Questions about age get old for JoePa
CHICAGO -- Memo to me: Never, ever ask Joe Paterno whether he has a bucket list.
"Bucket list?" Paterno said suspiciously, his eyes narrowing behind the most famous glasses in college football.
"They call it a 'bucket list,'" I explained. "Just a list of things you want to do before "
"Before I what, die?" Paterno asked.
This wasn't going well. Paterno had never heard of a bucket list. He had never heard of the movie by the same name featuring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman.
"I've been to about four movies in the last 35 years," Paterno said. "I think the last one I saw was, uh, 'Amareus,' -- what was it, 'Amadeus'?"
Yes, "Amadeus," a biopic on composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, which was released 26 years ago. So that means the only film Paterno has seen since then stars Penn State's offense, defense, special teams and opponents.
Paterno is 83. He's older than the Heisman Trophy, Michigan and Notre Dame stadiums, the Southeastern Conference, and the combined ages of his Nittany Lions' starting center plus one starting guard, starting wide receiver and starting cornerback.
This will be his 61st season at Penn State, his 45th as its head coach. Since 1966, there have been 860 coaching changes among FBS programs, including multiple firings and hirings at every school except one: Penn State.
"Joe Paterno [is] football," said Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald. "Joe Paterno's college football. I couldn't think of it without him."
Paterno has neckties older than 35-year-old Fitzgerald. With six more victories, Paterno will become only the third coach in college football history to reach the 400-win mark. To put the number 400 in perspective, that's almost half of Penn State's all-time wins (811) and only 75 fewer than that of Northwestern, which started playing in 1882.
"I think every coach in this profession aspires to be Joe Paterno," Fitzgerald says.
At the annual Big Ten football kickoff earlier this week, Paterno was his charmingly grouchy self. He wasn't happy about the timing of the two-day event, what with the Nittany Lions scheduled to begin practice Thursday. He was concerned that the downpours in Chicago would delay his flight back to State College. And nothing personal, but he had just about had it with questions regarding his age, motivation and health issues in recent years (knee injury, hip replacement, reaction to meds).
"I wish you guys would knock it off," he said.
But had you been sitting with Paterno at the McCormick Place Convention Center on Tuesday, you would have wondered about his condition, too. He looked fine -- hair thick enough for a Prell commercial, stylish coat and tie combo, 20/20 vision thanks to offseason corrective eye surgery (he still wears glasses when outside and, at times, inside, too) -- but his voice was often soft and weak. He spoke, but unless you were right next to him, it was nearly impossible to hear what he said.
Of course, there were moments when Paterno's eyebrows arched and his voice rose in exasperation. When asked whether he got a special satisfaction out of proving his critics wrong -- especially those who thought he was too old for the job -- Paterno leaned forward in his chair and channeled his inner Brooklyn. "What the hell's my age have to do with it?" he asked.
Everything and nothing. Paterno has been in the business long enough to know that some rival coaches use his birth certificate as a negative recruiting weapon.
Who's the granddaddy of them all?
The Rose Bowl.
Cheap shots, yes, but occasionally effective. If I'm Paterno, though, I just point to my past five seasons: an average of 10-plus wins, four bowl victories, three top-10 rankings. Is that any good?
"I know some people who are 80 years young and some who are 50 years old," said Bobby Bowden, Paterno's longtime friend, in a phone interview from Tallahassee, Fla.
Paterno is 83 years young. He swims. He dances. ("Hops around," said Bowden's wife, Ann.) And he coaches.
"The games are fun -- at least, they are for me," Paterno said. "Saturdays are great fun for me."
Not so much fun are the doubters who confuse age with ability. Paterno has had exactly five losing seasons in 44 years. He wins not despite his age but partly because of it. He wins because he recruits well, because he hires well and because he survives well.
Four of those five losing seasons came in 2000, 2001, 2003 and 2004. More than a few "friends" of the program thought Joe must go. Paterno, as he should have, won the power struggle. Bowden, who ranks just behind Paterno in all-time wins among major college coaches, wasn't as fortunate. After 34 seasons at Florida State, Bowden was forced out, clumsily and wrongly, by the school's administration.
"[Paterno] went through the same thing," said Bowden, who is 80. "But he pulled that darn thing out. I was hoping to do the same. To me, it should have been like it was with Joe."
That means Bowden wanted to leave on his own terms -- in his case, after this season. Paterno hasn't set a retirement timetable.
"I feel bad about it because of the way it was handled," Paterno said. "I think he deserved better. I hate to see him have to leave. I don't think Bobby wanted to leave."
Paterno doesn't want to leave. He is defined by college football, just as college football is defined by him. This is what he does. This is who he is.
On his office desk is a quote from Colin Powell. It reads, "Being responsible sometimes means pissing people off." Paterno isn't afraid of pissing anyone off. He isn't afraid of criticism or confrontation.
"I'm sure," he said, "there'll be a day I'm going to wake up in the morning and I'm going to [say], 'Can you make it? Can you do it?'"
Right now, the answer is yes. He wants to win more games for Penn State. He wants to spend time with his 17 grandchildren and his other 100-plus children of sorts -- the players on the Nittany Lions' roster. He wants those Saturdays.
"I think the fact that I had bad luck with the knee, and then the hip and then I got that darn reaction to things, led people to think that, 'Hey, it's time for you to wind down,'" Paterno said. "They may be right, I don't know. I don't feel that way."
He paused and then, with impeccable timing, delivered the punch line.
"I'm not looking around for a bucket, I know that."
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.
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