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Change of Fortune

Penn State's recent struggles are chipping away at some fans' reverence for coaching legend Paterno

September 24, 2004|Dan Arritt | Times Staff Writer

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Gauging the success of the Penn State football program has never required a Sunday morning sports page in this part of the country. Just take a leisurely stroll across town and observe the faces in the crowd.

For many years, the mood was entirely upbeat. The Nittany Lions had only one losing season between 1939 and 2000 and were especially dominant in the 1980s and '90s, when they averaged 9.3 wins a season and won two national championships. Nobody was held in higher regard than the program's architect, Joe Paterno, who began coaching here before color television was widely available.

"When the football team is winning, people are so happy," said Russ Rose, women's volleyball coach at Penn State the last 26 years. "Students come to class happier, the community is happier, downtown is friendlier. When we're losing, everybody is looking at the ground and their head is down and their body language is down."

Of course, there were generations of Nittany Lions fans who never experienced what losing looked like.

But they know now.

Penn State was 3-9 last season, its third losing record in four seasons and its worst record in Paterno's 54 years at the school.

And suddenly the legendary and beloved "Joe-Pa," who turned out winners and scholars and was hailed as the model for what all coaches should strive to be, is being excoriated by critics in newspaper columns, Internet chat rooms and over the radio.

A 2-1 start this season hasn't stopped the flow of negative vibes. Penn State's victories have come over Akron and Central Florida, which have a combined record of 0-6. Perhaps more troubling, the Nittany Lions have continued their trend of sloppy play, committing 11 turnovers in their last two games, including six by fifth-year senior quarterback Zack Mills in a 37-13 victory last week against Central Florida.

From here, though, the schedule gets tougher. On Saturday, Penn State plays its Big Ten Conference opener at No. 20 Wisconsin in the first of five games against ranked opponents who have a combined record of 13-1. The Nittany Lions have not won a conference opener since 1999 and have lost their last seven games away from home.

Largely shielded from criticism for decades by his team's accomplishments, Paterno, 77, now finds his every move being analyzed, from play-calling to his personnel decisions.

Still, he is intent on reversing Penn State's woes before he retires, gets fired, or is carried from the field on a stretcher, the scenario considered most likely by long-time residents of this mountainous college town.

"I know when you lose, as we lost last year, it's not quite as fun as when you go to Rose Bowls and you're playing for national championships," said Paterno, whose 340 career victories are second-most by a major college football coach. "I'm not naive."

But whether Paterno has the energy and the know-how to stop the slide is heatedly debated. Although most fans respect what the coach has done in the past, they are less than content with his performance lately.

Tony Zaccaria, 36, a construction worker who is a native of Williamsport, about 60 miles east of the university, said that after years of scrambling to purchase football tickets, he couldn't give them away last season. He said he is among many "young Penn State fans [who] would like to see a changing of the guard."

"A new coach would fire up the team to get it really going," Zaccaria said.

Brian Tuchalski, a 26-year-old senior who first came to Penn State in 1997, said students didn't have the same passion for the team as when he arrived. As part of his marketing internship over the summer, Tuchalski helped design fliers to promote a rally the night before the season opener, something the team never needed in the past.

"People aren't excited about Penn State football," he said. "Instead of going to the games, they would rather drink all day and watch it on TV."

Along with the losing, several off-the-field incidents have soured some fans. In the past two years, Penn State football players have been involved in two well-publicized fights, two have been cited for underage drinking, one was arrested for criminal mischief and receiving stolen property, and another was acquitted of a sexual assault charge that led to his being temporarily expelled from school.

Mike Morlang, who works at the university's nuclear reactor, said he believes the negative publicity from those incidents has had a direct effect on recruiting.

"They're out of hand when they're not on the field," Morlang said of the players. "You never had that before."

Paterno, who does not own a cell phone or computer, blames the information age for blowing disciplinary lapses out of proportion.

"He's got great control of the program," Penn State Athletic Director Tim Curley said, "and always has."

In an effort to show support for Paterno, the administration rewarded him with a four-year contract extension last spring. He will be 82 when it expires.

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