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May 20, 2009

JoePa wants a Playoff

He is 82 years old and so resistant to modern technology that he claims to not have a cell phone or know how to retrieve or send e-mail. It’s a pretty safe bet he doesn’t know much, if anything, about the newfangled Twitter craze that is sweeping the nation.

But despite some of his more hidebound ways, Penn State football coach Joe Paterno is college football’s ultimate maverick, tilting at the windmills of injustice as if he were Don Quixote in khaki pants, blue windbreaker, black field shoes and those trademark Coke-bottle glasses.

JoePa has won at least a few of the fights he’s undertaken, perhaps most notably when the NCAA — an organization even more steeped in tradition and resistant to change than he is — instituted limited use of instant replay so that officials’ disputed calls could be gotten right.

Other battles he has welcomed with the NCAA, the Bowl Championship Series hierarchy and even his own conference, the Big Ten, continue to be waged. And while Paterno shows no signs of giving up, time might be running out on him to live some of those perhaps impossible dreams that swirl around in his head. Nothing goes on forever, except maybe the Mississippi River, and that includes the Nittany Lions’ grand old man of the sideline.

Take the disinclination of NCAA and BCS honchos to even consider an eight-game playoff that would finally determine a true national champion, instead of the hodgepodge of computer rankings that almost always leave one or more teams feeling shafted. This past season the odd team out was undefeated Utah, from the non-BCS Mountain West Conference. Even the endorsement of President Obama for a playoff seems to have had little effect on university presidents and athletic directors who tend to move with the speed of melting glaciers.

"It makes sense that we have a playoff," Paterno said last week at the 35th annual Daily News-Eagles City All-Star Game banquet at Dugan’s Restaurant in Northeast Philly. "I don’t know what the problems are, but I don’t like to hear the phony reasons why they don’t have it. ’The kids are going to spend too much time away from class.’ Aw, come on. Look what they do with the basketball (NCAA Tournament). All the other divisions in NCAA football have playoffs. I really think a playoff is fairer."

In 2004, when Southern California, Oklahoma and Auburn all finished the regular season undefeated, Paterno, then a voter in the USA Today coaches’ poll, sent in a ballot on which those three teams shared No. 1. All that accomplished was to get him removed from the list of coaches who vote, a sort of blackball that continues to this day.

"They said, ’You can’t do that,’" Paterno said of his decision to split his ballot into equal thirds. "They didn’t want to count my vote, and they didn’t. But what did they want me to do, go against what I believe is right? I can’t do that. I won’t do it."