He built it, and they came.

They came for the architect. They came for the chance to play for Joe Paterno.

For years, if you asked a Penn State recruit why he chose the Nittany Lions, his response would likely have included the iconic coach.

Almost 43 years into Paterno's tenure, they still come for the 81-year-old legend, but not as much so, and that's the way he wants it.

For the last 15 years, Paterno has told recruits to consider Penn State for reasons other than himself. He has told them, "Don't put me in the equation beyond what it should be."

"Look at the people that are going to be in this program," Paterno recounted last month. "Look at Penn State. Look at its history. Look at the fact that we've had four [actually five] head coaches since 1918. . . . Look at the fact that we got 110,000 [seats in the stadium]. Look at the enthusiasm. Look at the academic support."

For 15 years, Paterno has used that pitch to counter those - especially rival coaches - who have predicted his end. They have been wrong. But for the first time, there is reason to believe the end is near, nearer than maybe he and his loyal acolytes care to admit.

Paterno is in the last year of his contract. The university will not give him an extension, saying it's unnecessary, but will evaluate his future following the 2008 season.

It's not a scenario one would imagine benefits recruiting, and it has had many a Penn State watcher predicting doomsday. But with recruiting for the 2009 class in full swing, the Lions have been surprisingly active participants, already bagging 12 oral commitments.

The Inquirer spoke to more than two dozen recruits to whom Penn State has offered scholarships. Some have accepted, others have committed elsewhere, and some are still undecided. But a majority, whether they meant it or not, have said that the "Paterno situation" has not influenced, or will not influence, their decision.

And yet, some have voiced their concerns. When Terrelle Pryor, last year's No. 1 quarterback recruit, said he eliminated Penn State before selecting Ohio State because Penn State didn't have a succession plan in place, the sting was sharp.

And while the Lions have fulfilled needs on the offensive line and at defensive back, there is a glaring hole at quarterback. The national signing day, meanwhile, is still eight long months away.

"These recruits are as verbal as verbal can be," said Mike Farrell, national recruiting editor for the Web site rivals.com. "Let's say Penn State has a bad year and Paterno is gone. Or let's say Penn State has an OK year and nobody knows whether JoePa is going to be back. Or let's say his health fails. You could see a whole lot of de-commitments."

Who's got next?

After having a small class of 14 recruits for 2008, Paterno has said he plans to sign 20 to 22 high school seniors in February.

This year, the NCAA forbade head coaches from visiting recruits in the May contact period. But the new rule didn't inhibit Paterno as much as other coaches, since he rarely hits the trail nowadays. The job has fallen to his assistant coaches, who must now frame the "Paterno situation" to inquiring recruits.

Defensive-line coach Larry Johnson, one of the team's best recruiters, has been partly responsible for eight commitments, with most of the players from Maryland. According to several, Johnson has assured them that Paterno's successor will be in-house.

"He said [Paterno's] going to coach for as long as he can," said Derrick Thomas, a cornerback from Greenbelt, Md. "If this year would happen to be his last, someone on the staff would get the head coaching job."

Paterno has not endorsed a candidate - despite possible contenders such as defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden, quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno, and Johnson - nor has university president Graham Spanier, who could conceivably look elsewhere.

Through team spokesman Guido D'Elia, Johnson and the other assistant coaches declined to be interviewed for this article.

"When I went up there, you could tell that it's not all Coach Paterno," said Gerald Hodges, an undecided safety from Paulsboro. "It's a lot of his coaching staff. You can tell that when he leaves, it's not going to change."

Many recruits said that even if a national search yields a replacement from outside, the climate created by Paterno would be to difficult to transform.

"It's still Penn State," said Mark Arcidiacono, who has committed from St. Joseph's Prep. "And I'm sure if that happened, whoever replaced him would be qualified."

The next thing

Arcidiacono is one of the few recruits who grew up a Penn State nut, and thus, a Paterno fan. Needless to say, the 6-foot-5, 285-pound offensive tackle was an easy sell.

"The school almost recruited me itself," Arcidiacono said. "But I would be lying if I didn't say how much of an honor it would be to play for him."

The only worry about Paterno's leaving is that he will head for the rocker - forcibly or voluntarily - rather than greener pastures. Recruits are savvy enough to know most coaching situations are transient.

"At West Virginia, Rich Rodriguez just left [for Michigan]," said Abdul Smith, an undecided safety from Pennsburg, Pa. "It's happening more commonly with coaches leaving, for money or anything. I just have to find the right situation with a coach."

"I'm really comfortable with Coach Paterno's situation," said Eric Shrive, an offensive tackle from Scranton who has committed to the Lions. "The coaching staff has to play a factor in your situation, but there are other reasons to pick a school."

Next, please

Still, there are many who have crossed off Penn State or have it low on their list because of the potential for Paterno's retirement or new leadership.

"I want to go somewhere where I have a relationship with the coach," said Nyshier Oliver, an undecided cornerback from Jersey City, N.J. "I think I would have a hard time getting on the field if I didn't have a close relationship with the head coach."

One coach, who asked not to be identified to protect his relationships with college coaches, said his high school player chose another school over Penn State because of Paterno's uncertain future. "It was a factor, no doubt," the coach said. "There's just this feeling out there that even if he makes it back for next year, there's no way he's coaching beyond 2009."

Some of that sentiment comes from the negative recruiting of rival coaches, which has a little more bite than in years past.

"A few have tried to slip it in there," said Jaleel Clark, an undecided wide receiver from Allentown. "They say, 'Why are you going to go there if he's not going to be there much longer?' "

For Arcidiacono, Penn State separated itself, and that's why he committed in April. He cannot sign a binding letter of intent until Feb. 3. Penn State's season, provided the Lions play in the postseason, will likely be over anywhere from late December to early January.

That gives Spanier, the university president, and athletic director Tim Curley a little over a month to decide Paterno's future should they wish to have a resolution in place before signing day.

Arcidiacono is committed even if Paterno is gone after 2008.

"That wouldn't affect his signing," said his father, Mark Arcidiacono Sr. "If he didn't come back, whoever came in there - whether it's internal or external - I'm sure they're going to bring in a top-notch coach."

Penn State Commitments

Here are the 12 oral commitments Penn State has received from the recruiting class of 2009. Recruits can't sign binding letters of intent until Feb. 3.

Player   Pos.   Ht.   Wt.   Hometown/School

Mark Arcidiacono   OT   6-5   285   St. Joseph's Prep

Curtis Drake   ATH   6-0   175   West Catholic

Brandon Felder   WR   6-3   165   Oxon Hill, Md.

Frank Figueroa   OG   6-4   275   Alexandria, Va.

Darrell Givens   CB   6-1   178   Indian Head, Md.

Ty Howle   C   6-2   290   Bunn, N.C.

Stephon Morris   CB   5-9   175   Greenbelt, Md.

S. Obeng-Agyapong   S   5-11   185   Cheektowaga, N.Y.

Eric Shrive   OT   6-7   300   Scranton

Sean Stanley   DE   6-2   245   Gaithersburg, Md.

Derrick Thomas   CB   6-0   175   Greenbelt, Md.

Malcolm Willis   S   6-1   185   Indian Head, Md.

ATH: Athlete; future position undetermined.

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Contact staff writer Jeff McLane at 215-854-4745 or jmclane@phillynews.com.