At 78, a `more sensitive' Paterno searches for winning combination

OTHER VOICES

August 04, 2005|By Teddy Greenstein

CHICAGO - There was the simple answer, the type that will get airtime on the news.

So, a reporter asked Joe Paterno on Tuesday, when do you plan to follow Wisconsin's Barry Alvarez and retire from coaching?

"Barry said he knew when it was time," Paterno replied. "I don't know. I honestly wish I could tell you."

Then there was the complex answer, the one in which Paterno offered a true glimpse into his 78-year-old mind.

"If you said to me, take everything else out of my life - all the problems -and just concentrate [on football] ... I could coach 10 more years," he said. "But that's not the way it goes. I feel healthy. I love to coach. I like to get on the field. I enjoy being around the kids. I like all those things."

But he doesn't like losing.

"You get up in the morning and you go out and figure out how to win a game," he said. "That's the fun of it."

If he still were winning, Paterno would be celebrated for taking a Cal Ripken-esque approach. But four of his past five teams have had losing records, so Paterno has been called stubborn, if not selfish.

Forget about the 343 victories, which ranks fourth all time. Forget about the 14-6 record in New Year's Day bowls, the five perfect seasons. Why is the man who created Penn State football now ruining it?

But Paterno doesn't think in those terms. He simply loves his job too much to abandon it.

"When I get up in the morning and I get a pad and a pencil, I'm figuring out, `Maybe we ought to just put this guy here and put that guy there,'" he said. "I put a tape on and look at [first opponent] South Florida, and I'm seeing they're running the Utah offense. ... `What are we going to do? How are we going to address it?' Those things are fun for me."

And it's not as if his players want him to skip town. If they felt that way, the negative vibes would have prevented Penn State from landing two of the nation's top recruits, Derrick Williams and Justin King.

Asked how much longer Paterno can coach, Nittany Lions quarterback Michael Robinson replied: "I don't know. Hopefully he'll be recruiting my kids one day."

And forget about wondering how a man who's older than the Heisman Trophy can relate to the text-messaging youth of today.

"He doesn't have to relate to us," Robinson said. "He's a walking legend, and it's an honor to play for him."

In the past two years, Penn State has been dogged by a talent void and confusion over who calls the plays. The Nittany Lions' offense was the worst in the Big Ten last year, scoring fewer than 18 points a game. The leading receiver caught just 39 passes.

"I don't feel this program is `holy smokes, we're devastated,'" Paterno said. "I really don't. We just haven't had enough kids who can make plays."

And now they just might. Robinson finally will become a full-time quarterback. Williams was viewed widely as the top prospect in the nation, a wide receiver/return man who can cover 40 yards in 4.3 seconds. King, the nation's top-rated cornerback, is said to be just as fast.

After Paterno called both players "capable," he was told that in past years he wouldn't have even uttered the name of a freshman.

"You're absolutely right," the coach replied. "I wouldn't even talk to reporters."

But Paterno has softened on his theory that rookies should be invisible.

King and Williams are two of four first-year freshmen who have their pictures in the Penn State media guide. Perhaps that's because all four enrolled in school early.

"I tried to be a little bit more sensitive to the whole environment out there," Paterno said.

So a man can change, even one who's 16 months shy of his 80th birthday.

"You know, if they didn't have a calendar," Paterno said, "I wouldn't know how old I was."

Teddy Greenstein writes for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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