Every time we think he's on the way out, he pulls us back in.
At 75, coming off the first back-to-back losing seasons of a Hall of Fame
career that is now in its 37th season, can we be blamed for thinking that Joe
Paterno's time had come?
We meant no disrespect to the winningest coach in Division I-A history. But
we saw a coach whose tried-and-true ways had run their course.
Playing seniors to a fault, relying on a buttoned-down offense and sticking
with vanilla uniforms in a neon age are admirable traits. But only if you
win. Mix in the loss of some key assistant coaches, some recruiting questions
and a Big Ten filled with talented and energetic young coaches, and the
Paterno era, which produced records of 5-7 and 5-6 the last two seasons,
seemed to be winding down.
Incredible though it may seem, when Tyrone Willingham takes Notre Dame to
East Lansing, Mich., to play Bobby Williams' Michigan State Spartans, exactly
half the black head coaches in major-college football will be prowling the
Neither Willingham nor Williams, who will have so much at stake this week,
chose to create a distraction by pointing out that Division I-A schools
currently employ only four black head coaches. (San Jose State coach Fitz
Hill and New Mexico State coach Tony Samuel are the others.)
"The important thing for me to do is concentrate on winning football
games," said Willingham, who has ND off to its first 3-0 start since 1996.
"But I believe that if I do what I was brought here to do, which is win
football games and help young people grow, a byproduct will be to accomplish
all the other things that need to be accomplished."
While Willingham has the Irish poised for a very satisfying season, Williams
is feeling some heat. His Spartans, who are expected to be a Big Ten
heavyweight this fall, were embarrassed at home by Cal Saturday, when they
booed lustily by their own fans. Too many losses like that could shorten his
tenure at Michigan State.
On the other hand, as he hinted, Michigan State, which has won five straight
against Notre Dame, has a chance to atone for the Cal debacle by making it
six straight victories over the Irish.
"The fact that you have two black coaches coaching in this game is
tremendous," Williams said. "It shows how far we have come in college
football, to have two coaches in the national spotlight. But that's really
for the general audience. The nature of this game is far bigger than that.
There's already a tremendous amount of anxiety to this rivalry. The Michigan
State-Notre Dame rivalry dates back to 1897. That in itself creates more
[weight] to this football game."
Michigan coach Lloyd Carr didn't hesitate, though, when asked why there
aren't more black head coaches.
"You'd have to survey the athletic directors and presidents across the
country [for an answer]," Carr said. "But I think it's important that we do
have more minority head coaches. There's no question that the time has passed,
and those issues need to be addressed."
-- Herb Gould
And then, in one glorious evening, before a crowd of 110,753, the largest
ever at Beaver Stadium, Paterno's Nittany Lions dismantled then-No. 7 Nebraska 40-7.
Never mind that the Cornhuskers might not have deserved their top-10 ranking.
They certainly were good enough to be a measuring stick of whether Penn State
had enough stuff to make a winner of Joe Paterno again.
With that victory, the most impressive win put up by a Big Ten team so far
this fall, Penn State re-established itself as a serious player.
On what was billed as a statement weekend for the Big Ten, no school came up
bigger than the Nittany Lions. While Michigan, Michigan State and Iowa were
losing, and Wisconsin and Purdue were struggling, Penn State joined Ohio
State as the Big Ten teams that have looked the sharpest in non-conference
Penn State is back. No further evidence is needed than the fact that Paterno
is downplaying the dazzling display his team put on.
"We're not anywhere near good enough to start talking as if we're back,
wherever that is. I don't know where we were," JoePa said. "Last year we
lost to four good football teams early, and then we started to play good
football. I don't know whether it's as dramatic as some people make it out to
be. My job is not to look back. My job is to concentrate on Louisiana Tech
What really opened our eyes was the imaginative way Penn State's offense left
We knew Zack Mills was good. What we didn't know was how good he could make
those around him look -- especially when the Nittany Lions went to some
"It just looked like one of those football games where things really
snowballed," said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, one of those talented new Big Ten
coaches, whose Hawkeyes handed Penn State loss No. 3 in last year's 0-4
start. "I don't know a lot about Nebraska, but I have a good feel for Penn
State. They're a good football team. We probably caught them at the ideal
time last year. Early. During the season, they found a quarterback, and the
whole team really responded to him. That's a big step to success.
"Now you're looking at a guy who's a veteran player that the team believes
in," Ferentz said of Mills. "They have good players. At Penn State, they
always have. Now they have the right mix. They're going to be a tough
football team this year."
At this rate, Paterno, who is 329-96-3 and counting, might not be passed by
Bobby Bowden after all.
