Paterno's new twists stop talk he's too old

January 02, 1995|By JOHN EISENBERG

PASADENA, Calif. -- At Syracuse and Maryland and Boston College and all those schools over which Joe Paterno continues to loom, they are waiting for the day when he finally has had enough.

Paterno, meanwhile, just tells jokes. "I'm really 58," the 68-year-old coach told reporters this week, smiling wryly behind his thick glasses and his famous Brooklyn accent.

The rest of Eastern college football is waiting for the day when he retires as the coach at Penn State and finally the Nittany Lions aren't quite the recruit-mongering, resil- ient Goliath of the past three decades.

Paterno, meanwhile, just continues to extend the terms of his stay, more and more resembling one of those rare and resolute figures on whom age and passing time have no effect.

For a while there, he spoke grandly about getting out in time to do something else with his life. Then he began mentioning the idea only hazily, as a possibility that was always two or three years down the road. Then there was the time when he set 70 as a deadline. Now, he has dropped all pretense of planning for the end; he has promised to stay at least another five years and maybe longer.

"I may stay until I'm 80," he said last summer.

The rest of Eastern college football can only sigh.

Paterno doesn't often play the other schools in his neighborhood now that he is in the Big Ten, but they continue to share a recruiting ring in which he plays the heavyweight to their middleweight. When he shows up at a recruit's door with his promise of ethics, education and first-class football, he is a knockout punch if ever there was one.

Any chance that rival recruiters could use his age against him was scotched this year, when he accomplished the same feat in the second year of Bill Clinton's presidency that he did in the last year of Lyndon Johnson's presidency: cobbled together a team that sprinted through the regular season undefeated and untied.

A victory over Oregon in the Rose Bowl today would leave no doubt that this was one of his best teams, regardless of what the final polls say. And even if the Ducks score an upset today -- don't bet a nickel on it -- this high-scoring, spectacular team will effectively serve as Paterno's rebuttal to criticism that he was getting too old for the job.

Such talk was rampant in college football's corridors and inevitable after the Nittany Lions slipped to 7-5 in 1992 and it had been six years since they contended for the national title. And Paterno recently admitted that perhaps there was some truth to the idea that he was slipping. He "lost the squad" in 1992, he said, probably because his intense, screaming style had become too shrill. The players felt the coaches were adversaries, and lambasted Paterno in their meetings with him after the '92 season.

Paterno responded not by growing angry or changing his autocratic style, but by expanding it to include his erudite, off-field half. He instituted a weekly breakfast session with players to ensure that they didn't feel disenfranchised. He became more accessible. Basically, he woke up and realized that he couldn't rely on his legend alone to maintain his players' loyalty.

As well, he responded to the wonderful talents of such players as Kerry Collins and Ki-Jana Carter and changed the Nittany Lions' emphasis from defense to offense. He is angered by the notion that he is just now discovering the pass, but never before has he used it this expertly.

In sum, he did anything but act like a stodgy old coach who was too set in his ways. The result, two years hence, is this year's team. And a renewed Paterno. "He is more excited than I've ever seen him," said senior cornerback Tony Pittman. "If I didn't know, wouldn't be able to guess his age, especially the way he has been this year."

Of course, Paterno never did buy into the idea that he was too old for the job, anyway. "When I turned 65, I looked in the mirror and flexed my muscles and told my wife I felt 55," he said this week. (Ever since, his wife gives him birthday cards celebrating his real age minus 10.) It is startling to look at old pictures of him and see how little he has changed.

Still, it is reasonable to wonder why he keeps going when the terms of his legacy already are firmly set, when, no matter what happens now, he will go down as the coach who probably came the closest to the ideal of winning consistently with players who were real college students.

But of course, the answer is as simple as the bland uniforms he continues to favor: He keeps going because it is what he does, because he likes the challenge and the attention, because he is not just an aging patriarch slowly removing himself from a fray, but a viable force who is right in the middle of things, vigorous and redoubtable and still cranking out championship contenders.

"I have nothing else in life I would rather do" than coach, Paterno said.

Only when he does finally retire is there a chance that Penn

State will slip hard in the fashion of Southern Cal, Texas and the other powers that faded with coaching changes. Only then will the Nittany Lions' supremacy among the Eastern college football fraternity be challenged. But if Penn State's 1994 season shouts anything out loud, it shouts that such a day is not coming anytime soon. Because Joe Paterno just might die with his cleats on.

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