1, won the Big Ten, won the Orange Bowl, and finished third in the BCS rankings—people question Joe's old-school conservative style. His "playing not to lose" rather than "playing to win" style is what some blame as the reason Penn State lost at Michigan that year on the final play of the game.
This leads to the questions of his coaching style in big time road games.
Penn State has not beat Michigan at all since 1996, and has not won at Ohio State since joining the Big Ten. Some say 2005 was an aberration and just Robinson winning in spite of Joe's coaching.
Right now, it almost seems as if the program is being held hostage until Joe makes his decision.
The University will not, and should not force a legend like Joe Paterno out. Joe is the reason this program matters and has such high expectations.
However, Joe needs to know that his indecision puts his beloved program in the worst possible place—a standstill. While Penn State is in a standstill, the Ohio States and Michigans of the world are distancing themselves even more.
Joe Paterno always says that his father told him that anything he ever does, make sure he leaves his mark. Joe Paterno has obviously left his mark on Penn State Football and College football as a whole. What he needs to do now is leave a positive mark on the future of the program by allowing a succession plan to unfold.