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Coach Potatoes

By Allen Barra

FRANK FITZPATRICK'S fascinating look at Penn State coach Joe Paterno's miserable 2004 season (4-7), The Lion in Autumn, is one of the best books ever written on the rise and fall of a great college football coach—and it arrives just in time for serious college football fans to relish. Paterno makes an ideal subject because he embodies so many of the contradictions inherent in running a big-time college program. Probably the only English-lit major from an Ivy League school to coach a gridiron powerhouse, Paterno has been, for nearly 40 years, what NCAA president Miles Brand called "a poster boy for everything that's right about the game." In the last few seasons, though, Paterno has become a billboard for everything that can go wrong when a coach overstays his welcome. As Penn State football has declined, Paterno—the second-winningest coach in major-college history—has increasingly lost control of the empire he created.

After three decades of success that spurred nonstop stadium expansion, empty seats have sprouted at Beaver Stadium; the man who once had to field questions about his status as a folk hero now must endure chants of "Joe must go!" "The Penn State decline that began in 2000," writes Fitzpatrick, "and lingered on like a bad dream for five seasons now had eroded Mount Joe Pa's reputation. Losing had pulled back the curtain on Paterno's wizardry, revealing him to many as a stubborn, aging mortal." The worst part of the Penn State decline has been the shocking number of off-the-field incidents involving Nittany Lion players, offenses ranging from bicycle theft to sexual assault. Some suggest that the high standards Paterno has insisted upon for his athletes works against him in an age where blue-chip prospects can get an easier deal at some school in a state with a balmier climate. But all of the reasons lead back to their 78-year-old coach, a noble and grizzled warrior who simply doesn't know how to lay down the sword.

Perhaps Paterno should read A Fire to Win, the new biography of Ohio State University coach Woody Hayes, who stuck around one game too long. Hayes coached the Buckeyes from 1951 through 1978, winning 205 of 276 games. But the game best remembered by most football fans was Hayes' last, the 1978 Gator Bowl against Clemson, where Hayes punched a Clemson player who had intercepted an Ohio State pass. Refusing to resign, or even to apologize, he forced his university into firing him. As John Lombardo's insightful biography makes clear, the infamous punch wasn't thrown "out of anger against an unknown defensive lineman. Instead, Hayes was attacking everything that had failed him during the long and frustrating [final] season." It was an ugly end to a great career, but one that came as more of a shock than a surprise to those who knew Hayes best. "Motivation through fear was Woody's biggest coaching tool," writes Lombardo about Hayes's apprentice years, but in truth it remained his primary weapon to the very end. Hayes' story ought to function as a cautionary tale to Paterno. To paraphrase Douglas MacArthur and Neil Young, football coaches, when they get too old, don't fade away, they burn out.

The Lion in Autumn—A Season With Joe Paterno and Penn State Football by Frank Fitzpatrick; Gotham Books, 320 pages; $26 cloth; A Fire to Win by John Lombardo; Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press; 204 pages, $24.95 cloth.

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From the September 14-20, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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