- The Washington Times - Monday, September 8, 2008

The saintly Joe Paterno has allowed the Penn State football program to be sacrificed at the altar of victory, the only barometer that truly matters in college football.

This is the latest remaking of a coach who is defying time and his critics.

The 81-year-old coach was routinely charged with being too old and out of it after his teams compiled a combined 7-16 record in the 2003 and 2004 seasons and the program had enjoyed only one winning season in five.

The unacceptable slide was overcome with stronger recruiting and perhaps a blind eye to the background of potential players. The evidence indicates such a practice.

Forty-six Penn State football players have faced 163 criminal charges since 2002, as detailed on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” in July. Twenty-seven players either were convicted or pled guilty to 45 counts.

Paterno, of course, denies that he and his staff have overlooked the character issue with recruits. It is merely coincidental that the success of the football program has increased in proportion to its legal difficulties.

Penn State’s character issue shows no indication of abating after Paterno held out three players from the Oregon State game and dismissed a reserve cornerback from the team last week.

The 19th-ranked Nittany Lions, accustomed as they are to compartmentalizing their off-field legal woes, overwhelmed Oregon State 45-14 to push their record to 2-0.

That 2-0 mark keeps the faithful happy and the money spigot in proper working order.

No one these days talks of the game having passed Paterno. No one talks of Paterno needing to gracefully walk away from the game. No one even wonders whether Paterno’s age has contributed to the blackening of the Nittany Lions’ once pristine reputation.

Most of the questions regarding Paterno’s age have centered on game-day operations, which is what the media and public see. Yet it is what they do not see that has given Penn State the most problems.

Paterno certainly does not have the same energy level as most of his peers. And it is not hard to imagine how that could impact on the quality of the football-playing teens being lured to State College, Pa.

His assistants know the deal in major college athletics. Win or start sifting through the yellow pages for a moving company.

The Joe-Must-Go chorus was at its shrillest after the 2004 season, when the Nittany Lions were viewed as being finished among the elite because of a coach who no longer could relate to the young.

Paterno quieted the talk the next season, when the Nittany Lions went 11-1 and defeated Florida State in the Orange Bowl. The Nittany Lions have won three consecutive bowl games going into this season and appear well on their way to a fourth consecutive bowl appearance.

If Paterno has righted the football program on the field, he and his assistants have been less than stellar managing their players off it. The latest controversy involves three players being linked to a marijuana investigation. A fourth player was dismissed from the team after violating an undisclosed team rule.

Paterno said he will have no decision on the fate of the three players until the investigation is completed. Police say charges are expected to be filed.

Athletes with questionable histories are hardly unique to Penn State. The financial stakes are so high in major college football and basketball that it is the rare coach who does not take the occasional gamble on a gifted but troubled athlete. Not surprisingly, those gambles sometimes end up embarrassing the coach and school.

Yet Paterno is being dogged by a well-established pattern of incidents, encompassing eight years.

The football tradition may have been restored at Penn State. But it has come at a price and tarnished the legacy of a legendary football coach. Fair or not, Paterno now labors under the perception that he has compromised his principles.

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