I could be imagining things. It is certainly a possibility that, as I approach the ripe old age of 28, my brain has begun to make things happen that actually did not in order to suit my fancy.
However, I will instead choose to stay positive and stick to my conviction that Joe Paterno, at some point during the 2006 or 2007 season, when asked for the squintillionth time about how much longer he intended to coach and whether he was ready to hang it up, finally gave a specific answer.
Joe had traditionally, like clockwork, answered those two questions with "not just yet" and "three more years." Everyone accepted that to be the case after the sixth or seventh three-year period passed and nothing really changed.
Then, during the moment I mentioned, Joe said that he wasn't entirely sure about exactly when he wanted to hang it up, but he did know one thing for sure: when he finally made the decision to call it a career and let another coach follow in his massive footsteps, he wanted to make sure that coach was in the best possible environment to succeed - especially given how wrong the 2003 and 2004 seasons had gone.
Perfectly understandable. The team had a sudden swoon, and Joe wanted to make sure he had reestablished the team where it was before he moved along. There was also the same feeling that every other coach and superstar player has - of wanting to go out on top, on a high note - but Joe doesn't talk about that.
Given that mindset for Joe, I think this is the perfect time for the man known colloquially as JoePa to call it a good life after this season. I would of course be foolish not to elaborate:
- This is shaping up to be a good year for the Nittany Lions. They're already 7-0 and ranked No. 3 in the country after pummeling a Wisconsin team that was supposed to be their first real challenge. Their remainig schedule features teams they will be heavily favored against (Iowa, Indiana, and Michigan) and those they will be at least slight favorites against (Ohio State and Michigan State). Ohio State is the only team on their schedule that is better than the seven they've beaten thusfar, so if they continue to play at their current level, there's no reason they shouldn't win the conference and at least head to the Rose Bowl, if not a BCS bowl.
- The team is deep with talent. Between Darryl Clark, Pat Devlin, Evan Royster, Stephfon Green and Andrew Quarless on offense, and Aaron Maybin, Sean Astorino, Ollie Ogbu and Knowledge Timmons on defense, this team has more than enough talent to weather the first couple seasons of transition into a new coach and/or staff.
- Paterno spends less time than ever actually coaching. Galen Hall coaches the offense, Tom Bradley coaches the defense, and Joe chimes in when he catches a weakness to exploit or sees a player do something dumb. He's even occasionally coaching from up in the press box now that his age has started to take its toll on his legs (a process that was only accelerated by the injuries against Wisconsin last season and again in practice this season).
- The Big Ten is a bit down, and the Lions can thank Terrelle Pryor. The traditional powers are slipping. Michigan is enduring a complete systemic overhaul under Rodriguez, one made longer when he didn't land Pryor as a recruit, and Ohio State is completely reworking its offense around him, so it will develop gradually along with him. Illinois still has no defense and Wisconsin has no offense, factors that are unlikely to change very suddenly.
- The offense is already shifting. The team still goes deep to Deion Butler or relies on Derrick Williams' speed, but for the most part they offense has shifted away from the wide reciever trio that had defined the offense and into the hands of the players who will be back next year (Clark, Royster).
- There is going to be a dropoff, but it's difficult to tell how much. When true top-end guys like Derrick Williams and Justin King came here, it was to help save a flagging and once-proud program, but a lot of other guys come for the honor of playing for a school that has miles and miles of tradition. A big part of that tradition is coming and playing for Joe Paterno. There's a chance that some players, possibly good ones, will change their minds about playing at Penn State if Joe changes his mind about continuing to coach.
- The discipline problems could get worse. There have been a number of off-field incidents in recent years that have led to numerous suspensions and dismissals. It's difficult to say whether Paterno's departure from the helm will improve or inflame the problem.
- Paterno leaving could just be the start of the changes. Penn State and the Big Ten are more traditional than most, so they may just promote from within, but that doesn't guarantee that other coaching changes on the staff wont happen, and any of those could cause unforeseen ripples in Happy Valley.
- Just as much talent is leaving. The team will lose their three best wide recievers and their best offensive lineman (A.Q. Shipley) and the players who fill in next year, well...aren't them.
In the end, I think the positives certainly outweigh the negatives. Joe has a great chance at having a pinnacle season, has solid internal options to choose from for his replacement, and has enough talent to keep the team above water for a few more years. Add in a conference that is not currently powerful and a very patient and understanding fan base for the new coach, and it would appear that there is no better time than now.