When it's time to go

Penn State's Joe Paterno has one more chance to retire gracefully -- even if he doesn't tie Bear Bryant's win record.

By Allen Barra

Published October 24, 2001 7:39PM (EDT)

A couple of years ago a girl whose name and school I've forgotten just missed setting her school scoring record because of an injury but was given a free pass by the opposing team. They walked off court and let her set the record, unopposed, out of respect for her talent and her love of the game. A great many people thought that was a marvelous gesture; I was appalled. I would remember that girl's name today and hold her in the highest esteem if she had told everyone, "I'm flattered that you feel this way about me and I'll always remember the gesture, but I think there is something fundamentally wrong about pursuing a record under anything but normal game conditions. And as for injuries, well, they're just part of the game."

When Pete Rose was chasing Ty Cobb's record for career hits, it would have been great for the game, better than Rose actually breaking the record, if Rose had said ... well, forget that one. Pete Rose is one of the biggest assholes in American sports history, and to expect him to do anything with integrity is a lost cause. But still, it would have been nice if someone in the sports media had said, Why are we making a big fuss over this? Cobb's career mark for hits isn't a record, it's a total, and it represents the number of hits he had at exactly the moment when he thought he had ceased to have value to anyone as a ballplayer (he hit .323 that year, by the way, and .357 the year before) and was never thought of by him as a "record." Whereas Pete Rose had been a lousy ballplayer for several years before he hung around long enough to break the silly record that Cobb could easily have put out of reach by playing longer if he'd known it was going to be regarded as such.

Of course, everyone knows Rose is an unprincipled slimeball, but Penn State's Joe Paterno, on the other hand, is the lodestone of integrity in college football. Clearly, Paterno has been slipping for several years now, and the Penn State football program has been sliding with him. He can't get out there and recruit the way he used to, and his game plans, never models of imagination in the first place, have become as predictable as routines on "Saturday Night Live." If nothing else gave him an indication that he was slipping, last year's 5-7 mark should have done it. What a magnificent gesture if he had decided to call it quits and step down, telling the world in no uncertain terms that a mere record means nothing to him. But no, he went for the gold, and so he's had to wade through a lake full of dross to get a lousy handful of it.

And at what cost? Joe Paterno has now tied Alabama's Bear Bryant for career victories by a Division 1A coach. It was his team's first victory of the season, and it may very well be their last. The Nittany Lions needed last-minute heroics to win even this game, against Northwestern, but so what? Penn State will not beat Ohio State this Saturday, and the team could easily finish 1-10. What's Paterno going to do in that case, come back next season and try for just one victory? Is it possible that Joe Paterno simply cannot see the damage he is doing to the Penn State football program, that it has been run into the ground and that he is the man who has run it there?

Of course, there is no reason why he should when much of the news media doesn't. The New York Daily News' Dick Weiss suggested that the victory "should temporarily quiet some of the more vocal fans in the Nittany Nation who have been all over Paterno from the start of the season, suggesting that he may be too old." Uh, I think what Penn State fans have been complaining about is not Joe Paterno's age, but how bad the football team is -- and has been for quite a while. USA Today's Malcolm Moran even sees Paterno as "Bear Bryant's equal," which is an odd judgment considering that Bryant won six national titles to Paterno's two and beat Paterno four times out of five in their head-to-head meetings.

If Joe Paterno is lucky, he may lose all the rest of his games this season and get a second chance at making a big decision: whether to retire while tied with Bryant, or coach one more year for sole possession of "the record," thus running the football program even further under. If he takes the first choice, he'd be giving us a chance to remember what we liked best about him, namely that he always seemed to be an idealist before he was a football coach.

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I've been so busy with the baseball playoffs that I haven't had a chance to mention how sad I was at the passing of the great Eddie Futch, the finest boxing trainer the sport has ever seen and a consummate gentleman. The man who trained Michael Spinks, Ken Norton, Larry Holmes and several other champions will always be remembered for throwing in the towel on a game but badly beaten Joe Frazier in the "Thrilla in Manila," his 1975 match against Muhammad Ali. It is fitting that in such a violent sport the gesture that best defined Futch's life and beliefs would be a humanitarian one.

Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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