The timing couldn’t be more intriguing. A legendary coach in the waning years of his career. A young leader who’s crammed more success and transition into his first decade than any other coach in history. The legend is in the final year of his contact; the young buck is looking for his next—and hopefully more healthy—tenure.
This is the fascinating predicament of Joe Paterno and Urban Meyer.
Joe’s impending retirement isn’t news. People have been asking him questions about it since he hit the retirement age for mortals back in the early 90’s. But then he had an undefeated season in ’94. And a No. 1 ranked team in ’99. And a BCS bowl in ’05. And a Rose Bowl in ’08. He keeps shrugging off the question.
But the questions have gotten louder. In the Rose Bowl season of 2008, Paterno’s contract came precariously close to expiring. But then his Nittany Lion team came precariously close to a national title game shot.
Contract, schmontract. A new three-year deal was inked (to shut up reporters, according to Joe).
But here we are again. Another fading contract that, if you ask Joe, means nothing. For the rest of us, however, it seems like the signs are pointing to a different outcome this time.
Assistant coaches seemed to be fleeing last winter. Joe’s health has taken noticeable turns for the worse over the past three years. Attendance is down.
What if, just what if, we’re in the midst of Paterno’s swan song?
Joe has said himself that he wouldn’t want a fuss to be made when he retired. If Joe indeed announced a “victory lap” season for himself, every game would be a national television event, every road trip would be a resounding sell-out, every word and deed of Joe’s would be cause for nostalgia. For the guy who kept names off of jerseys for a half century, this doesn’t seem like the way he’d want to go off into the sunset. Too much limelight.
So, hypothetically speaking, if Joe were to retire, he’d want it to remain secret, right? We then could be in the midst of Joe’s final season and not even know it. He wouldn’t want us to know if it was.
And if it were his final season, he’d be entitled to have some say—I’ve been led to believe that Joe has total say around PSU football—of what the next regime looked like. Right?
So then. Is there a name on his staff currently that has enough drawing power to headline at a historic program like Penn State? That’s debatable. While no one on offense has the resume currently, defensive coaches Tom Bradley, Larry Johnson, and Ron Vanderlinden all have some national name recognition, but none of them can be considered elite hires.
If the next head coach is outside the current staff, it’s unlikely that he’s a head coach elsewhere right now. It’s possible, but unlikely. Could Al Golden be biding his time at Miami for the year? Might Greg Schiano be serving a lame duck season at Rutgers, all the while knowing that the State College job is his come January? I doubt it.
What I do know is this: Urban Meyer is taking a year off from coaching. In all of the questions he’s fielded regarding his future, he has not refuted his interest in returning to coaching. (Not that a flat denial would mean much if he did).
That said, the list of potential matches for a high-profile leader like Meyer is short. He won’t return to the SEC. Texas and Oklahoma seem set. Michigan, Florida State, USC, and Notre Dame are starting new eras with their current coaches. The only two with questions right now are Penn State and Ohio State.
Ohio State has thousands of reasons to believe that Meyer would choose them, and one to fear—impending NCAA sanctions. Whether that reason is enough to keep the former Ohio State assistant coach away from Columbus is anybody’s guess. But what if Meyer isn’t even available once NCAA sanctions are announced? What if he hasn’t been available for months? What if Meyer has had a job lined up for the past nine months or so?
Consider. Shortly after Meyer announces his retirement from Florida, Bradley and Vanderlinden are on a short list for the Temple job vacated by Golden. Previously, neither had been in serious contention for any head coaching position in the past decade.
Consider. Immediately after the schmooze-fest between Meyer and Paterno at the Outback Bowl last New Years’ Day, in which both coaches gushed over one another exponentially more than Paterno did with Pete Carroll or Les Miles in the previous two bowl experiences, Bradley is inches away from being hired at Pittsburgh. Bradley then is a serious candidate at Connecticut.
Consider. If Urban Meyer were looking for an administration that was loyal-to-a-fault to its coaches, a rabid fan base that dominates a large portion of the Atlantic seaboard, a school ripe for reemergence as a national superpower, or a program that tolerated good-not-great teams if the coach did things “the right way,” Penn State would look like a perfect fit. Maybe he’d take his year off and then step into a friendlier, more heart-healthy environment.
Happy Valley’s been the fountain of youth for Paterno all these years, after all. Is it so far-fetched to believe that this plan has been a year in the making?
My final question for you: If Joe decided he wanted one more season for himself and one more year for his assistants to get their futures lined up, would he have done anything differently than he did this off-season? No. He would assert stability in the program. He would boast of a desire to coach 4-5 more years (the length of a new recruit’s college experience, steadying the team for the future). He may try to be more involved than in the past few years, his last “day in the sun” which he told reporters he’d be reclaiming from his assistants during Big Ten media days in July.
If this were Joe’s swan song, I can’t imagine him doing it any differently than he is.
But the saddest thing is the way the season has gone so far and may continue to go. While the record is great (6-1 at this point), the manner in which Penn State has won has been unsightly. Joe’s health woes have been as much of a topic as its bumbling offense. Fans are clamoring for Joe to go again (and perhaps his progeny Jay too) and are pining for the possibility that Urban could be our future. If the team struggles down the stretch (and with our November schedule, an ugly finish is likely), things could get very bitter for Joe in the media and even within the team.
Which would be a sadly ironic ending to a legend’s career.
If we knew today that these were our final Saturdays with Joe, we’d be celebrating these tight victories, regardless of their sloppiness. We’d be appreciating every moment of the present rather than ungratefully gazing into the future. We’d be praising everything he’s done and all he’s stood for, rather than lamenting how far the program has fallen during Joe’s last decade.
How sad would it be if Joe’s silence sullied his own swan song?
But none of us know what the future holds. Nobody except Joe. Let’s hope that somehow, someway, Joe’s swan song—when it comes—can be a time of rejoicing the past and celebrating the future for the Nittany Nation.