The receptionist for Graham B. Spanier, Penn State's president, returned to the phone Friday morning with a pleasant but stern reply to an interview request.
"The president will not be granting interviews about the football coach until the season is over," she said.
A university faces hundreds of pressing issues every day. At Penn State, one hot-button issue for the past 10 weeks has been the fate of Coach Joe Paterno, whose football team is taking another beating, with a 2-8 record after a 17-7 loss to Northwestern on Saturday, the third losing season in four years. What will Spanier do about Paterno: thumbs up or thumbs down?
Last week, in the wake of a tough loss at home to Ohio State, the 76-year-old Paterno told reporters in so many words that he was not ready to leave and that no one was going to make him leave, "so relax."
That is the kind of decision the university president should make, not the head football coach, even if he has been the coach for a century. Paterno has been Penn State's coach since 1966 and is one of the legends of his craft. He should be able to set his exit timetable, in close consultation with the president and the athletic director.
Although his critics' "Joe Must Go" signs are tasteless, his supporters' rationale defies reality. They say Paterno has earned the right to stay as long as he likes. Really? Who else has that right? Even the president of the United States does not have that right; voters decide the president's fate every four years.
Football in places like Penn State is the last empire, and Paterno is one of the last emperors along with Bobby Bowden at Florida State and John Gagliardi at St. John's College in Minnesota. You will not see this breed of coach again. They will have to be dragged, kicking and screaming, from their thrones.
Critics say that Paterno has lost perspective -- that he has no sense that his time has past. But how can you keep perspective on a football empire you played such a large role in building?
Paterno, in his heart of hearts, knows that he has to step aside to allow much-needed fresh air into the Penn State football program. Paterno also knows -- everyone knows -- that his successor will not have nearly the impact he has had at Penn State.
He has won two national championships, enjoyed five undefeated seasons, turned out great professional athletes and graduated the majority of his players. Paterno has raised millions of dollars for Penn State.
One president of a major university said that easing out an iconic figure like Paterno is one of the most difficult and perilous tasks.
"The president will be judged by the grace and sensitivity with which he or she handles the issue," the president, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said. "It is never easy. It is complicated and cannot be done in public: a quiet conversation about timing and the future of the program they love."
There is very little middle ground in the debate over Paterno. There are former players who despise him and former players who love him.
There are those who say Penn State would be in the Dark Ages if it were not for Paterno, and those who say the program will tumble back to the Dark Ages if he stays.
"Penn State would still be a cow college if it wasn't for Joe Paterno," Budd Thalman, who was the university's sports information director from 1986 until he retired in 2001, said by telephone on Friday.