The interviews with Joe Paterno have become more difficult to watch than the sorry Penn State football team. We've grown accustomed to seeing the Nittany Lions lose of late. This will be Penn State's fourth losing season in the last five years. The team is 0-6 in the Big Ten this season. The Nittany Lions have played in one bowl game since 1999, and no big-time bowl game since the Fiesta Bowl at the end of the 1996 season.

And the captain of this ship, sadly, is Paterno, maybe the greatest college football coach who ever lived. It's painful to see him sit at a table after games or stand at a lectern in the middle of the week and have to answer questions about all this losing, about the star high school recruits who say no to Penn State and yes to someplace else, about whether the game has passed him by now that he's 77 years old.

Last week's news conference was downright agonizing.

Somebody asked if the coach thinks he deserves to be back as head coach next year, given the team's 2-7 record following a 3-9 record last season.

And Paterno snapped: "I don't appreciate that question, to be honest with you. After 55 years in coaching, I don't deserve to be asked that question."

There's no easy answer about what to do with Paterno now. On one hand, you've got a man who has given his life, soul and hundreds of thousands of dollars to Penn State University, who for 30 years was the model of what a college coach ought to be. He built the football program, and his influence helped build the entire university. He's the most famous person, the greatest human resource the school has ever had. My colleague Bill Lyon, writing the other day in the Philadelphia Inquirer, called Paterno "a prideful man, a stalwart man of dignity and moral worth." On the other hand, you've got a coach whose team stinks in a Division I-A football world of what-have-you-done-for-me-lately, who seems intent on coaching through his current contract, which runs until he's 81.

So what would you do, fire the university's most central figure since the early 1970s because his team has been lousy the last five years? Or do you suffer in silence, thankful for the five undefeated seasons, the two national championships and let the man pick his own time to walk away?

Talk about a dilemma. Sports columnists are supposed to be unflinching in our ability to take a stand, but I can't as it pertains to Paterno. The man's record, 341-116-3, puts him second in career victories in Division I-A behind only Florida State's Bobby Bowden. After beating Paterno last week, Northwestern Coach Randy Walker said there's absolutely no way to force out Paterno because: "He's about the right things. He's always stood for the right things. And our game needs him. I've never felt stronger about a man and what he is in coaching."

All of that is indisputable, which makes this maddening. But it's just as indisputable that Paterno can no longer put together a team that can contend or, for that matter, be competitive.

A program that won nine or more games 11 times between 1985 and 1999 has not won since Sept. 18. The Nittany Lions have lost 16 of their last 17 games to teams outside the Mid-American Conference. The only team they've beaten in the Big Ten the past two seasons is Indiana, which is looking for revenge at home this week. After Saturday's 14-7 loss to Northwestern, Penn State ranks 113th out of 117 Division teams in scoring (15.1 points per game) and is averaging 7.2 points per game against Big Ten opponents.

Three weeks ago, Penn State scored four points against Iowa. Michael Haynes, a member of the Chicago Bears and one of Paterno's recent former players, told reporters in Chicago last week that he feels for Penn State Athletic Director Tim Curley, who has the unenviable task of trying to figure out what to do with Paterno.

"He's in a tough position because you can't fire the guy," Haynes said. "That's not going to happen. You have to let him resign, and he is not going to do that."

From 1980 through 1986, when I covered college football for The Post, I had probably a dozen extended private conversations with Paterno, and it seemed to me then and now that Paterno and Georgetown Coach John Thompson, particularly in the 1980s, were the conscience of big-time college athletics. They were almost always on the right side of academic, social and athletic issues. Mothers and fathers breathed a huge sigh of relief when they sent their sons to Paterno, who was somehow old-school yet never unplugged.

It was no coincidence his football teams were machine-like in their efficiency. I loved that Penn State never changed its uniforms or adopted a third jersey just for marketing reasons. I loved that Paterno was always front and center on the difficult questions facing college athletics, especially at a time cable TV was exploding and folks needed somebody smart and grounded and principled to tell them what they ought to think.

You'd be hard pressed to find a better coach and man at any level of competition in any sport, so I can't make my fingers type the words, "Joe Must . . . " A Penn State alum did that in the student newspaper recently, but I can't be that callous. This isn't benching Mark Brunell or firing Dave Wannstedt or something that should be decided by screaming on sports talk radio or TV.

I'm hoping, that at the end of this season, Joe Paterno will retire, which is the same thing I was hoping at the end of last season. But he thinks he's close enough to win next year. There's a great defense in place, and the early part of next year's schedule is easy, we're told.

But until then, it's hard to watch the team play that's wearing Penn State uniforms, and it's hard to watch the guy on the sideline who used to be Joe Paterno.

Coach Joe Paterno's Nittany Lions are 2-7 and headed for their 4th losing season in the last five years.