November 08, 2004

Call it Unhappy Valley

Penn State coach Joe Paterno, 78, appreciates the sentiments of people who are upset over the struggles of his football program

By John Mullin Tribune staff reporter

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Maybe the people at Penn State, Joe Paterno among them, knew this was coming. So they said he was innocent before the crescendo of cries that he was guilty.

This year's Penn State media guide, a 350-page report on the football team that also serves as the program's recruiting booklet, starts its history of coach Joe Paterno by playing defense.

"In the era of video cell phones," it reads, "Joe Paterno is every bit as relevant as he was when Harry Truman occupied the Oval Office, the Dodgers were in Brooklyn and Paul Bryant was a coaching novice at the University of Kentucky."

That seems a curious way to begin a testimonial that doubles as a 12-page biography of Paterno. It reads like a defense brief for what Penn State anticipated would be a time of assault on the Paterno legend.

Actually, Paterno might be as relevant now as he was in the Truman era. But he wasn't a head coach then, as many are suggesting he shouldn't be now.

Paterno is in his 39th season as head coach and 55th on Penn State's staff. Rip Engle brought him in as a 23-year-old assistant in 1950, and Paterno assumed the top job in 1966 when Engle retired. He turns 78 in December and, in a statement of endearing optimism, received a four-year contract extension after a 3-9 record in 2003.

Now, despite the 324 victories, the high graduation rates and other accomplishments, calls are growing louder with each defeat, most recently the Nittany Lions' 14-7 loss Saturday against Northwestern. Penn State dropped to 2-7, 0-6 in the Big Ten.

"I appreciate the sentiments of people who are upset," Paterno said. "They have a right to be."

Paterno has made the situation acute by involving son Jay, with the title of quarterbacks coach, in running the offense along with Galen Hall, 63, a veteran of several top national programs. Some insiders will not be surprised if this is Hall's first and only year in suddenly Unhappy Valley.

"Hall has run national-championship offenses," Mike Gross wrote in the Sunday News of Lancaster, Pa., "and the party line is that Jay Pa is in over his head."

Worse, the players "are powerless," David Jones wrote in the Sunday Patriot-News of Harrisburg, Pa. "And they are infected by a disease emitted from the top."

The Penn State football program is reeling, although not all believe that should be the end of Paterno, particularly around town.

"We always abandon our heroes when they fall," said Nancy Brassington, an art teacher at Penn State from Bellefonte, Pa., and a supporter of Paterno. "I think it's simply mean to make him quit after all he's done."

Part of Paterno's difficulties, said Northwestern coach Randy Walker, stem from changes in the landscape of college football. Walker cites greater parity among schools, which means greater difficulty in standing above the pack.

"You give them a touchdown every game and they'd be undefeated," said Walker, a staunch Paterno supporter.

But Paterno critics suggest that giving Penn State touchdowns is in fact the only way the Nittany Lions' offense will score any.

Talent has been there, even recently. Penn State had a school-record four first-round selections in the 2003 draft: Bears defensive end Michael Haynes, St. Louis defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy, Arizona wide receiver Bryant Johnson and Kansas City running back Larry Johnson.

The 2002 team that produced that group, however, went a modest 9-4 with a loss to Auburn in the Capital One Bowl. It was the only team of Paterno's last five to post a winning record.

Perhaps more tellingly, the NFL has found few Nittany Lions of even second-round quality in the other three of the last four drafts. Penn State had one player drafted in the third round this year and no one higher than the fourth in 2002, when only two players were selected.

Paterno has drawn sharp criticism the last two weeks for using his distinguished history as a shield.

"He's `been coaching for 55 years,' he has said twice; don't question him," wrote Heather Dinich of the Centre Daily Times in State College. "Actually, it's all the more reason to."

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