Is Joe Paterno cracking up?

The stadium scene.
Oct. 18 2002 3:48 PM

Conspiracy at State College

Joe Paterno thinks the referees are out to get him.

Is Paterno coming unhinged?
Is Paterno coming unhinged?

Earlier this year, Joe Paterno was the toast of college football. His Penn State Nittany Lions were playing inspired and brilliant football, and the legendary coach—thought as recently as a year ago to have lost it —seemed to have re-established himself as a master strategist and motivator.

But now, after two overtime losses in three weeks, he is displaying the outward signs of a man in the grip of some degenerative mental condition. After the first loss, to Iowa, Paterno sprinted across the field—actually, it was more of a rapid series of lurches—to accost a referee. Then, at a press conference last week, Paterno asserted that several of his recent losses were "decided by very questionable calls." He then proceeded to speculate that all this was caused by a conspiracy against Penn State by the Big Ten conference. Paterno mentioned that three Big Ten officials who worked his recent game hail from the state of Michigan. "Those kinds of things are what they should be looking at," Paterno declared, "Not necessarily that anybody is incompetent." In other words, he specifically disavowed the possibility that the mistakes in his games resulted from innocent human error. This sort of display makes you wonder if the walls of Paterno's office are covered with pages of what he claims are football diagrams but in fact are page after page of meaningless, maniacal scribbling.

In evaluating this conspiracy, the first thing we have to determine is whether Penn State's two most recent losses actually did result from bad officiating. The answer is, almost certainly no. Paterno is right that Iowa benefited from two wrong calls in overtime—a juggling Iowa sideline catch erroneously ruled complete, and an acrobatic tiptoeing sideline catch by Penn State erroneously ruled incomplete. But both calls were excruciatingly close—not exactly something so obvious that only willful blindness could have overlooked them. And Paterno is neglecting to mention that, earlier in the game, Iowa stripped the ball from Penn State tailback Larry Johnson and returned it for a touchdown, only to be called back when officials ruled (incorrectly, according to replays) that Johnson was down.

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He's on even shakier ground complaining about the Michigan game. His complaint is that, with under two minutes left in regulation, Penn State wide receiver Tony Johnson made a leaping grab on third down at the Michigan sideline, but the play was ruled incomplete. Replays showed Johnson landed two feet in bounds. But, first, there's no conclusive evidence that the officials ruled this play incorrectly—Johnson juggled the ball, and TV angles do not show whether he had control before stepping out. Second, Penn State was able to run that play only because on the previous third down it was granted a highly questionable catch, and the officials failed to call holding on a blatant tackle-from-behind by a beaten Nittany Lion blocker.

Even if you ignore all the wrong calls in Paterno's favor, though, it's hard to sustain the conclusion that officiating "decided" those two games. If the two calls against Iowa were reversed, there's no guarantee Iowa wouldn't have scored and that Penn State would have. Nor is there any guarantee Penn State would have scored on Michigan in regulation had it been given Johnson's sideline catch. Penn State's kicker had missed his previous field goal attempt, missed his last extra-point attempt, and missed his next field goal attempt, which was a 23-yard chip shot. As it happened, Penn State had the chance to win in overtime, which it failed to do. (Incidentally, in the overtime session officials neglected to notice an obvious Penn State delay-of-game that would have negated a 16-yard gain.)

The obvious conclusion from all this is that Big Ten football officiating is simply lousy. But Paterno sees something more systematic at work. In his press conference he complained about the low number of penalties called against Michigan in its last two games against his team. Paterno neglected to mention that Penn State is the least-penalized team in the conference this year.

So, has Paterno completely lost his mind? Not necessarily. While disavowing his conspiracy talk, the media have accepted Paterno's shaky claim that bad officiating caused his last two losses. Paterno "may have a point," opined ESPN's Chris Fowler last Thursday. Indeed, the press has taken up Paterno's call for a "review" of Big Ten officiating, even though nobody has a plausible explanation as to how this would improve things. (Better eye charts?) And while they may think he's paranoid, few reporters are suggesting, as they did a year ago, that Paterno can't coach anymore.

Meanwhile, it's entirely possible that when Penn State takes the field against Ohio State in two weeks, officials will have in the back of their minds the prospect of being throttled by Paterno or excoriated in the press every time a close call arises. Game theory suggests that it can further one's interest to be, or to convince others that you are, irrational. Paterno seems to be proving that game theory applies not only to international relations but also to, well, college football games.

Jonathan Chait is a senior editor at the New Republic and author of The Big Con: The True Story of How Washington Got Hoodwinked and Hijacked by Crackpot Economics.

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