Paterno slows down, but only physically
By Marc Morehouse
IOWA CITY — Ten years ago, it was charming.
Joe Paterno looked like one of the GoodFellas. His pants didn’t quite reach his ankles. And those thick glasses stood right next to famed Cubs announcer Harry Caray’s in popular culture.
Remember the 2002 Iowa game at Penn State? Upset about two calls made in the overtime loss, Paterno chased and grabbed referee Dick Honig. He started in a trot and ended in a mad sprint, his anger building with his speed.
That won’t happen today. In fact, you’ll have to be watching Paterno’s No. 3 Nittany Lions (9-0, 5-0 Big Ten) take on the Hawkeyes (5-4, 2-3) on TV today to even catch a glimpse of the coaching legend.
For the fifth consecutive game, Paterno, 81, in his 43rd season as PSU’s head coach, will be up in the press box. A sore right leg and hip have pushed him upstairs. He talked about the possibility of off-season surgery this week.
“I think I am going to have something done, but I’m going to find out what (the doctors) think has to be done and, maybe, get it done as soon as the season is over so I can get on the road and go out and recruit,” said Paterno, who’ll turn 82 before this season concludes.
Think he’s throwing out some false bravado on the recruiting statement? Out of the handful of PSU players polled this week, most said their first meeting with Paterno was at their high school.
“He actually ended up giving a little talk to some kids at my high school,” said running back Evan Royster, whose Fairfax, Va., high school wasn’t exactly a hop, skip and a jump from State College. Nothing is a hop, skip and a jump from State College, which is nestled in the mountains of central Pennsylvania.
Ten years ago, there was charm to the old coach stalking and scowling up and down the sidelines like he was a 22-year-old grad assistant. It was a “days of yore,” “all is right in college football” thing.
Now, you hope the 81-year-old grandfather is OK.
“It’s hard to see coach with his leg like this,” senior safety Anthony Scirrotto said. “But, you know, he never complains and he never wants anyone to feel bad for him. Since I’ve been here, he’s always seemed that way.
“Just getting knocked down on the practice field, standing in the way, not wanting anyone to help him get up. He’s got that type of attitude. He’s a tough man. I have all the respect in the world for him. I know he’s having a tough time right now, but he’ll get through it. He’s strong.”
Paterno handles the “one more season” question like a pit bull handles a bare leg. Paterno’s contract expires after this season, but that doesn’t seem to matter.
“You know, have I ever said I wasn’t coming back?” Paterno barked. “OK?”
Penn State President Graham Spanier said he intends to meet with Paterno after the season to discuss the futures of Paterno and Penn State football. Spanier and Athletics Director Tim Curley have tabled all Paterno talk until the end of the season.
In April, PSU and Paterno agreed a contract isn’t necessary going forward, given Paterno’s 43 seasons as head coach and 59 overall years at the school.
“We are in agreement that a contract would have little practicality given coach Paterno’s seniority. None of us see that as necessary,” Spanier wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press.
Paterno’s whole leg/hip thing popped up when he practiced an onside kick before the Lions’ season opener with Coastal Carolina.
Kirk Ferentz, what are you going to be doing when you’re 81?
“I hope I can make it that far. That would be great,” the Iowa coach said with a laugh. “I hope we all look and act as vibrant as he is. That would be a great thing.”
Penn State offensive tackle Gerald Cadogan, what are you going to be doing when you’re 81?
“I’d probably be somewhere warmer,” the senior said. “Grandkids, nice house, enjoying life I guess. Maybe golfing, writing music.”
You can question how Paterno connects with teenagers. Quarterback Daryll Clark will gladly answer your question.
After high school, Clark took the prep school route for a year to fix academic problems.
Penn State coaches placed him at Kiski School in Saltsburg, Pa. When he arrived in State College, he watched from the sideline for the past three seasons. Through most of the summer, he battled Pat Devlin for the starting role and faced questions about his passing ability.
Paterno stuck with him. He didn’t hand Clark anything, but he stuck with him.
For the first 20 minutes of his first meeting with Paterno, Clark said they didn’t talk football.
“We talked about life and school and things going on in Youngstown (Ohio, Clark’s hometown) and in State College,” Clark said. “Not every coach does that.”
Paterno and his son, Jay, PSU’s quarterbacks coach, talked about Clark’s grades with his mom, Sheryl. The grade thing was the elephant in the room.
No false promises, no beating around the bush.
“They told my mother that his grades don’t show us what kind of person we think he is and we want to take a chance on him, despite what his marks show,” Clark said. “That really stood out to me. That meant a lot to me. A lot of schools said if the grades aren’t there, they can’t take the risk. They did.”
Clark is scheduled to graduate in December, after three and a half years, with a telecommunications degree. He has a year of football eligibility left, so he could be a grad student at PSU next fall.
“Joe has been such an important part of my life,” he said.
Penn State’s next trip to Kinnick Stadium is scheduled for Oct. 2, 2010. On the sideline or in the press box, don’t bet against Penn State’s having an 83-year-old head coach.
He’s just not the sprinter he was 10 years ago.
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Joe Paterno (left) and Hayden Fry meet at midfield after the Nittany Lions defeated Iowa, 61-21, on Sept. 17, 1994, at State College, Pa.