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Thursday, November 18, 2004

Penn State Board To Meet on Joe Paterno's Future

A suburban Philadelphia newspaper reported this morning that Penn State's Board of Trustees will meet to discuss the future of head coach Joe Paterno.

The meeting comes a year after Penn State President Graham Spanier gave the venerated head coach a four-year contract extension that would have him coaching football in Happy Valley until he's 81 years old.

I wouldn't want to be in the shoes of the Penn State trustees, because who wants to be the one to tell an icon that he's through. More than that, how do you weigh the outstanding career and the contributions to the Penn State community against the current state of the football program, a program with great integrity but a weak offense? When put that way, though, the latter pales in comparison to the former, and the decision doesn't sound that complicated.

Just say no, right?

But it isn't that easy.

Still, most of us won't be the ones to determine when we retire. In certain cases, people get let go and become unmarketable. In other cases, there are buyout packages or mandatory retirement dates. Whatever the case, the evolution of the marketplace determines, to a large extent, when it's time for us to go.

If the Penn State board decides to ask Coach Paterno to step down, it won't be because they are giving up on ethics, on making sure that players who matriculate graduate (with meaningful majors) or because they are into elder abuse or are insensitive. It will be because it is time for a change, and it will be because there are those among the icon class who are not that self-aware about whether they can still do the job and need to be told. Dean Smith knew when to go. So did John Wooden. But others have not had a clue.

That does not make those others bad people, just flawed the way the rest of us are flawed about something. And, most certainly, not fatally flawed.

One key for any board is to have an exit strategy, a plan, whatever you want to call it, so that they don't leave a vacuum that will make the situation worse. For example, if the Penn State board wants to coax Joe Paterno into a well-deserved retirement, they should have the identity of his replacement nailed down.

For if they do, they could sell the whole plan to Joe Paterno, perhaps even let him think it was his idea, and grease the skids so that they can give Paterno a grand exit and keep their program in very good hands.

And that's where the whole situation gets tricky.

Because the next coach has to be an excellent recruiter, a man of outstanding character, and a man committed to making sure that Penn State's tradition of graduating players from its football program at a very high rate is sustained. Which means, of course, that they just can't hire anyone.

I posted previously on the topic, and there is a deep talent pool out there. The question is whether any of these coaches can fit the bill. One name I didn't mention is Kirk Ferenz of Iowa, whose name has been rumored for many jobs, including the Miami Dolphins, and who some believe thinks that the Penn State job is ideal. Clearly, this is a job that Penn State won't have trouble finding applicants for.

That said, it wouldn't appear that the President Spanier, A.D. Tim Curley or the board would have to look very far, because in defensive coordinator Tom Bradley they have an alum who has proven to be a very able coordinator. Organizations that sustain their excellence frequently do so because they put a lot into succession planning, and they like to promote from within. In this fashion, they don't have to educate a newcomer, especially a high-level one, about the way things are done at an institution that has endured for well over a century and that doesn't need a savior. At about 46 or so years old, Bradley would appear to be the man for the job for a few decades (even if Penn State's succession planning hasn't been optimal).

ESPN Radio in Pittsburgh rumored that Bradley would replace Paterno last week in an episode that appeared to be more based upon sophomoric fun by co-hosts (and former Steeler offensive linemen) Tunch Ilkin and Craig Wolfley. The rumor blew up into a big brouhaha, and ultimately denials were issued all around. Nonetheless, I would venture to bet that Coach Paterno would be more likely to step down if he knew that the program he built with his own bricks and mortar would be turned over not to a search committee, but to a trusted lieutenant, a former player, and a coach who has stood out, especially this year. Someone who will carry on the tradition.

Stay tuned. There may be a graceful conclusion to this whole situation after all.

One even befitting an icon.

If the icon is willing to let go.

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