A cane-wielding Joe Paterno told a campus pep rally crowd Friday night that he'll be back to "run out of the tunnel" in 2009.
Who are we to question him?
With its 49-18 victory over Michigan State on Saturday, 11-1 Penn State has earned it first trip to Pasadena since 1995 -- and the Nittany Lions' 81-year-old patriarch has successfully squashed his critics for the second time in four years.
It's hard to believe that the same program that suffered through four losing seasons in five years earlier this decade has now captured its second Big Ten championship in four years. And here's the scary part: In both 2005 and 2008, Penn State came within seconds of notching an undefeated regular season, losing on a last-second touchdown to Michigan in '05 and a last-second field goal against Iowa this year.
The other shared theme of both title seasons: Paterno, Penn State's head coach since 1966, came into both facing the most tenuous job security of his career.
After Penn State president Graham Spanier and his cronies unsuccessfully tried to talk JoePa into retiring following a 4-7 season in 2004, Paterno not only resisted but turned around and went 11-1, with an Orange Bowl victory over Florida State, the following season.
This past summer, with the Nittany Lions coming off consecutive good-but-not-great four-loss seasons and the program ensnared in a slew of embarrassing off-field incidents, Spanier and Paterno cryptically announced they were putting off any talks of a contract extension until after this season.
As of now, that contract is still set to expire at the end of this season, but Spanier would need to go into witness protection if he tried to oust Paterno on the heels of a Rose Bowl season. Whether Paterno's return would be the best thing for the program is debatable. (How is it that Texas already has an exit plan for Mack Brown, its coach of 11 years, but Penn State remains completely in the dark?) However, the man has certainly earned the right to exit on his own terms.
As I wrote earlier this season, the lion's share of the credit (no pun intended) for this season' success belongs to Paterno's staff, particularly quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno for mentoring Daryll Clark, offensive coordinator Galen Hall for orchestrating the Spread HD attack and, most of all, defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, whose unit continues to excel from year to year with whatever new parts get plugged in. Remember, they lost their best player, LB Sean Lee, before the season even began.
After a few sluggish performances recently, Penn State was dominant in every aspect Saturday, with Clark throwing for 341 yards and four touchdowns and the defense holding Spartans star Javon Ringer to 42 yards on the ground. Paterno watched it all from the press box, as he has most of the season. Soon he'll undergo hip replacement surgery that he says will allow him to return to the field next season.
Do you dare to doubt him?