This is the time of year for sketchy, half-baked ideas to find their way into print, because something has to be in there, you know, for the advertisers. Some of these memes are born to die quick, painless deaths when the real business starts back up in August.
Doesn’t need your help. Actually, help for what? Didn’t even fall.
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For Penn State, this means another never-ending round of "Is JoePa Too Old?" for the fifteenth summer in a row. Only this time, there seems to be some consensus: yes, yes he is too old. Most of America has recognized the Paterno Gap since the first of the Lions’ string of off-the-map collapses in 2000, which has left PSU several games behind Iowa, Wisconsin and Purdue in Big Ten games this decade. As I predicted in February, though, back when papers began reporting president Graham Spanier had earned the clout to push the old man if it came to shoving, the thin veil separating zombie jokes and informal chatter is dissolving into an open, public theme in the Pennsylvania press.
To begin with, every story mentions the expiration of Paterno’s contract after this fall (even if, after 52 years, he don’t need no stinking contract). In February, Terrelle Pryor’s high school coach said Terrelle would have been a Lion if defensive coordinator Tom Bradley was the head coach instead of Paterno. Now, without getting all JOEPA WANT BRAINS!!! about it, two articles in the last week have not-so-subtly suggested that at least some rough succession plan is already in place, or in progress, per the ever-reliable word of recruits who told the Pittsburgh Post Gazette two weekends ago and then the Altoona Mirror last weekend that, sure, Paterno’s not likely to make it through their tenure, but PSU had promised his successor would come from the current staff. From the Mirror:
Players recruited by the Nittany Lions are being assured that when Paterno retires, his replacement will come from the current coaching staff rather than an outside hire.
"Mr. Paterno told me himself that his replacement is already within the staff, so he'll just bring one new guy in and bump everybody up in the ranks," linebacker Mike Yancich from Washington, Pa., said.
Those words apparently can make quite an impact on a youngster. "Coaching stability is not going to be any big deal at Penn State," Yancich said.
Fightonstate.com recruiting reporter Cory James speaks frequently with every Penn State recruit and confirmed Yancich's comments about coaching promises.
"They tell the recruits that the next coach will come from within and the program won't change while they're there," James said. "Every kid I've talked to, that's 100 percent the answer that Penn State has said."
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You don’t have to absolutely know to read between the lines.The final year of a contract + a crescendo of open internal and external speculation about succession + a president ready to move = Year One of the Official Paterno Farewell Tour, where the dominant theme is the quiet assumption -- couched in more open speculation, just to be polite and journalistic-y about it -- that this is it. Maybe you don’t know, but you kinda know, right, so it’s okay to ask: is this the last time he runs onto (and possibly off of, and then on again, depending on how the pregame meal is sitting) the field at Wisconsin? At Ohio State? Is this the last chance to end the improbable, decade-long losing streak to Michigan? Can he leave on top against Michigan State? You don’t have to know to assume, the way everyone just assumed (correctly) it was Lloyd Carr’s last go-round with Michigan. And you can go on assuming in 2009, if necessary, and 2010 and forever, until the blazers and congratulatory Barca loungers from opposing teams on road trips spill out of the Paternos’ garage. The Paterno Farewell Tour can become a tradition unto itself.
This seems like the perfect scenario to pull a Purdue/Kentucky/Florida State and name the successor in advance, even if Paterno has no intentions of hanging it up in December -- while Joe Tiller knows this is his last year, Rich Brooks and Bobby Bowden have no firm timeline for handing UK and FSU to Joker Phillips and Jimbo Fisher, respectively, just a promise that it won’t be too far into the future -- yet seems more likely to veer into the tiight-lipped, "I don’t know what you’re talking about" territory Carr occupied last fall. We won’t know until we know. But really, we know. (We think).
Meanwhile, the people, they’re growing desperate. Brian Cook pointed this out last month, and the York Daily Record came right out with it on Sunday: "Skill players lacking with Penn State football." With Derrick Williams, Jordan Norwood and the balleyhooed class of 2005 preparing to take its final bows, this is a fact -- since PSU’s stunning turnaround in ‘05, according to Rivals:
They’re still doing okay defensively, but five skill guys in two years, none of them better than three stars? Two entire classes with no running backs or quarterbacks? That is Northwestern level recruiting. Michigan, Ohio State and Notre Dame all outperformed the Lions’ four-year haul in last year’s class alone; even Pittsburgh, which has six four-star-or-better signees at skill positions the last two years, has completely eaten PSU’s lunch with the ball-handling players.
Not that anyone can pull strings with an iconoclast as entrenched, beloved and scandal-free as Paterno, but certain players -- see Pryor, Terrelle, above -- very obviously don’t want to play for Penn State anymore. Parterno may have his own timeline, but sooner or later -- and the thesis here certainly supports "sooner" -- the decision has to get made.
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Hat tips to increasingly jaded PSU partisans at Black Shoe Diaries and Run Up the Score and the eternally jaded BC at the Fanhouse. Apologies to all for not working in the requisite jab at JayPa.