The ``Joe must go'' catcalls of late summer have been hushed. Joe Paterno made his point.
The man can still coach, even if a sore hip means he does it most weekends from the press box. He still knows how to win, too, seven straight and counting this season on a familiar climb back toward the top of the college football poll.
And so two months shy of his 82nd birthday, with two national titles to his credit and a third in his sights, the last thing left for Joe Pa to prove is that he cares as much about the future of Penn State football as he does about its past and present.
With the third-ranked Nittany Lions back in the national conversation for all the right reasons, there's a rare moment of consensus in the debate that has divided Penn State people for years. Just about everyone agrees once more that Paterno has earned the right to go out, whenever that is, on his own terms. What he needs to understand is there's no time like now to let the rest of us in on just what those terms might be.
come up with a date - more on that later - but sitting down with school president Graham Spanier to start discussing a successor would be a good place to start. Paterno is in the last year of a contract and with Michigan headed into Happy Valley this weekend and the Nittany Lions traveling to Ohio State the next, he could lose a whole lot of bargaining power in a hurry.
During his midweek conference call, Paterno turned aside questions about his own future the same way he always does. Someone asked how long before he could move back down from the press box to the sidelines and JoePa replied, ``I don't know,'' then added a moment later, ``I don't get get-well cards. Can we talk about the football team and not me, for crying out loud?''
Yet there's no better time to do exactly that. In late July, ESPN's ``Outside the Lines'' analyzed state court records and reported Penn State football players faced 163 criminal charges since 2002, resulting in 27 players being convicted of or pleading guilty to a combined 45 counts. The numbers provided more fuel for critics who argued after back-to-back losing seasons that a coach who defined the term ``old school'' could no longer control a roster packed with members of the ``me-first'' generation.
ts of wins since, but even Joe has to know it can't go like that forever. His pal and long-serving rival, Florida State's Bobby Bowden, faced a similar junction last December and designated offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher as the program's coach-in-waiting.
People close to the Penn State program have mentioned Tom Bradley, Penn State's defensive coordinator as a worthy heir, if the school wants to keep the choice in house. And if Penn State wants to look farther, there's a half-dozen other intriguing prospects, from former Steelers coach Bill Cowher to Rutgers' Greg Schiano and North Carolina's Butch Davis, who merit some research right away.
The important thing is for Paterno to take control of the conversation now. He might have more bargaining power two weeks from now, and even more, three months from now, if the Nittany Lions stay in the national championship picture.
Paterno isn't going to learn much about timing that he doesn't know already. No one succeeds so often for so long without knowing when to pull the trigger. But another longtime Paterno pal, TV commentator Brent Musburger, offered a glimpse of what has to be weighing on JoePa's mind during an interview earlier this week.
t Bear Bryant as the example - he is fearful that he would not be with us if he stepped away. He is a man that doesn't fish, doesn't play golf ... he has no other interest other than his family and football.
``And he's just afraid what would happen with the rest of his life if he walks away from it.''
So is everybody else. Bear Bryant died just 28 days after announcing his retirement from Alabama. It's never too early, or too late, to make sure the house you helped build is in order.
But the way Penn State picked itself up off the floor of the Big Ten a few years back and got back into the race should remind JoePa of the lesson he's been teaching kids for years: There's no time like the present to start getting right.
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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org
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