STATE COLLEGE, PA. (AP) - Joe Paterno is now peerless in his profession.
His friend and last remaining contemporary among major college football coaches, Bobby Bowden, retired after last season. With Bowden out at Florida State, the career victories record is pretty much Paterno’s to keep _ whether he cares about it or not.
At 83 years old, Paterno’s health has become as closely watched as that of a pope _ every hint of a limp analyzed, every slip-up with words parsed.
But at this point it makes no sense asking when Joe will go. His contract runs through 2011 for whatever that’s worth. In the meantime, in case you didn’t notice, the Nittany Lions are humming again, racking up wins (11 last year) and challenging for championships. And that still gets JoePa fired up.
“You like the competition,” he said Thursday at Beaver Stadium. “If you don’t like it, you ought to get out of it, that’s the way I’ve always felt about it.”
The next milestone for Paterno is the 400-win club, a mark that only Eddie Robinson (408) and John Gagliardi (471) have reached. JoePa could get there by late October.
“You know, when I’m down and looking up, are they going to put 399 on top of me or are they going to put 401,” Paterno asked at Big Ten media day in Chicago. “Who the hell cares? I won’t know.”
But the legion of blue and white fans are no doubt keeping track _ and not just of wins and losses.
The health watch started in earnest in 2006 after Paterno tore left knee ligaments in a sideline collision with a player during a game at Wisconsin.
Early in the 2008 season, Paterno hurt his hip after trying to show his players how to execute an onside kick in practice. He needed hip replacement surgery in December _ but only after leading the Nittany Lions to a Big Ten title and the Rose Bowl. Both the knee and hip injuries forced Paterno to coach from the press box.
Earlier this year, Paterno was able to shed his smoky thick-rimmed glasses after getting laser eye surgery. “Robo-coach,” he was nicknamed by one of his staffers.
A new concern emerged this offseason after Paterno missed Big Ten meetings in May and three appearances before alumni groups around the state, stops typically part of his summer schedule.
The rumor mill churned anew. Was this really it for JoePa?