THE SPORTS DOCTOR- Ousting Joe: Why Penn State's wins are sealing Paterno's doom

Immortalized in bronze at Penn State, but the vultures are circling.

Everybody loves a winner. Winners never quit, and quitters never win. Winning is everything. The old adages tell us that failure is not an option. 

But for Joe Paterno's detractors, failure is the only option.

Unless one works in Washington, it doesn't pay to get old. Nowhere is that more true than in State College, Pennsylvania, where circling vultures nearly obscure the sun. Surely Penn State's win over Michigan this past weekend would have dispersed the carrion feeders, but no– they're hungrier than ever. One way or the other, they're going to feed on Joe Paterno.

The Nittany Lions haven't had a national championship since 1986. This year, #3 Penn State has a chance to get there again. The smart money says that if Penn State can defeat #9 Ohio State on Saturday, their place in the post-season is assured.

Penn State seems destined to play in the national championship. By all rights, the team shouldn't be ranked #3 anyway, having been #18 in the preseason and with only two top-25 teams on the schedule.

Comparatively, #1 Texas faces five ranked teams and #2 Alabama faces three. Since that strength of schedule is supposed to matter, the fix is in.

By "fix" I mean that this year the stars have aligned for Penn State. Who could have foreseen Michigan, Iowa, and Michigan State being unranked by week eight? And how fortuitous that #4 Oklahoma still has two top-10 teams to play. In fact, eight of the top-ten teams still have two or more games against ranked teams, with #6 Oklahoma State and #8 Texas Tech each facing three top-ten match-ups.

With other teams facing tough opponents, and Ohio State left as their only a major hurdle, the Nittany Lions may regain their longed-for prestige. But like so many wishes, this one will exact a price.

Joe Paterno's first winning season at Penn State was in 1967, and in the all years he's coached there, he's had only five losing seasons. He's the winningest coach in Division I football (380-125-3) and holds the record for most Bowl appearances (34). He's a legend, a giant, a genius.

He's also 81 years old. Joe Paterno has been at Penn State for 59 years, and calls for his retirement are now deafening. In 2004, a five-year stretch without a bowl win had critics saying he was washed up. When Paterno won the 2005 Orange Bowl, cries came for him to go out on top. In 2007, despite a winning season and a third consecutive Bowl appearance, the vultures cited Paterno's nine straight losses to Michigan as a reason to send him packing.

The better Joe Paterno coaches, the louder his critics shriek.

Paterno's contract expires at the end of this year, and with the win over Michigan last week, his detractors are beating the drum in earnest. Paterno has spent 2008 watching games in the press box, monitoring practices from a golf cart, and nursing leg and hip problems. For those who want Paterno's head, the Michigan win is nothing but ammunition.

With Penn State in the delicate position of choosing whether to extend Paterno's contract, JoePa's would-be-ousters finally have an ace up their sleeve. Howie Beardsley of the Grand Rapids Press laid it out on October 20. 

"When Penn State rolled over Purdue, Wisconsin, and Michigan without Paterno on the sideline, that told me [Paterno's] assistants are doing the actual coaching.... It's his staff and the tradition of the program that have the Nittany Lions in the running for another national title."

Penn State's win over Michigan had nothing to do with Joe Paterno and success came in spite of JoePa, not because of him. It's an ironclad argument. Every game Penn State wins with Paterno in the press box is a win without him, and if the 81-year-old dares show himself on the sidelines, his physical condition will be a testament to his weakness.  

Aligned stars or no, Penn State will be the big loser at the end of this season. In their blind zeal to humiliate and oust the old man, Joe Paterno's detractors have forgotten that when JoePa goes, he takes all his wins with him, even if it's in a golf cart.


Correction: As a reader noted below, the original headline on this Sports Doctor column, "Ousting Joe: Why Penn's wins are sealing Paterno's doom," gave the nickname for the wrong school. "Penn" is shorthand for the University of Pennsylvania; Paterno coaches at Pennsylvania State University, aka "Penn State." The author of the column didn't write the headline. The column has been re-headlined.