It may sound sacrilegious to ask, but one can't help wondering how much, if any, Paterno has actually contributed to that success.
The "Spread HD" (The "HD" supposedly stands for "highly diverse"), with its mix of motion, four-receiver sets, power-I running and option pitches, was the brainchild of offensive coordinator Galen Hall and quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno, Joe's son. Defensive coordinator Tom Bradley has been largely running his own show for years.
JoePa still watches tape of the upcoming opponent (though more frequently from his home office) and offers suggestions, including over the headset during games from his new vantage point above the field. "My being upstairs, it's funny. I'm not sure that's not the best place for a head coach," he said recently. "I have a better view of the game from up there than I ever do on the sidelines. I can see more than half the field. Coverage things. I know who is covering."
However, he's no longer able to visit with the team at halftime ("It's too tough for me to go down and back up," he said), leaving him almost no interaction with his players.
I'd add in the facts that: (1) Paterno never seems to be, you know, actually talking on his headset when he is shown in the booth; and (2) Paterno's trip to Terrelle Pryor's living room was reportedly his first recruiting visit in some time.
I hope this doesn't come across as picking on Joe Paterno. He's on the Mount Rushmore of college coaches. If you asked me to choose between Paterno and Bobby Bowden, I'd take Paterno every day of the week and twice on Sunday. That said, I like Paterno for what he achieved in the past. In the present, he has as much to do with Penn State's success this year as Queen Elizabeth does with England's response to the credit crisis.
Drunken English fans still sing about the Queen when England take to the pitch. Tourists still flock to Buckingham Palace to take a look at the Queen's residence. English tabloids still obsess about the Queen and her progeny. Those factors don't change the fact that she's a figure-head. No one seriously thinks that she has a role in anything. Likewise, the overwhelming evidence shows that Paterno is in a purely symbolic role as Penn State's coach. Penn State fans might still dress like Paterno and celebrate him ringing up more wins, but they're no different than some lout from Sheffield shouting about the Queen as he knocks back pints after England beats Croatia.
This matters because, as Mandel's column makes clear, there's going to be a tide of Paterno-related sentiment supporting Penn State playing in the national title game. You could see the beginnings of this meme when ABC subjected the country to a treacly Paterno montage (naturally set to music) at the close of the Lions' win at Ohio State. Right now, Kirk Herbstreit is taking the position that Penn State is rightfully behind Texas and Alabama, but that they'll likely make the title game because their remaining schedule is easier. Watch that opinion change if we get into late November and Texas and Alabama are both unbeaten. Watch Michigan State get built up into a major roadblock on par with a trip to Baton Rouge or a neutral site game against Georgia or Florida. It is objectionable to support a team for the national title game for sentimental reasons; it's doubly inappropriate when the object of that sentiment has almost nothing to do with his team's success.
The likely victim of this prospective wave of emotionalism will be Alabama. Texas will have played far too tough a schedule to possibly be excluded from the national title game and they are probably going to have the Heisman Trophy winner under center. Alabama, on the other hand, wins games in the traditional Alabama style: tough, gritty, and defensive. The Tide also have a coach for whom members of the media will do no favors. Talking heads will no doubt cite to Paterno's unbeaten teams going uncrowned four times in the past. Something tells me that they won't remember that two-time defending national champion Alabama went unbeaten in 1966 and was deprived a third title in favor of the Notre Dame team that tied at Michigan State, nor will they remember that Alabama was out of the national conversation in 1994, despite being unbeaten up until the SEC Championship Game. Like Justice Scalia's law clerks, one suspects that the historical narrative will be a tad one-sided in an Alabama-Penn State debate.