UNIVERSITY PARK - When your coach is 84, in the last year of his contract and can't stand up for an entire game, the rumor mill on a potential successor is bound to swirl.
And it's swirling, all right, at Penn State.
An Internet report surfaced over the weekend that Urban Meyer, twice a national champion at Florida and the No. 1 free agent among college football coaches, "would love" to ascend to Joe Paterno's throne.
The Associated Press
Urban?Meyer won two national championships at Florida when Tim Tebow was his quarterback.
But he's understandably concerned about the perception that his potential candidacy could expediate Paterno's retirement.
The report was more than message-board fodder. It was written by longtime Ohio State beat writer Jeff Rapp, who now runs a website called SportsRappUp, which is devoted to the Buckeyes' coverage.
His source, reportedly a "close friend of Meyer's," revealed the former Florida coach's interest.
Meyer, who endured a health scare and resigned at Florida after last season, was at Penn State on Saturday as part of the ABC broadcast crew. He denied the report, first saying, "I'm not going to say anything about it," and then added, "There's no truth to the rumor."
Penn State Athletic Director Tim Curley has also denied that the Nittany Lions contacted Meyer, as reported by Rapp, on Sept. 25.
OK, we'll take Curley at his word. At the same time, high-level college officials often avoid having to fib about these scenarios and instead work through a third party.
To think Penn State and Meyer haven't flirted is foolish. In fact, if Curley and school president Graham Spanier are not considering their options and probing the top candidates available - knowing it's very possible Paterno may retire on his own - they'd be negligent in their jobs.
For starters, Meyer will be coaching again, probably sooner than later.
He told Rapp for another story last month: "I'm in a little bit of an evaluation phase in my life so I try not to look too far in advance. There's a big part of me that hopes I love that I do what I'm doing and I really enjoy some of the things I'm witnessing with my kids growing up, but I do miss coaching terribly, very badly. I don't know. I'm not going to evaluate until it's time to evaluate."
The Rapp report isn't the first time Meyer has been linked to Penn State. Phil Grosz of BlueWhite Illustrated said on the radio last month that discussions were held with Curley and Spanier when Meyer was in town in August for an ESPN feature on Michael Mauti.
The Sporting News has also speculated, via sources, that Penn State is one of the few jobs (along with Ohio State and Texas) that would lure Meyer back to the game.
Let's be clear: While there may be others with deeper ties to Penn State who would be mightily interested in the job (Al Golden, Greg Schiano, members of the current staff), no one can claim Meyer's resume of a 104-23 record in 10 years (two at Bowling Green, two at Utah, six at Florida), the two national titles and a 7-1 record in bowls.
Nor could anyone energize Penn State's fan base, which has grown anxious for the transition, better than Meyer.
Due to the Lions' underperformance in big games over the last 15 years, the seemingly terminal offensive struggles that have never been more magnified than they are right now, and the controversial STEP program, Beaver Stadium's "greatest show in college football," is currently playing to plenty of empty seats.
Even those in them aren't overly thrilled with the prices, the product and the fact that many of their seasonal friendships are now in another section.
Saturday was a prime example: On a magnificent day - against a quality opponent - attendance was listed at 103,497, and while the STEP program has been financially successful, a lot of money is being left on the table.
That trend likely will continue until a resolution embraced by the Nittany Nation.
Competition for Meyer will be high - particularly in Columbus - and Penn State, to avoid coaching against him, could benefit from a proactive mode it may already be in.
For his part, Meyer's affection for Paterno is evident. He also attended a Penn State volleyball practice (his daughters played Division I volleyball) while on campus last week.
And he did wear blue and white during Saturday's game.
Whether JoePa is finally ready to head off into the sunset isn't certain. It seemed so a year ago, but he walked himself into good shape over the spring and summer before he was run over in practice in August (and aggravated those injuries Saturday).
At Big Ten media days, he said he'd like to coach "another four-five years."
But in his annual preseason interview with Rich Scarcella of Town & Gown Magazine, Paterno said of his future, "I think if they [Spanier & Co.] decide, 'Hey, Paterno's had it,' then they have every right to do it. Heck, I'm not a kid. You know what I mean? Whatever's good for the institution right now is good. If they call me in and say, 'we think it's time to go,' I'll go.''
Meyer's availability makes the timing perfect.
Paterno has said he'd like to have a hand in picking his successor, which means his cooperation and facilitation of Urban Meyer could be his last top recruit.
And the final chapter of the greatest tenure in college sports history.
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or email@example.com.