Wearing a blue and grey argyle sweater, Joe Paterno walked with ease for the first time in almost a month. Since his collision in practice with Devon Smith, a golf cart and cane accompanied Paterno wherever he went. A symbolic reminder of the man that was. Not to suggest that these literal crutches were the signs of incompetence, but only that each of Paterno's 403 record-breaking victories had taken their toll on the man.
For the students enrolled in the Joe Paterno, Communications & the Media class, Tuesday's press conference was a unique opportunity to see Paterno in action. If they were paying attention, Paterno's statements regarding the quarterback battle between Matt McGloin and Rob Bolden may have been the most striking of all.
"I don't know what I'm waiting for," Paterno said when asked about picking a starting quarterback. "I've got a dilemma there... I want to be fair to the kids."
For the average Penn State fan this may seem like coachspeak, that an admittedly difficult situation simply needs more time to mature. Certainly, while the desire to pick a single quarterback is undoubtedly on the forefront of the coaching staff's mind, mediocre performances by Rob Bolden and Matt McGloin have made this choice nothing short of impossible.
But the choice hasn't been made.
Those well-versed in Penn State's rich history will note that since Paterno's hiring, he has had his finger on the pulse of the quarterbacks. In 1980 Frank Rocco, Jeff Hostetler and Todd Blackledge went toe to toe in the preseason. Hostetler won the job, but was benched after winning two blowouts in favor for Blackledge. Paterno never faltered, and never questioned his decision.
In 1964, Paterno, an assistant at the time under Rip Engle, selected senior Gary Wydman over the popular Jack White. Once again, never questioning his selection, even in the face of fierce opposition. For Paterno, the quarterbacks were his specialty, and his word was final.
Those days are gone. Where they were lost is still up for debate, but the past year and a half has been a case study on the transition and decline in power of Joe Paterno. From holding a simple vote to select last year's starter, to avoiding a single quarterback this year for the fear that it might be "unfair" is such an undeniably stark contrast to the coach he once was.
This is not at all to suggest that Paterno "Must Go" or that he is "Too Old", but that perhaps a man who has been subjected to the confines of a press box is possibly only getting the final say out of tradition, rather than true insight. That while Paterno, who insisted that he would call more plays, has settled on passing notes in the pressbox when he wants to give advice, yet still holds the power to do as he pleases when it pleases him.
There is no shame for Paterno to become what he is now. A smart, witty, and intelligent engineer of the program -- one that guides, rather than commands. Something Mike Leach summarized well with his relationship with Bob Stoops in his book Swing Your Sword.
Bob did a good job balancing his day-to-day duties with delegating responsibility to his staff. That’s not so easy for a first-time head coach. It’s rare for a head coach to give an assistant so much autonomy, especially one whose scheme and system is so different from what he’s used to. Bob understood that you hire good people, and then you let them do their jobs.
The difficulty for Paterno, however, is recognizing his role. That while in a perfect world he could roam the sidelines, run through practice, and be the coach he was, it is simply not in him to be that coach anymore. This is not to downplay the important role he does have, but rather that he must play his part in a greater puzzle. The one man army will no longer win the day.
What this means for the long term is probably nothing. Paterno's indecision has held back a team that seems to have problems that transcend the quarterbacks. The season will not be made or broken by the unsteady arms of Rob Bolden or Matt McGloin, but it may be decided in the wake of decisions made by a man who is second guessing himself more and more every day.