The burnout rate for football coaches could be at an all-time high. The growing demands and volatility of the job have made it one of the most pressure-filled professions in sports, and it’s becoming increasingly dominated by younger men. } It’s not uncommon for top coaches to leave the sidelines before their 60th birthdays, like Mike Bellotti and Barry Alvarez at the college level and Tony Dungy and Bill Cowher in the pros. } Joe Paterno doesn’t seem to notice.
The 82-year-old is beginning his 44th season at the Penn State helm, the longest tenure at one program in NCAA history. He has two national championships, finished undefeated five times, is already in the College Football Hall of Fame and has a fairly safe lead on the career victories list, so it’s not like there’s anything left to accomplish. But Paterno finds it too hard to give up coaching.
“I just enjoy it,” he said in July at the Big Ten’s media day. “I’ve enjoyed coaching. I’ve enjoyed the competition. I enjoy the challenges that go with coaching at the level we’re at. I enjoy being around young people. I don’t know what else I’d rather do.”
Calls for Paterno’s retirement were rampant at the start of the decade. The Nittany Lions suffered four losing seasons in five years - the worst stretch of Paterno’s career. Since then, he has presided over two Big Ten titles, three bowl victories and four nine-win seasons.
He also had a hip replaced, which forced him to watch games from the press box for an extended period of time. Returning from that endeared Paterno even more to his players.
“He’s an inspiration to us,” senior linebacker Sean Lee said. “He’s been around for so long, he’s got so much wisdom - we all love him, and we all look up to him. To have him back on the sideline will be great for us.”
Much has changed during Paterno’s reign at Penn State, and he hasn’t adjusted to everything - he referred to the social networking site Twitter as “Twittle-do” in his news conference. But he is still capable of getting through to and motivating today’s athletes.
“At some point during camp this year, he’s going to be slapping some offensive lineman in the face, saying, ‘What are you gonna do about it?’ ” Lee said. “It’s funny to see this 82-year-old Italian guy screaming at this 6-4 offensive lineman in pads, but that’s just him. He’s going to be out there full of passion.”
In part because of that passion, Paterno is revered by his fellow Big Ten coaches - a couple of whom are less than half his age and played against his teams. Minnesota’s Tim Brewster, entering his third season with the Golden Gophers, was born in New Jersey and rooted for Penn State as a child. This year, he’ll have his first chance to face Paterno at Beaver Stadium.
“It’s going to be a really special moment for me to take our team into a venue like that at Penn State and go against maybe the greatest college football coach of all time,” Brewster said. “I’ve just got so much admiration for him and what he’s done. It’s an honor for all of us just to have him in our presence.”
Paterno has never been afraid to speak his mind, and people listen whenever he does. A few years ago, he was one of the leading proponents of instant replay; the Big Ten was the first major conference to implement it.
More recently, he has advocated the addition of a 12th team to the Big Ten so it can have a conference championship game. That would allow its teams to play later in the season like those in the SEC, Big 12 and ACC. The hope is that they wouldn’t be as rusty for bowl games, resulting in a better league showing: The Big Ten went 1-6 in postseason play last year, including Penn State’s 38-24 loss to Southern Cal in the Rose Bowl.
Paterno also spared few words in openly criticizing the NCAA’s handling of the infractions at Florida State, which resulted in some of coach Bobby Bowden’s victories being vacated.
“I think it’s ridiculous that the NCAA would take wins away from him personally,” Paterno said. “It bothers me a little bit that the NCAA would use him almost as a scapegoat for some things that went on at Florida State.”
Penn State is one of the favorites to win the Big Ten again. Paterno’s team has a budding star in quarterback Daryll Clark, faces a relatively weak nonconference slate and plays arguably its two toughest opponents - Ohio State and Iowa - at home.