Paterno's Plight

Article excerpt

State College has lapsed into a state of denial.

Construction workers mill about outside Beaver Stadium, busily adding an 11,000-seat addition to Joe Paterno's palace. Across the street at the Bryce Jordan Center, hometown reporters are lobbing ingratiating questions at the 73-year-old coach during his traditional Tuesday news conference.

Somewhere in Hoboken, N.J., a jury is being selected to hear testimony against Penn State quarterback Rashard Casey, who is accused of beating an off-duty police officer into unconsciousness last May. But back in Happy Valley, a name that conjures images of a bucolic psychiatric center, Penn State football is still pure and powerful. And the program Paterno labeled the "Grand Experiment" when he took over 35 years ago continues to coast along practically unquestioned from within.

"I'll be the first to know when it's time for me to retire," said Paterno, who is still five victories short of passing Bear Bryant's record for Division I-A coaching victories with only six games left on the Nittany Lions' schedule.

To the outside world, however, the signs of the erosion of an empire are all too clear.

Three years ago, with Penn State 9-1 and ranked fourth in the nation, scandal made a rare trip to State College. Heisman candidate Curtis Enis was dismissed for accepting gifts from an agent and star wideout Joe Jurevicius failed out of school. Penn State finished the season 9-3 and the program's aura of purity absorbed a few small punctures.

In 1998, the Nittany Lions were mangled by the Big Ten's big three (Michigan, Ohio State and Wisconsin)

by a combined score of 79-12. For the first time in Paterno's career, after five undefeated seasons and two national championships, some suggested that the coach could no longer relate to the modern athlete.

Last season, Penn State took an undefeated record and the nation's No. 1 ranking into November only to lose three straight games and plummet out of the national championship picture. For the first time, rumbles began emanating from the Penn State locker room, players like Butkus-winning linebacker LaVar Arrington questioning the legendary coach.

Before this season, Saint Joe officially lost his halo when he neither suspended nor punished Casey after his arrest. On the field, Penn State fell out of the Top 25 for the first time since 1990 after a season-opening loss to Southern Cal. Losses to Toledo and Pittsburgh followed, sandwiched around a meaningless victory over Louisiana Tech. And then came the nadir, a 45-6 loss at Ohio State.

It was Paterno's worst loss and his worst start (1-4) at Penn State, and the Paterno skeptics started squawking.

Starting Tailback Larry Johnson said the play-calling was "too predictable." Even the nation's top prep running back, Kevin Jones of Cardinal O'Hara High in Springfield, Pa., openly questioned the Nittany Lions stagnant system.

"I don't really know what's going on at Penn State, so I've decided to look at some other schools," said Jones, who nearly made a verbal commitment to Penn State before the season but now lists Tennessee, Virginia Tech and Michigan as his favorites.

Said Paterno: "I don't waste any time worrying about critics or the media or any of that other stuff; it takes all of our time to teach the kids and try and prepare for our next game. I've been doing this a lot of years with a fair amount of success, so I have a pretty good idea of what works and what doesn't in the long run. Unfortunately, that didn't translate into a lot of wins early this year for a number of reasons that I've already talked about - primarily injuries and poor execution on offense."

Paterno blames Penn State's offensive ineptitude (4.3 points per game in four losses) on a banged-up line and a patchwork receiving corps. Last week, the Nittany Lions finally achieved some measure of offensive production in a 22-20 victory over Purdue by switching to a shotgun formation and rolling Casey out on virtually every passing play. …