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We should first celebrate Joe Paterno, hold him up with the best coaches ever in any sport on any level. His 342 victories, 31 bowl games and two national championships warrant that much, no matter how dreary Happy Valley has become in recent years. Paterno was, among other things, a terrific coach.

Golden anniversaries are a precious few nowadays, but they are even more rare when the relationship involves a major university and its football coach. His 55-year romance with Penn State was absolutely mutual, for nobody could possibly determine whether he loved the university more or the other way around.

Now it must end. Everybody meets the end sometime, and sometime for Paterno should be Saturday when Penn State plays Michigan State in the season finale. The university should summon the Cappellettis and the Conlans and everyone else who played for Paterno over 5 1/2 decades for one last hurrah at Beaver Stadium. They should boost him on their shoulders, as he did for them during their pivotal years, and hold him high.

For years, Paterno stood as the epitome of everything right with college football in general and Penn State in particular. Together, they were clean, and they won. Paterno had one losing season in his first 34 years as a head coach, but now he's had four in the past five. Keeping him any longer would merely mean another step backward and postponing the inevitable.

You figured Paterno would reach this point with grace and dignity, with his legend intact and his legacy in tow, and step aside at the proper time. A few weeks ago, someone had the audacity to ask him whether he was still the right man for the job.

"After 55 years in coaching, to have someone tell me that, I don't appreciate that," he said.

In fact, he was right.

Nobody should have told Paterno when his time was up, but sadly he had to be told. University officials wouldn't dare say so publicly because they wouldn't dare offend the professorial patriarch. Instead, they've been waiting for Paterno to realize that he's no longer the solution but the problem.

That's not how I want to remember Paterno, as a crotchety 77-year-old man who kicked and screamed his way out the door.

For 39 years as a head coach and 16 more as an assistant, his vision revolved around the team before the individual. That is ironic because in recent years he has put himself before the program. He's the last person you would expect to lead Penn State to ruin, but his ego and stubbornness have blinded him from the obvious: He's no longer capable of coaching this team. Anyone else, anywhere else, would be long gone.

Critics could look the other way if Penn State (3-7) was merely suffering through a down year, but scarce are hints he can turn it around. Penn State has become an embarrassment, the opposite of what Paterno spent his life building. It has had six-game losing streaks in each of the last two seasons. It squeaked past lowly Indiana, 22-18, Saturday for its first Big 10 win this year, avoiding the worst season in Penn State football since 1931.

Penn State has lost 13 of its last 15 conference games, 16 of its last 22 overall. The Nittany Lions' offense ranks 112th out of 117 Division I teams in scoring. They've averaged 9.4 points in their seven conference games, including a 14-7 home loss to Northwestern two weeks ago. Iowa beat them, 6-4, two weeks before that. Penn State's other two wins were against Akron and winless Central Florida.

Penn State has rationalized that a man who has given his life to the university deserves more respect than Paterno has received this season, but the opposite is also true. Paterno should hold the university as high as it held him before their relationship becomes tarnished.

It's time he steps down from his pedestal.

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