Joe Paterno is now peerless in his profession. Bobby Bowden, his friend and last remaining contemporary among major college football coaches, retired after last season. With Bowden out at Florida State, the career victories record is pretty much Paterno's to keep - whether he cares about it or not.
Paterno knows he is in the twilight of his own Hall of Fame career at Penn State, but still gives no hint of exactly when that will come. These days, nobody seems to be eager to see him go. At 83 years of age, Paterno's health has become closely watched - every hint of a limp is analysed, every slip-up with words is parsed. But at this point it makes no sense asking when Paterno will retire. His contract runs through 2011 for whatever that is worth. In the meantime, his Nittany Lions football team are humming again, racking up wins (11 last year) and challenging for championships. And that still gets the man they call JoePa fired up.
"You like the competition," he said this week. "If you don't like it, you ought to get out of it, that's the way I've always felt about it." Paterno has 394 victories, while Bowden finished with 389 - minus 12 that were vacated by Florida State this year because of an academic cheating scandal. The next milestone for Paterno is the 400-win club, a mark that only John Gagliardi (471) and Eddie Robinson (408) have reached, while coaching in lower divisions. Paterno could get there by late October.
"You know, when I'm down and looking up, are they going to put 399 on top of me or are they going to put 401," Paterno asked at Big Ten media day in Chicago. "Who the hell cares? I won't know." But the legion of blue and white fans are no doubt keeping track - and not just of wins and losses. The health watch started in earnest in 2006 after Paterno tore left knee ligaments in a sideline collision with a player during a game at Wisconsin.
Early in the 2008 season, Paterno hurt his hip after trying to show his players how to execute an onside kick in practice. He needed hip replacement surgery in December - but only after leading the Nittany Lions to a Big Ten title and the Rose Bowl. Both the knee and hip injuries forced Paterno to coach from the press box. Earlier this year, Paterno was able to shed his smoky thick-rimmed glasses after getting laser eye surgery. "Robo-coach," he was nicknamed by one of his staffers.
A new concern emerged this offseason after Paterno missed Big Ten meetings in May and three appearances before alumni groups around the state, stops typically part of his summer schedule. The rumour mill churned anew. Was this really it for Paterno? His spokesmen and family said Paterno was sidelined by a nagging intestinal bug. Paterno in June also said he had a second ailment after suffering an over-reaction to antibiotics prescribed for dental work.
Speaking slightly slower and in a lower tone of voice on the first day of Big Ten media days, Paterno pleaded he was just fine. He repeated as much in State College on Thursday. "I have one request," he told a news conference at the packed Beaver Stadium media room. "Please, don't ask if I'm going to die. Believe me, I got a few more days left." Jay Paterno, his son and quarterbacks coach, watched the back-and-forth with amusement.
"It used to be they'd ask him when [was he] going to retire. Now they're asking when is he going to kick the bucket," he said. The younger Paterno said he has not noticed his father slowing. "It didn't concern me because I've been at the house with my kids. He's chased them ... I haven't seen that element of him slowing down," Jay Paterno said. Paterno, though, has said he is less of a hands-on coach than he used to be, though Paterno is still known to pull a player aside if he is unhappy.
Paterno also plans to make fewer appearances on Thursday night radio show broadcast throughout the state. He said it has become more of a problem for him in recent years because he has to go on the air right after practice. "It's a pain in the rear end. I want to get home. I want to start doodling, figure out what has to get done, so that maybe I can figure out a couple things for the game on Saturday," Joe Paterno said. "And I don't get paid a lot of money." He has also got a Wednesday speaking engagement with hardcore fans and a pre-game radio show on Saturdays, and Paterno said he was not sure how many of those appearances he would get to.
Ron Vanderlinden, the linebacker coach, disagreed with Paterno's suggestion that the head coach might be letting the assistants "carry him" more. "That's one of the great marks of his leadership, that he lets you coach on the field, which makes it a lot more fun. You don't have somebody looking over your shoulder all the time," Vanderlinden said. "But, if he sees something he wants to discuss with you, he will definitely talk it over in the staff room."
* Associated Press