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COLLEGE FOOTBALL '93 : Blue-Collar Joe : Paterno Embarks on First Season in Big Ten With Work Ethic of Old

August 27, 1993|GENE WOJCIECHOWSKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHICAGO — Penn State fans, more spoiled than frat boys with trust funds, began grumbling shortly after last October's defeat by Miami. Full-fledged whining commenced in Un-Happy Valley after a homecoming defeat by Boston College, which was later followed by some serious second-guessing when the Nittany Lions were beaten by Brigham Young, Notre Dame and, to top it all off, Stanford in the Jan. 1 Blockbuster Bowl.

If it was that bad in 1992, what would happen in 1993 when Penn State made its official Big Ten football debut? And could the Nittany Lions become the first team to have their Big Ten invitation rescinded before playing an actual league game?

No one would come right out and say it, but there were rumblings that maybe it was time for Joe to go--Joe Paterno, that is. Formerly known as St. Joe until last season's 7-5 record.

Firing him was out of the question. Things weren't that bad. But it wouldn't hurt to think about a possible replacement, just in case Paterno decided to retire one day and resume his love affair with Virgil's "Aeneid."

After all, you didn't need 50-yard-line seats at Beaver Stadium to see that Paterno, 66, had lost touch with his team, lost touch with the little things that had made him the winningest active Division I coach and fourth winningest of all time with 247 victories. He still looked like good 'ol Joe--clam-digger pants rolled up just so, white socks, lenses as thick as bulletproof glass--but something was missing, mostly victories.

His players were confused, maybe even disappointed. Some thought he was too tough. Some thought he wasn't tough enough. Others thought he had simply lost interest in them and their season. It was as if his glasses were so dense that he couldn't see what was happening in front of his very eyes.

When the alumni kept asking Paterno how his team could start off 5-0 and finish 2-5, Paterno reminded everyone of his record against traditional rivals, 122-14-1, and his record against those same teams during the

last four years, 27-1. It looked nice on paper, but it didn't answer the question.

Deep down, Paterno knew something was wrong. Wrong with him. Wrong with his program.

"You get a little careless, you get a little sloppy," he says now.

If a player made a mistake on the practice field, Paterno would shrug and let it go. A few years ago, he would have blown his whistle loud enough to send dogs yapping for cover.

If his staff assembled to go over the game plan and an assistant asked, "Suppose they do that?" Paterno would casually dismiss the concern. "Ah, they'll never do that," he would say. In the old days, Paterno would have analyzed every possibility as if his career depended on it.

None of this actually hit Paterno until near season's end, when he realized that the Nittany Lions were a team in disarray. And it was his fault.

"We were lousy," he said.

After the embarrassing loss to Stanford, Paterno decided to re-evaluate himself and his program. He had done it before: in 1979, when Penn State, only a season removed from a near national championship, finished a disappointing 8-4 . . . in 1984, when they ended up 6-5 . . . in 1988, Paterno's first and only losing season in 27 years.

Needless to say, he didn't like what he found.

"I didn't really know what was going on with the squad," he said. "I assumed some guys were leaders when they weren't. I didn't spend enough time with the players, one on one. I assumed some things were going on with the squad that were not going on. I was amazed to find out some of the things the kids thought."

Paterno found himself wondering if it might be time to retire. He had won two national championships, built Penn State football into a national power and created a legacy of success, integrity and fair play. There are some coaches who would settle for a glimpse of any those.

He asked himself two questions: "Do you want to pay the price? Do you want to go back to spending the hours that you've got to spend?"

Paterno thought about it awhile. Then he remembered something that Darrell Royal, the legendary Texas coach, had once told him. Paterno and Royal were in Washington for some sort of social function in 1977. Royal had retired and left new coach Fred Akers with a team good enough to challenge for the national championship. Paterno thought this amazing, that anybody could walk away from such talent.

"Did you realize what you were leaving?" asked Paterno.

Drawled Royal: "Hey, when I left, I wanted to leave some meat on the bones."

That's how Paterno felt after last season. He couldn't--he wouldn't--leave Penn State until it was fattened up.

So he stayed. In fact, Paterno plans on staying until he's 70. Then, if he averages nine victories during those five seasons, he will be within viewing distance of 300 victories. Only three Division I-A coaches have reached that level--Bear Bryant with 323, Alonzo Stagg with 314 and Pop Warner with 313.

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