Commentary

Paterno in '09 isn't a question … he's earned a new deal

Updated: October 13, 2008, 1:49 PM ET
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

Penn State president Graham Spanier has a commercial pilot's license, has run with the bulls at Pamplona and, here's a new one, is an actual magician.

The magic thing makes sense if you believe that Spanier or certain Penn State board of trustees members want to make Joe Paterno disappear.

Now you see JoePa … and in 2009, now you don't?

Spanier, perceived as no huge ally of the legendary Penn State coach, remains an X factor, but so does Paterno himself. In Paterno's business -- and make no mistake, college football is big business -- everything is about leverage. Paterno has it. Spanier doesn't.

What Paterno doesn't have is a contract after this season. So it's possible that a six-game countdown (five remaining regular-season games, one bowl game) is under way for major college football's winningest coach. It's also possible that Spanier and assorted trustees aren't upset about that prospect.

The official Penn State stance is this: Spanier, Paterno and athletic director Tim Curley agreed this past summer not to discuss JoePa's coaching future until season's end. And since it's only October …

[+] EnlargeJoe Paterno
Ned Dishman/Getty ImagesJoe Paterno has been patrolling the Penn State sidelines for 43 seasons. A 44th is still an open question.
But from the outside looking in -- and maybe from the inside looking in, too -- Paterno appears to have won the power struggle. But it's not as if Spanier is issuing any statements begging Paterno to re-up for another four years.

Paterno turns 82 in two months. He has eyeglasses older than some of his assistant coaches. And he might be the first eightysomething to injure his right hip while doing an onside kick. That's why he has spent parts of three Penn State games, including Saturday night's 48-7 road mauling of Wisconsin, in the coaches' booth.

So, yeah, he's old. He's also 7-0 this season and 38-9 in his past 47 games and, depending on how things shake out, could play for a BCS championship Jan. 8 in Miami. The latest rankings have Penn State ranked third in the country.

Leverage.

"Look, there are very few who are in Coach Paterno's category," Curley said. "I don't think there will ever be another coach who's done what he's done for one institution over a long period of time at the same institution."

Curley, a former Penn State walk-on, graduate assistant coach and recruiting coordinator, doesn't sound like a guy who wants the Paterno Era to end.

Question: "If it were up to you, would he be back next year?"

Certainly he's been an institution at our place, and I hope he coaches as long as he wants to and is willing to coach. There's not a better coach in the world, both college and pros, and I just hope we can continue to enjoy him for a long time to come.

--Penn State athletic director Tim Curley

Curley: "Certainly, he's been an institution at our place, and I hope he coaches as long as he wants to and is willing to coach. There's not a better coach in the world, both college and pros, and I just hope we can continue to enjoy him for a long time to come."

But what would happen if, say, Paterno wants an extension and Curley wants to give him an extension, but Spanier isn't in favor of Year 44 of Paterno?

"I wouldn't want to get into any kind of hypotheticals that could or might happen," Curley said. "We've all just agreed to, 'Look, we'll talk when it's the right time after the season, go from there and do what's best for the university and Coach Paterno.'"

What's best for the university -- and for college football -- is for Paterno to coach until he and his whistle drop. It's that simple. Paterno, not Spanier, will know when it's time to quit.

"I definitely think that's fair to say," Penn State senior safety Mark Rubin said. "I think his success with winning games, with winning bowl games, with graduation rates has proved that he's a great coach and teacher. And Penn State, in my opinion, would be lucky to have him for as long as they can."

On the flip side, it's obvious that Paterno is in considerable physical pain. He used a metal cane as he climbed several stairs to a small stage in the postgame media room at Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday.

One moment, he looks his age. The next moment, he reverts to JoePa mode when a reporter reminds Paterno of a December 2007 prediction: that Penn State could challenge for the national championship in '08.

"Geez, I must have been drinking that day," Paterno said, smiling. "But I think we certainly deserve to be considered right now."

Considered? Sophomore defensive end Aaron Maybin said he hasn't seen a team that's any better than the Nittany Lions. And senior wide receiver Jordan Norwood said there's "no doubt" that Penn State is national championship-caliber material. So there.

This is Paterno's 59th season at Penn State, his 43rd as its head coach. He's the longest-running show since "Cats." And yet, he could be unemployed on Jan. 9.

"It's something you think about," Norwood said.

Football is a zero-sum game. Only two letters of the alphabet matter: W and L. Age doesn't -- or shouldn't -- count for much.

Either you can recruit the players, or you can't. Either you can identify with them, or you can't. Either you can hold them together, or you can't. From what I've seen this is one of [Paterno's] better teams.

--Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez

"Either you can recruit the players, or you can't," said Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, who also spent 16 years as the Badgers' football coach. "Either you can identify with them, or you can't. Either you can hold them together, or you can't. From what I've seen, this is one of [Paterno's] better teams."

So I asked Alvarez what he'd think of the Nittany Lions if he didn't know an octogenarian was their coach.

"You just watch that football team and you think, 'That's a pretty good team,'" he said.

Penn State has outscored its opponents 317-77 this season. Its offensive production rivals that of the 1994 Nittany Lions, regarded as possibly the best offense in Penn State history. So it's not as if Paterno spends his days sipping on Metamucil and watching "The People's Court." If he's obsolete, he has a weird way of showing it.

Of course, the program isn't without its bruises. During the past two years, there have been a series of embarrassing off-the-field episodes as well as questions about Paterno's grip on the program. The "Success With Honor" slogan in the 2008 Penn State football media guide has taken a helmet to the chin.

But Paterno moves forward, even if the steps come slower and with the assistance of a cane. Meanwhile, his team moves into the BCS championship discussion.

What will happen beyond this season remains unknown. But if I'm Spanier, I don't wait until January to discuss Paterno's future. Instead, I hand JoePa a contract extension and a pen today, then ask him for his autograph.

For Penn State's sake -- and Spanier's -- here's hoping he signs.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

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