UNIVERSITY PARK — The perception surrounding Joe Paterno in recent weeks has been as cloudy and grey as it’s been during any part of his tenure as Penn State’s head football coach.
There’s been the lingering contract dispute.
More recently, the resonating leftovers from ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” segment on the status of the Nittany Lions program has left many wanting answers, some demanding change, and some wondering if Paterno would stand up and attest for off-the-field sins of several football players.
People have wanted some sense of accountability on the part of the head coach.
Even Paterno’s recent dismissal of defensive tackles Chris Baker and Phil Taylor has done little to quiet the masses upset over how Paterno and the program were presented in the “OTL” piece. The veteran coach who will begin his 43rd season as the head coach insists he did not dismiss the duo in response to the piece.
Still, it’s not good enough to satisfy some.
Paterno was as close to apologetic for how he came across in ESPN’s somewhat unbalanced reporting. There’s no justification for the off-field incidents and never will be, but Joe can do his best damage control and has since it aired.
Seventeen minutes into his media session yesterday Paterno’s tone was one of someone who wanted to rewind the past and do some things differently.
“Obviously we made some mistakes,” Paterno said. “Maybe I overreacted in the sense that I thought they exploited some things, but we made mistakes, and I tried to do the best I could to make sure the team learned from it.”
Paterno, who appeared off-balance, agitated and standoffish in the piece, was calmer, cooler, more collected as he navigated questions Friday.
The fence mending was in full swing, but it remains to be seen if it’s too little, too late for the iconic head coach who will enter the season in the final year of what has been said is his last contract with the university.
“I guess the situation with ‘Outside the Lines’ would be the fact that they didn’t try to give both sides,” Paterno said. “You know the (university) president (Graham Spanier) put together a committee to investigate the whole thing with judicial affairs and it never came out.
“They came back with some things and they made it sound as if we tried to influence some things that were made, which was absolutely untrue.
“That kind of stuff kind of bothered me,” Paterno added, “but I can’t walk away from the fact that we had some kids that were wrong and that maybe I didn’t do the best job I could with the thing. I tried my best. I kept three, four or five kids home from Texas (Alamo Bowl), I tried to do some things that would make them realize they had some responsibility to the community and to each other.”
Paterno was not asked about his contractual situation during the nearly one-hour session. Earlier this year Spanier said they will not negotiate a deal with Paterno until after the conclusion of the season. He will not receive another extension from the school and if he continues coaching it will be on a year-to-year basis.
But that perception of a coach who has lost control of a program won’t be shed unless Paterno rallies his troops and makes a head-on charge for a BCS berth and conference championship.
Paterno will not give up the fight, or at least give up without one, that much is known, thus leading his players to believe he will still be hanging around into 2009.
Who knows, maybe his best rebuttal to ESPN’s story bought him a little more time. That remains to be seen.
“When a coach knows that they might be done, behavior changes a slight bit,” quarterback Daryll Clark said. “It hasn’t changed with Joe. He’s been the same since I’ve been here. I don’t even think it goes through anybody’s mind. We’re focused on the task of winning games.
“Whatever happens next year happens. I don’t really know.”