Paterno keeps coaching as the wins keep coming

Published 10:42 pm Friday, December 19, 2008

Anyone who saw Joe Paterno struggling to walk with a cane or working from the press box this season might think the people at Penn State were being awfully generous to give him a new year-to-year contract.

They were, but only because day-to-day wasn’t available.

Paterno turns 82 on Sunday and to celebrate, Penn State gave him an early birthday present that likely will keep him on the sidelines for at least two more years.

I say likely because at Paterno’s age nothing is certain. He’s already outlived the life span of both a normal football coach and a normal American male, and there will inevitably come a time when he physically can’t lead the Nittany Lions onto the field any longer.

But for now he’s still the head football coach at Penn State. And for that, college football fans everywhere should be grateful.

In a sport filled with millionaire coaches always on the lookout for a new place they can make even more millions, he’s a throwback to another time. Harry Truman was president when he first tossed out some footballs as an assistant coach at Penn State, and next season will be his 44th as the school’s main man.

For that, he gets paid a salary of $512,000 a year, peanuts by today’s big college standards. Remarkably, Paterno has probably given back almost as much as he’s made, donating millions to various projects at the school and raising funds for a library that bears his name.

Even more remarkable is that he still wins. If not for a last second field goal at Iowa this season, Paterno’s team would be playing for his third national championship. As it is, Penn State is ranked No. 6 in the country and will be playing USC in the Rose Bowl.

Paterno will be there, though he’s still recovering from surgery to repair a hip that forced him to coach from the press box much of the season. He injured it by demonstrating the proper way of attempting an onside kick.

The players he coaches today could be grandchildren of players he coached in the past, but, as the onside kick incident showed, he coaches them with the same enthusiasm he did with the 1966 team he took to a 5-5 record in his first year as head coach. In return, they play with the same intensity that has been a trademark of Paterno teams over the years.

Did I mention that he still wins? Try 40-10 over the past four years with three bowl victories, rebounding from some down seasons that had the people in State College grumbling about their ancient coach and his ancient ideas about coaching.

He passed Bobby Bowden this year to become the winningest coach ever, has won more bowl games than any other coach, and is the only coach to win all four major bowls. For 43 years he’s averaged almost nine wins a season, and he’s done it while graduating far more players than almost any other major college program.

It’s noteworthy that his latest — and presumably last — contract was announced in an ambiguous press release that said it was for three years, but that “it was also agreed that the parties might reevaluate their circumstances and alter the arrangement by either shortening or extending its length as necessary.”

What that means is that the university is protecting itself against Paterno getting real old real fast. It’s good protection to have, especially after seeing how Paterno has noticeably aged, at least physically, during the past season.

And it’s especially true because Paterno has let it be known all along he won’t go easy.

“I’m sure I’m being a little selfish,” he said before the season began. “But after 58 years, I think I got a right to be a little selfish.”

He does because he’s a legend, and legends are sometimes difficult to deal with. There will be no easy way of telling Paterno it’s time to go when it’s time to go, and he will probably be the last to acknowledge it when that time comes.

For now, he’s got a new contract, a shot at USC in the Rose Bowl, and a prized new quarterback recruit heading his way next season. He’s also got a new hip, which should allow him to return to the sidelines.

Bear Bryant quit after 38 years as a head coach, but not before winning one last game for Alabama in the 1982 Liberty Bowl.

He said he would probably die right after he quit.

He did, 28 days later, of a massive heart attack.

Whether the Bear then or JoePa now, coaching is what keeps them going.