One thing seems certain, though. JoePa won't be hearing many questions about
how long he intends to coach this fall.
We were wrong. You're 75 and you're still right.
Around the Big Ten
The Illini will try to extend their seven-game home winning streak against
San Jose State, which gave Ron Turner his first head coaching job. "I
obviously have special feelings for them. But as we get ready to play them,
they're another team -- a young up-and-coming team that has played some
excellent football at times," said Turner, who went 7-4 at San Jose State in
1992 before leaving to become the Chicago Bears' offensive coordinator.
"They were ahead of Washington 10 -0 in the third quarter (before losing
34-10) and they were only down 28-26 to Stanford late in the third quarter
(of a 63-26 loss). They've made some mistakes that hurt them and they've
gotten worn down, but they've showed they're capable of playing with
anybody." ... San Jose State (1-2) opened its season with a 33-14 victory over
Arkansas State, which was walloped 59-7 by the Illini Saturday.
Gibran Hamden, a fifth-year senior who made his first start in IU's
surprisingly competitive 27-17 loss at Kentucky, will be at quarterback again
when the Hoosiers play host to Central Michigan this week. "I thought he
played well for his first start," coach Gerry DiNardo said of Hamden, who
had two interceptions and fumbled when sacked while leading IU to a 394-327
edge in offensive yardage. "Gibran didn't play a mistake-free game. The
turnovers are something we have to stop. But he played well enough to come
back and be our starter against Central Michigan." ... Previous starter
Tommy Jones, who suffered a concussion at Utah, was cleared to return to
practice this week.
The Hawkeyes, who blew a 17-point lead in a 36-31 loss to archrival Iowa
State, will try to shake off their disappointment against Utah State this
week. "It was a a tough loss. Everyone in our program is hurting," coach
Kirk Ferentz said. "But as we told the guys before the game, win, lose or
draw, we have nine more to go. We have to learn from it, and come back in a
better fashion." ... The defeat was the fifth straight for Iowa in the series,
including the last three in Iowa City.
After seeing replays of an apparent fumble by Notre Dame quarterback Carlyle
Holliday on a play that held up for a touchdown in Michigan's 25-23 loss at
Notre Dame, Coach Lloyd Carr had this comment: "You can't print what I
think." ... The Wolverines know they have to move on when they play host
this week to Utah, which is 2-1 after a controversial 23-17 loss at Arizona.
"It's very difficult to maintain a high emotional level for 12 weeks," Carr
said. "But there's a challenge every week. Smart teams understand that. If
you want to be an outstanding team, you need to improve every week." ... Michigan, which has averaged fewer than seven missed field goals a season since 1997, is 2 for 8 on field goal attempts this season.
The Spartans struggled about every way you can in their 46-22 upset loss to
Cal. But special teams play, which was notably disastrous, will be a point of
emphasis for Michigan State when it tries to knock off Notre Dame for the
sixth straight time. The Spartans gave up a 90-yard punt return for a
touchdown, a 56-yard kickoff return and fumbled two kickoff returns in their
meltdown against the Golden Bears. "It was a nightmare, that's what it
was," said special teams coach Danny Crossman.
The Gophers gave up 428 yards of offense in their 31-21 victory over Toledo,
and dropped from first to eighth in the nation in total defense (230 yards a
game). With Buffalo, three years removed from Division I-AA status, coming to
Minnesota this week, the Gophers hope to tighten up their defense before
facing more imposing Big Ten teams. ... Coach Glen Mason wants to give
slightly injured tailback Marion Barber III some work against Buffalo to get
him ready for Big Ten play. ... It's a remote possibility, but the Gophers
are rooting especially hard for the Twins to move up to the No. 2 seed in the
American League playoffs. If they wind up as the No. 3 seed, which is much
more likely, the Gophers are virtually certain to move their Oct. 5 home game
against Illinois to Thursday, Oct. 3, athletic director Joel Maturi said.
They also could wind up moving their Oct. 12 game against Northwestern to
Oct. 10 if the Twins need the Metrodome.
It would have been unthinkable three weeks ago, but the Wildcats are listed
as the underdog by oddsmakers for their game this week at Navy, which had a
bye last week. That can be attributed to the surprising 1-1 start of the
Midshipmen, who were 0-10 last season, and the Wildcats' 52-3 blowout loss at
Air Force, which, like Navy, likes an option offense. "Navy's probably
licking their chops after looking at that Air Force tape," said Northwestern
coach Randy Walker, who was satisfied with the Cats' modest 26-21 victory
over Duke last week. "It's especially bothersome to us that Navy has a
couple of weeks to get ready for us."
