A couple of days before Penn State’s regular-season finale against Michigan State, Joe Paterno made it very clear that he intends on returning for the 2011 season.
“I’m looking forward to it,” the 84-year-old coach, whose three-year contract expires next year, said. “I think we can be a pretty good football team next year, and I’d like to be a part of it. … It’s been a good situation and I don’t see any reason to leave it right now.”
Those words put out there for public consumption, however, may belie what’s truly going on behind the scenes a month later. The speculation has been ongoing for many days, if not weeks, and has now become too loud, too consistent and, most importantly, too voluminous to ignore.
If the rumblings are correct, Coach Paterno will lead Penn State in the Outback Bowl and then ride off into the retirement sunset. Again. Allegedly.
At least that’s what multiple sources in and around the athletic department are saying, all of whom state very emphatically that the wheels have been set in motion for Paterno to step down gracefully following the bowl game and for the school to commence a national search for someone currently outside of the football program to replace the living legend. All point to significant health concerns as being the reason behind the rumored abdication of his Happy Valley throne.
Rumors of family and close friends filling up extra planes to be with him for the bowl game abound, as do the connotations drawn from Tom Bradley, his loyal and trusted assistant of 32 years, actively seeking the Temple opening ultimately filled by Steve Addazio. One former Nittany Lion player still connected to the program suggested to CFT that Bradley’s involvement in the Owls hunt for a new head coach is the biggest sign yet that the end is near for Paterno. “If Coach [Paterno] were going to be around, or if they were going to stay in-house [for a replacement], [Bradley] wouldn’t have been aggressively eyeballing [the Temple opening],” the ex-player, who requested his name not be used, explained. Additionally, Paterno allegedly struggled mightily at the senior banquet at season’s end, with his players supposedly tweeting about their coach being “out of it” and Paterno referencing playing in a “Thanksgiving bowl game”.
It’s all been woven together into such a convincing and compelling argument that, this time, all of the talk of Paterno’s coaching death may not be exaggerated.
It should be very clearly and very plainly noted, however: we are not reporting that Paterno is stepping down/retiring/resigning after the bowl game. Rather, we are merely pointing to innuendo that’s beginning to overwhelm the rumor mill and needs to at least be addressed. In seeking to track down the veracity of these rumors, we reached out to the school for a comment.
“Coach Paterno has already publicly stated his plan to continue coaching and we have no comment on rumor or speculation to the contrary,” PSU Assistant Athletic Director/Communications Jeff Nelson told CFT in an email Wednesday evening. Interestingly, Nelson also pointed us to an Associated Press story in which the writer notes that Paterno was “spry-looking” following practice Wednesday.
In that AP article, Paterno was still talking about next year and still giving no hints that he was doing anything but returning. Speaking to reporters as the Nittany Lions prepared for the Outback Bowl, Paterno said that the team would be using this game as a springboard for 2011, intimating once again that he would be involved.
“We’ve got a very young team,” Paterno said according to the Associated Press. “We’ve got about 60 kids here that are freshmen and sophomores. Some of them are pretty good athletes that need some work. So I think in that sense you’re hoping that you can get some things developed that are going to carry over to next year. But no matter what, you’ve got to play a team like Florida, you ought to try and win.”
Because of his age and longevity — Lyndon Johnson was sitting in the Oval Office when Paterno took over as Penn State’s head coach — speculation has swirled around an “imminent” departure for more than a decade. This time around, though, there’s more smoke surrounding his status than there’s ever been, signaling there may be a very real fire burning underneath all of the innuendo.
Only time will tell whether or not this latest round of rumor mongering is yet another false alarm. Or whether it’s a fully involved five-alarm blaze that won’t be extinguished until after the New Year.