- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 9, 2006

The most fascinating feature of the upcoming bowl season won’t be the BCS championship game collision between Ohio State and Florida. I’ll vote instead for the sight of senior citizen Joe Paterno hobbling, or maybe sprinting, along the sideline when his 41st Penn State team meets Tennessee in Tampa’s Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day.

It might be hard to find a Nittany Lion — or any other player — tougher than Paterno, who sustained a fractured shinbone and two torn knee ligaments when two players barreled into him during a game against Wisconsin on Nov. 4.

All in all, that was a lousy day for JoePa. During halftime, ABC analyst Craig James, who is properly unrenowned for his sagacity, noted that Paterno had seemed upset during the proceedings and speculated that “maybe his Geritol kicked in.”

James later apologized on the air. Nonetheless, he should have been tarred and feathered, or at least relieved of his commentating command.

When Outback time arrives, it will have been nearly two months since the subsequent surgery, and Paterno undoubtedly figures only a sissy would still be staying off his feet. You’d think he’ll be celebrating his 20th birthday on Dec. 21 rather than his 80th. Maybe the guy simply can’t count.

Two weeks after the accident, Paterno watched Penn State’s final regular-season game, a 17-13 squeaker over Michigan State, from the Beaver Stadium coaches’ box upstairs and grumbled afterward, “I felt like getting on the elevator, going down [to the field] and telling the players, ‘Don’t blow this baby.’ ”

Paterno said this week than he plans on coaching for “at least another couple years.” This would put him in the same longevity ballpark as the legendary Amos Alonzo Stagg, who was 84 in his last season as head man at College of the Pacific in 1946 — and then assisted his son at Susquehanna for 12 more years. Who knows if JoePa will hang around quite that long, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

Whenever Paterno does hang it up, football will lose one of its best coaches and best ambassadors ever. For more than half a century (he was an assistant to Penn State’s Rip Engle for 16 years before succeeding him in 1966) he has personified the best in college sports.

Who cares whether he dyes his hair jet black these days or whether his teams take the field in the dullest uniforms imaginable? When it comes to dealing with the young men under his care, he is a winner — and in ways beyond those 362 victories, two national championships (1982, 1986), five undefeated seasons and 33 bowl appearances. His players’ graduation rates are among the best in Division I-A, and his philanthropic activities are well known locally.

Nor does Paterno take success for granted — especially after the abominable and atypical seasons of 2003 and 2004, when Penn State went 7-16 while talking heads and bloggers throughout Pennsylvania howled for his head. By way of responding, he turned out outfits than went 11-1 last season and 8-4 so far this fall.

Why does Paterno keep coaching? Perhaps he feels no one else could do the job better. You can argue the point if you choose, but I won’t.

Sooner or later, most of us find our enthusiasm lessening or leaving when we’ve done the same job for what seems forever. In Paterno’s case, you might think he’d be satisfied to spend the holidays at home with his family after having them interrupted by practice and games for all those years.

Forget it. This is how JoePa described the upcoming Outback affair this week: “I’m excited about going to the bowl game. I’m looking forward to going down to Florida and running around a little bit.”

Get that: running — not limping or riding in some motorized contraption like, well, your average 80-year-old.

It has often been pondered in this space why some coaches hang around — and, in some cases, hang on — until it becomes clear they no longer can do the job physically and/or mentally. What makes Joe Gibbs, for example, suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fate and fatheads? Is it merely ego? An unwillingness to recognize that time and circumstances have conspired to produce mediocrity? Both?

In Joe Paterno’s case, clearly time is standing still — and at attention. With all due respect for Tennessee and its legion of fans, I hope Penn State boots the Vols from here to eternity come New Year’s Day.

Or, putting it another way: Go, Joe! And stay loose on that sideline.

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