Paterno is back
Some would say that 79-year-old Joe Paterno is back as a college football icon after coaching Penn State to an 11-1 record and No. 3 spot in the final polls last season.
Paterno would tell you he's never been away.
The four losing records in the five seasons that Penn State endured from 2000 through 2004, the stretch that had many questioning the head coach, have receded into history after the triumph of 2005. Paterno, it's been suggested, badly needed that successful season, which concluded with a matchup vs. fellow coaching legend Bobby Bowden and a 26-23 triple-overtime win over Bowden's Florida State team in the Orange Bowl.
"I think my family needed it. My wife needed it more than I needed it," he said. " 'Did you hear what they wrote about you• Did you read what they said about you?' I said, 'Honey, I don't even look at that.' I don't. You guys are great, and we need you to sell tickets and to get people stirred up. But as far as I'm concerned, you don't know what you're talking about half the time."
Paterno seemed beaten down mentally and fatigued at times last season. But that could have had as much to do with his wife's health issues as the losing record. Sue Paterno had suffered a broken leg during a beach vacation, cutting that short and causing Paterno to miss the first day of Big Ten preseason festivities in Chicago.
This year, Paterno arrived tan and upbeat for that Big Ten event. Still, he's cognizant that he's only a couple of losses away from more criticism.
"The day will come again when it will be 'He's getting too old and decrepit,' " Paterno said.
According to Levi Brown, the redshirt senior offensive tackle who has seen the ups and downs of recent Penn State history firsthand, Paterno has been consistent through it all.
"Joe has always told us to not worry about him, he'll be OK," Brown said. "He's going to be the coach here until he wants to leave, so we really don't focus on that part."
Not that Paterno doesn't second-guess himself, on matters ranging from in-game strategy to not getting more work for incoming quarterback Anthony Morelli.
"You can't let it chip away your confidence," he said. "I'm aware of the fact that there isn't a coach in the country that I've seen coach 10, 11 perfect games."
After four decades and nearly 500 games as head coach, the game still is fun for the Brooklyn native.
"I just enjoy the whole thing," he said. "I enjoy everything but this (talking to the media)."
Paterno enters his 41st season as head coach with 354 career wins, second only to Bowden's 359 among Division I-A coaches. Paterno and the legendary Amos Alonzo Stagg are the only two major college head coaches to have served tenures of 40 seasons or more at the same school.
The current Penn State players and assistants realize they are witnesses to history.
"That's a unique experience in itself, just having that ability to be around him," linebacker Paul Posluszny said. "To have a chance to learn from him, to talk to him about football, about school, about what's going on in your social life. You can talk to him about anything, and he's always going to have a story to tell or something to tell you that will influence the way you do things."
Defensive coordinator Tom Bradley played for Paterno in the late 1970s and has coached for him since 1979.
"We all kind of wonder what Kool-Aid he's drinking. We don't know how he does it," Bradley said. "It is history being made. You look at the Orange Bowl last year, two guys with that many wins is something that's a good bet not to be duplicated again -- unless we square off again."
In December, Paterno and Bowden, along with John Gagliardi, will become the first active players or coaches to be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
"You're at a loss for words to respond to it," Paterno said of the honor. "It's going to be something, when I'm involved in it, when I'm not thinking about the season, it's going to be a very important part of my life."
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