Penn State's Joe Paterno talks about possible end of coaching career

John Supinie

The pageantry of college football.

In the Big Ten, there's Script Ohio, when the Ohio State band forms the letters and dots the "i'' with a tuba player to send the crowd at the Horseshoe into hysteria. There are the trophies, like the Little Brown Jug and the Old Oaken Bucket. Then there's the scene in Happy Valley, where coach Joe Paterno rolls up the legs of his khaki pants and leads Penn State on to the field.

Unfortunately, no one lasts forever. Paterno, for the first time, looked every bit of his 83 years. Coaching his team, let alone leading the Nittany Lions on to the field, might be coming to an end soon. He's not even sure if he can walk the sidelines this fall.

"You didn't ask me who was going to push me out of the wheelchair,'' said Paterno, showing some spirit during interviews at the Big Ten Conference media day Tuesday.

But, quoting another American legend, Paterno said: "What did Mark Twain say? Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated, or something?''

Paterno already left his mark with a major-college record 394 wins plus two national championships in his first 44 years as Penn State coach. He also lobbied for change that's taking place just as his career is winding down.

After spearheading Penn State's move to the Big Ten in 1990, Paterno pushed for conference expansion, a 12-team league with divisions and a playoff like the game's other power conferences. He didn't like the layoff between the end of the Big Ten schedule and a bowl game.

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said Monday the conference will form divisions for a championship game in 2011 after admitting Nebraska in June, bringing the league count to 12 schools. It wasn't only Paterno calling for the conference to update, Delany said, but Paterno gave the conference coaches a respected voice.

"He has more weight than I do or people in the short term,'' said Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema.

Although Paterno didn't get a league addition on the East Coast, Nebraska is a good fit for the Big Ten, he said. While campaigning for the Big Ten to expand and commit to a championship game, Paterno isn't sure he was ever heard. He thought they just snickered about the old man.

"I hope I had some influence,'' Paterno said. "If I shot my mouth off and alerted people that we have to expand, then good. If my arm is long enough, I'll pat myself on the back.''

This might be Paterno's last great win, because the Nittany Lions aren't expected to contend for the Big Ten title or a BCS slot this fall. Penn State's foundation was showing some cracks.

Paterno battled a lower intestinal bug and a reaction to antibiotics from dental work when he was rarely seen this summer and missed three high-profile fundraisers. At the Big Ten media sessions, his speech was slow and quiet. The feisty coach also lacked the strength to spar with reporters, although he had a couple good one-liners.

Including one when asked about coaching until he dies.

"Is that wishful thinking or what?'' Paterno said.

And about that intestinal thing: "It was a little bit below the intestines,'' Paterno said, causing a roar. "The problem I had was not having control of some things, and I had to be careful that I didn't get myself in a position where I would embarrass myself.''

Paterno said there were no commitments for him to play a role in determining his successor, and he's unsure how long he will coach.

"As long as I enjoy it, I’ll continue to coach, unless I don't think I can do a good job or anybody else doesn't think I can do a good job,'' he said. "But we'll talk about that later. Right now I have no plans whatsoever as far as whether I'm going to go another year, two years, five years or what have you.''

Paterno already leads the retired Bobby Bowden by 17 wins, and Paterno is only a few wins away from another milestone. He didn't sound motivated by reaching 400 wins.

"When I'm down (in a grave) and looking up, whether they put 399 on top of me or 401, who the hell cares?'' he said. "I won't know.''

John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.