Paterno: Kerry Has Run Out Of Excuses

Giants quarterback Kerry Collins should read this piece and take it quite seriously. Because while it pays to have friends in high places, those friends will only support you for so long.

Collins is wearing a Big Blue uniform today because Joe Paterno gave the former Nittany Lions quarterback his blessing several months ago when Giants GM Ernie Accorsi called the Penn State coach for input. But Collins can't count on Paterno to keep breathing life into his NFL career.

Walking across the field at Beaver Stadium, Paterno told The Post in an exclusive interview that it's time for Collins to stand on his own. There can be no more racial jokes, even if they weren't intended to be hurtful. There can be no more DWI arrests.

Collins was the big man on this campus in 1994 when he led Penn State to a 12-0 record. Now it's time for him to show he can be a man among men with the Giants.

"I talked to him a couple of times," said Paterno. "But there's a point where talk doesn't do it anymore. It's a question of, you know, he's not a kid anymore.

"People are giving him a shot," continued Paterno. "I think he'll do his best to make it happen for him, for the team. He's that kind of kid."

Paterno remembers Collins as a brash leader who put his teammates before himself. When he broke a finger one offseason playing volleyball, Paterno said the only person more angry at Collins then the 72-year-old coach was Collins himself.

So Paterno, who is beginning his 50th season at Penn State, his 34th as head coach, is somewhat befuddled by Collins's spiraling NFL career. In his second NFL season of 1996, after being the fifth player taken in the 1995 draft, Collins led the second-year Panthers to the NFC Championship Game. By 1998, his world unraveled.

Former Carolina coach Dom Capers said he had a meeting with Collins five games into the 1998 season, at which time his quarterback stated he didn't feel he could continue to be the starter. The Panthers cut Collins on Oct. 13.

The next day he was signed by Mike Ditka and the Saints. But two weeks later, after the Saints played at the Panthers, Ditka gave Collins permission to spend an extra day in Carolina. He was arrested for driving while intoxicated. At the end of the season the Saints opted not to resign Collins, preferring to go with Billy Joe Somebody at quarterback.

Enter Accorsi, who served as an administrative assistant to Paterno in 1968 and 1969, and the Giants.

"Obviously we did a lot of research [on Kerry] by a lot of people," Accorsi told The Post. "In my mind, the centerpiece of that research had to be Kerry's days at Penn State because that's when he was happiest. To me, there isn't an organization in professional or college football that I respect more than Penn State.

"There are roots there," continued Accorsi. "And I knew Joe would be very open with me. So I asked Joe two questions. 'Does he trust Kerry?' He said he does. 'Does he have faith in Kerry?' He said, 'Yes.' Obviously, it could have altered our decision if Joe had said otherwise."

Paterno will say no more on Collins's behalf. After the Giants signed Collins to a shocking four-year deal worth $16.9 million, including a $5 million signing bonus, Collins should have no more questions about stability or whether he's truly wanted by a team.

Behind Collins' bravado, several sources close to the Penn State program said he was a sensitive player who was ruffled when booed by the home fans. When Collins struggled at the start of the 1998 season, Panther fans bared their claws and Collins crumbled.

"He's a very, very loyal guy," Paterno said of Collins. "He's been loyal to us. I can't figure it. When the Giants called and they said they were thinking of taking a shot at him, I supported that.

"I can't tell you I was surprised or that I was not surprised," Paterno said of Collins' troubles. "I don't know. I don't know enough about it. I don't know what the situation was. I could only tell you what he was for us."

Collins was a great quarterback for Penn State. He's third on the school's career passing yardage list, having thrown for 5,304 yards with 39 touchdowns and 21 interceptions.

After his second season in Carolina he appeared on his way to NFL stardom. Then the bottom fell out. He heads into this season having thrown more interceptions (64) than touchdowns (51) and coach Jim Fassel has stated that despite Collins' huge contract, Kent Graham is the starter.

Collins is on his third team in five seasons. There may not be another chance. There may not be another endorsement from Paterno.

"I think he's a heckuva kid," said Paterno. "He could be a great player."

But will he be? Will Collins resurrect his career with the Giants or will he alienate his teammates. Will state troopers pull him over on Route 3 one night? Paterno stopped at the 20-yard line and paused before answering if he believes Collins will make the most of this chance.

"[I'm] as confident as I can be," said Paterno. "I'd be disappointed if he doesn't. The ball's in his court."