Paterno brushes aside growing potshots

The Penn State coach wants to focus on Saturday's USF game instead of criticism.

Published August 31, 2005

"I'm worried about being bored. I don't play golf. There is nothing else I want to do. I am enjoying what I am doing. I just don't want to give up because I am 72. I don't feel like I am 72. I really don't. I still like to go out there and horse around and demonstrate."

- Penn State coach Joe Paterno, in USA Today, six years ago

Joe Paterno is 78 now, entering his 56th season at Penn State and his 40th as coach, eager to take the training wheels off a recruiting class that could buy him a few more years, could quiet the critics who have asked, less and less politely, when he'll finally retire.

On Tuesday, in his first weekly teleconference of the season, a few questions pass before he's asked about "thoughts about his future," something that Paterno has no overriding desire to do.

"Let's talk about the football team. We're playing a game here on Saturday. Who cares about my future?" he said, quickly moving on to talk of Saturday's 3:30 p.m. opener against USF. "The only thing people want to know is can we play a pretty good football game on Saturday. We are going to try hard."

Paterno admits that his critics aren't after him because of his age, but rather his record, a lackluster 26-33 in the past five years. After one losing season in his first 34 - a span during which his worst five-year stretch was a palatable 41-18 - he has four losing seasons in five years, including 4-7 last season.

And after each loss, another columnist writes that it might be time for Paterno to go.

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"Paterno is now 76, and it is past time for him to gracefully fade away before the sheer ugliness of the current season tarnishes and diminishes the legend he has become and the institution he has served so well. ... Joe Must Go is the most difficult sentence I have had to write since Rich Ashburn died."

- Bill Conlin, Philadelphia Daily News, October 2003

When Penn State went 3-9 in 2003, the clamoring against Paterno grew as Bobby Bowden passed him as Division I-A's winningest coach. Bowden now has 351 wins to Paterno's 343, and realistically, the only way Paterno will catch him is by outlasting him. Bowden, 75, joked in July that Paterno was "seventy-dadgum-eight," that both coaches "are on our back nine."

Paterno doesn't really act his age, from getting by on five hours of sleep to doing sit-ups with players in the locker room and walking 6 miles most days. And this week's game is the kind that could make a coach feel old; Bulls coach Jim Leavitt was born in 1956, the same year USF itself was founded. That would be Paterno's sixth year at Penn State, leaving generations of coaches and players who have thought of him as college football personified.

"To see Joe Paterno is the biggest thing to ever happen to me," quarterback Courtney Denson said.

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"The legacy of the man some call the greatest coach in college football history is threatening to dissolve into bitter memories of bad teams, bad times and bad behavior. The possibility grows larger that with every defeat Paterno will be remembered, at least by some, as much for the way he finished instead of the decades of excellence that preceded."

- Bob Smizik, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, November 2004

Last fall, when Penn State lost six games in a row, scoring seven or fewer points in four of them, the pressure against Paterno mounted. Its peak might have been one morning when a Pittsburgh radio station reported a rumor that Paterno was stepping down, with defensive coordinator Tom Bradley succeeding him.

Enough news organizations across the state picked up the report that Penn State had to issue a denial. When Bradley got out of a morning coaches' meeting, he reportedly had 53 missed calls on his cell phone.

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"If I were a well-heeled Penn State booster or trustee, I'd be thinking of what Steve Spurrier looks like wearing a fur-lined visor. Or I might be dreaming of Rick Neuheisel in blue and white. The Penn State program, a dominant model worthy of emulation since the 1960s, has crumbled slowly - at least when judged by wins and losses - since the dawn of the new millennium."

- Jon Saraceno, USA Today, October 2004

There were 48 states when Paterno started at Penn State. A month into his tenure at Happy Valley, a cartoonist named Charles Schulz debuted a popular comic strip called Peanuts. A year later, Mickey Mantle would debut as a rookie outfielder with the New York Yankees.

For all his history, Paterno's future now rests in a group of teenagers, a recruiting class now on campus, one his critics claimed he could no longer pull off. For years, doubters have questioned whether young athletes would want to play for someone old enough to be their grandfather. In February, he hauled in a nationally ranked class that included two of the nation's top recruits. Receiver Derrick Williams of Greenbelt, Md., was Rivals.com's National Player of the Year, and Justin King of Pittsburgh was widely considered the nation's best prep cornerback.

They believe in Paterno, and you'll be hard-pressed to find a critic among his former players. Consider Mark Robinson, a defensive back on Penn State's 1982 national championship team who will return to campus for the first time in 12 years this weekend as the color analyst for USF's radio broadcasts.

The former Bucs star said if he had any doubts about Paterno, they disappeared when he visited the team as the Nittany Lions practiced in St. Petersburg while preparing for the Capital One Bowl in December 2002.

"I haven't seen him in years, and he sees me across the field and says, "Hey, Mark! How's your mom Jean doing?' " Robinson said. "He has an impeccable mind. I just think, how can he remember my mom's name? He's amazing, and he still has the fire. He's running around, yelling at people. Joe still has something left in the tank."

Robinson said Paterno's value as a coach was always more than his ability to win. During his junior year at Penn State, Robinson's father died, and Paterno not only attended the funeral services in Maryland but made sure two of his roommates on the team could be there. The gesture still means something special, 23 years later.

"Our society has gone to thinking that if you don't win, you fail," Robinson said. "I just scratch my head, thinking about the friends I made at Penn State, how Coach Paterno taught me to be a better man. I want him to win, and I get as frustrated as anybody watching them on TV. But there's more to coaching than winning, and if there's a man who does it better than him, you tell me when you find him."