Last week, the editorial staff at BSD was approached by a fairly well-known member of the PSU writing community about writing an anonymous post on Joe Paterno and one of his few peers in the sporting world. We, of course, jumped at the chance. I hope you all enjoy this piece, and it makes you think, as it affected me in both ways. --CG
Next Man Up
By Terry Hammonds
If Joe Paterno had a peer in his final decade or so at Penn State, you wouldn’t have found him among college football coaches. It wasn’t even another coach in North American sports. To find anyone close in terms of longevity, success, and the extent to which they had indelibly imprinted their personalities on the teams they led, you’d have to look across the Atlantic, to the red-nosed man in northwest England who has led Manchester United since 1986.
Last week, Sir Alex Ferguson—yes, for those readers who don’t follow international soccer, he was knighted in 1999—announced his retirement at the end of the Barclay’s Premier League season, which wraps up next Sunday. In 26 seasons (a staggering tenure by the standards of top-flight international soccer), his teams won 13 league titles and a pair of European championships; if United wasn’t the best and most widely supported sporting brand in the world over that span, they were on a very, very short list of contenders. And even as a couple of generations of world-class players lifted trophies for United, it was Ferguson whose face endured as the symbol of the club.
His retirement came as a surprise; true, at 71, he had long fielded questions about when he’d quit, but he had reiterated in recent weeks that he had no plans to step down. The name of his replacement was less shocking, as David Moyes, lauded for maximizing relatively meager resources during his 11-year tenure at league rival Everton, was almost immediately rumored—then quickly confirmed—as the man given the challenge of following Fergie’s footsteps. Any doubts about Moyes (he’s never managed such a high-profile club) were negated by a simple fact: Ferguson wanted Moyes for the job. At Manchester United, even on his way out, Ferguson gets whatever he wants.
It wasn’t that long that we all thought the same applied to Joe Paterno at Penn State.
When I heard the news of Ferguson’s retirement, and of his widely reported role in choosing his successor, I immediately thought of Paterno. It’s impossible to say at what point Paterno lost the right to name the man who would inherit his job, but it probably came sometime around the turn of the millennium. (Understand, this assumes nothing about the Sandusky scandal, which for the sake of this particular argument we can pretend never happened.) Any time before the 2000 season, and probably until 2002, Paterno could have tapped Fran Ganter or Tom Bradley to replace him, and it’s hard to see how anyone who mattered would’ve been seriously opposed. Maybe Graham Spanier, who so obviously wanted to put his own stamp on the football program, would have balked; but at that point, continuity would still have seemed like a good thing, and it would hardly have been worth alienating Paterno and his allies, whose money, favor and influence the university would’ve been foolish to risk.
But, with the exception of that memorable 2005 run, each of Paterno’s final nine seasons in charge made it increasingly less likely that he’d have any say in the matter. There were simply too many losses, too many disciplinary problems, too many signs that his grip on the program had loosened. Gradually but—in retrospect—undeniably, Paterno’s ability to influence the future of the program waned year by year. By the end, regardless of the scandal, his opinion on who should be the next Penn State football coach was largely worthless.
That’s a point many will argue, probably passionately so, and that’s fine; the reality of the Sandusky scandal means we only know what *did* happen: that, unimaginably, the man who had been the face of the program for half a century now no longer controlled the ability to dictate even his own retirement. But the evidence of conversations with many athletics insiders—as well as the evidence hiding in plain sight—makes it clear that Penn State’s decision makers were going to make their own call, and that that call would not have been the same as Paterno’s.
All of which brings me back to Ferguson. Again, what Ferguson did that mattered above all else was win, and keep winning, right up until the very end of his career. Manchester United clinched the most recent of those 13 league titles a couple of weeks ago; if Fergie at 71 still had his team achieving at such a high level, and if he was almost universally beloved by the club’s fans, why wouldn’t the team follow his lead?
Paterno had that chance. He secured it with a pair of national championships in the 1980s, reaffirmed it with that unbeaten ’95 Rose Bowl squad, hinted at maintaining it in ’99 and again, for just a moment, in ’05. But the chance was lost when too many other things were lost as well: games, discipline, control. In other hires—think women’s basketball and wrestling, especially—the university was already breaking precedent (and family ties) with its coaching choices. The trend was young, ambitious, and with no prior connections to Penn State. It says here that even before November 2011, the next Nittany Lion head football coach likely would have been just such a pick.
Of course, in Bill O’Brien, that’s exactly what Penn State got. That the university stumbled across such a gem is both a credit to the people who made the hire and an acknowledgement of some level of dumb luck. The circumstances around his hiring were unforeseen and remain unprecedented, but it’s not crazy to think that O’Brien—or someone as confident, committed to innovation and untethered to Paterno’s legacy as O’Brien is—would have gotten the job even if the scandal had never happened. At this point, most fans would agree the university couldn’t have made a better choice. I’d like to think Paterno—certainly the younger, more innovative and ambitious Paterno—would appreciate what O’Brien is doing.
Still, I can’t help wondering how things might have turned out differently. I don’t know if Alex Ferguson’s handpicked successor will succeed, and I don’t pretend to know if whomever Paterno might have tabbed for the job 10 or 15 years ago would have been able to carry the program into the future. I only know that Paterno couldn’t, and ultimately didn’t, call time on his own career, and in that, he cost himself the chance.
Terry Hammonds is the pseudonym of a Penn State alumnus and former faculty member who has followed the football program for more than 30 years.
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