Freshman tailback sensation Maurice Clarett underwent arthroscopic
surgery on his right knee Tuesday, but could play when the Buckeyes visit
Cincinnati Saturday. "I wouldn't call him out because of modern medicine,
but at this point, Maurice is questionable," said coach Jim Tressel, who
hopes to have a better feel for the situation after practice Thursday.
Clarett, who rushed for 230 yards and two touchdowns in Ohio State's 25-7
victory over Washington State, is averaging 157 yards a game, third among the
The Nittany Lions' 40-7 victory over the Cornhuskers was the first for Penn
State against a top 10 team since 1999. ... Larry Johnson had 123 yards on
19 carries, the first 100-yard game of the senior tailback's career. It was
also the first 100-yard game by a Penn State running back since Eric McCoo
had 102 yards at Michigan in 2000. ... After two games, the Nittany Lions
are plus-three on turnovers (five takeaways, two giveaways). They had only 12
takeaways all of last season, when they had 23 giveaways, for a minus-11
Joe Tiller initially said quarterback Kyle Orton had played his worst game in
six starts at Purdue after the Boilermakers held off Western Michigan 28-24.
But Tiller later backed off, pointing to lack of protection for Orton's wobbly
effort, in which he completed 16 of 30 for 216 yards with two touchdowns and
no interceptions. "He didn't play all that poorly, even though he missed
some checks. He got hit 19 times when he was trying to get rid of the ball." ... Junior free safety Stuart Schweigert became Purdue's all-time interception leader with
his 12th career pickoff against Western Michigan.
Badgers coach Barry Alvarez knows a 24-21 escape from Northern Illinois
wasn't pretty, but he also knows Wisconsin is 4-0 even if there have been
some wobbly performances. "Northern Illinois did an outstanding job,"
Alvarez said. "I didn't think we played particularly well, but we're very
pleased with our win. I'm pleased that our guys found a way to get the job
done." ... Sophomore running back Anthony Davis managed only 49 yards on 14
carries, but quarterback Brooks Bollinger's late two-yard run bailed out the
Badgers. "If we don't clean up these mistakes," offensive tackle Ben
Johnson said, "we're going to finish in last place."
Around the Independents
Connecticut had some encouraging offensive performances in its 24-3 victory
over Buffalo. Leading the way were freshman running back Terry Caulley, who
had 136 yards on 26 carries and caught five passes for 40 yards, and tight
end Tommy Collins, who caught three passes for 96 yards, including a 50-yard
TD. The Huskies, who piled up 429 yards on offense, will try to keep their
momentum going, and even their record at 2-2, at home against Ohio U.
Saturday. ... Navy can post its first 2-1 start since 1997 with a victory in Annapolis this week over Northwestern, a team it is favored to beat. Coach Paul Johnson wouldn't admit to finding encouragement that Northwestern was routed 52-3 by Air Force in its opener, saying "They can embarrass if we don't play well."
A top priority for the Midshipmen is eliminating the mistakes that dogged
them in their 65-19 loss to NC State. The Wolfpack scored 28 points off two
turnovers and two blocked punts. ... Notre Dame is setting its sights high after its 25-23 upset of Michigan, a victory that establishes the Irish as a serious candidate for a Bowl Championship Series at-large berth. "To beat a ranked team like Michigan was
a big win for the whole football program," said cornerback Shane Walton, who
knocked down a potential game-tying two-point-conversion pass and intercepted
another pass to seal ND's victory. "We just have to build on this. There's
going to be so much more enthusiasm now." ... South Florida won't have long to shake off its 42-3 loss at Arkansas, the most lopsided defeat in the program's six-year history. The Bulls, who were spared their first shutout loss by a field goal with 38 seconds left, travel to Oklahoma Saturday. This is the first meeting between Bulls coach Jim Leavitt and Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, who were co-defensive coordinators at
Kansas State in the early '90s. South Florida athletic director Lee Roy Selmon starred at Oklahoma before going on to a Hall of Fame career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. ...
Troy State used a school-record 464 rushing yards to run past Southern Utah
for its first victory of the season. Three Trojans -- Mario Fraser (124 yards on
17 carries), DeWhitt Betterson (120 on seven) and LeBarron Black (100 on
16) -- rushed for more than 100 yards, another school record. Troy State steps
up in weight class this week when it travels to Iowa State. ... Utah State held on for a 38-33 victory, its first of the season, over Idaho State, but the win was tempered by the fact that the Aggies had to hang on after opening a 28-0 lead early in the second quarter. " We just didn't close it like we wanted to," coach Mick Dennehy said. Utah State knows it won't be able to afford similar letdown mistakes when it plays at Iowa Saturday.
Herb Gould covers college football for the Chicago Sun-Times.