Penn State is about to embark on the most crucial part of its season, but much of the focus this week has centered on Joe Paterno's deteriorating physical condition. Paterno has coached at least part of the last three games from the press box and from all indications he will be back upstairs for Saturday's game at Wisconsin.
Paterno, 81, is said to be slowed by an injury to his right knee. He has been hobbling badly this week and was forced to coach from a golf cart, an indication he is not getting better.
After Saturday's game at Purdue, Paterno wore unmatched shoes and used a lectern for support during his postgame news conference. He was helped to a waiting van afterward and whisked to the airport, where he boarded the university's private plane and was back in State College before his team left West Lafayette.
Paterno also left ahead of the team after the Sept. 13 game at Syracuse and has been doing his weekly radio show from home.
"Paterno's physical health has declined to the point where it could cause him to do something no one expected: retire of his own accord," writes Bob Smizik of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
If Paterno does call it quits, who takes over as coach? David Jones of the Harrisburg Patriot-News writes that "the next seven games will determine the leverage Paterno retains in helping name his successor, be it this winter or next."
Jones: "The tipping point, I believe, is an 11-2 finish. That or better and Paterno can offer his resignation, either in January or after one more year, in exchange for a say in getting someone on his current staff hired as his successor.
"If it's 10-3 or anything less, he either relinquishes some clout or loses it altogether. Then PSU President Graham Spanier effectively will retain carte blanche to do whatever he chooses."
The surprising front-runner on the staff could be defensive line coach Larry Johnson over defensive coordinator Tom Bradley. As for outsiders, Rutgers' Greg Schiano has watched his stock take a deep hit after a 1-4 start.
Jones: "Not long ago, Schiano brimmed with testosterone, snapped off his consonants like Teddy Roosevelt and pierced questioners with dagger eyes. After a succession of butt-kickings, RU watchers say he's suddenly disconsolate, quiet and profoundly humbled."
The other outsider is Temple's Al Golden, but at 38 he might be considered too young. He left Penn State in 2001 to become Virginia's defensive coordinator. Golden's exit interview, according to Jones, was brutally frank — "a little too honest for Paterno."