Cook: Different start, result same without Paterno
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Joe Paterno was absent but not forgotten yesterday.
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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- It was different from the start. That wasn't Joe Paterno leading his Penn State team out of the Beaver Stadium tunnel yesterday. It was defensive coordinator Tom Bradley. It wasn't Paterno leading the players across the field, doing his usual jog, bounding more briskly than a septuagenarian has a right to move and thrusting his right fist toward the Penn State students, some of whom camped out the night before at the stadium in a cozy little conclave affectionately known as Paternoville. It was quarterback Anthony Morelli and captains Levi Brown and Paul Posluszny.
Certainly, it was different once the game against Temple began. For the first time in 57 seasons and 320 home games, Paterno wasn't on the Beaver Stadium sideline. Think about that. A streak of monumental proportions came to an end because of Paterno's serious left leg injuries from a sideline collision in the game at Wisconsin a week earlier. You have to go back to 1949 -- the year before Paterno disappointed his parents by passing up a law career to join Rip Engle's Penn State coaching staff -- to find a Penn State home game in which he didn't coach. Harry Truman was in the White House then. There have been 10 presidents since.
It almost seemed sacrilegious that Penn State played without Paterno.
"It wasn't right with him not being there," Bradley said.
But the games always go on, don't they?
Penn State beat a laughable Temple team, 47-0, with Bradley running the defense, offensive coordinator Galen Hall handling the offense and Paterno watching on television at home after checking out of a State College hospital late Friday night. "This club doesn't need me. We've got a great staff," Paterno said before the game. A crowd of 105,950 turned out -- like always -- and seemed to have a good time despite a steady rain.
Paterno had to love the results. He had addressed his players via speakerphone for three minutes before the game, Bradley said, telling them "how much he cared about them and to have fun and have a great game." But he probably felt a sense of melancholy as well. It had to hurt him not to be a part of the win, much more than even his leg pained him. And it figured to be an emotional gathering at the Paterno house last night when Brown and Posluszny dropped by to deliver the game ball.
It's possible Paterno will be in the coaches' box when Penn State plays Michigan State at home Saturday in its final regular-season game. "I'd be surprised if he wasn't there," Bradley said. But Paterno won't be on the sideline. He can't put weight on his leg for six weeks. It's questionable that he'll be on the sideline for Penn State's bowl game.
At this point, actually, it's fair to wonder if Paterno will be on the Penn State sideline again.
No, Paterno has given no indication that this could be it. Far from it. Those close to him -- from his son and quarterbacks coach, Jay, to his orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Wayne Sebastianelli -- have predicted he will be back next season. For one thing, Paterno wants to coach forever. For another, he wants to go out on his terms. He turned down a request from Penn State president Graham Spanier and athletic director Tim Curley to resign after the 2004 season. There's no reason to think he wants the lasting image of him being that frightful heap on the sideline at Wisconsin.
It has been a brutal season for Paterno. At Ohio State Sept. 23, he had to leave a game for the first time in 60 years when he was overcome by a stomach virus. The next week, he was run over in practice by tight end Andrew Quarless -- coincidently, the player who also collided with him at Wisconsin -- and fractured three ribs. Now, there are his broken leg and two torn knee ligaments. You might think someone is trying to tell Paterno it's time to call it a fabulous career. If someone is, he clearly isn't hearing the message.
"I'm fine. I'm getting better every day. But I can't run around," Paterno said, laughing a sad laugh.
"But I'm going to get there. I'm going to get there."
Paterno made those comments during Penn State's pregame radio show. He sounded weak and tired, the way you would expect a man his age to sound less than a week after surgery and, presumably, still under medication. He also spoke a bit haltingly the way older people tend to do. He will turn 80 Dec. 21.
That age thing is why it's so crazy to think Paterno automatically will be back next season just because he says he will. Sebastianelli was right when he said Paterno isn't a typical 79-year-old. But Paterno is human. He is not indestructible.
Paterno always has said he will coach only as long as he has his health. Well, he no longer has his health. If you are an aging person or have aging relatives, you know how quickly you or they can go downhill after the bones start to break. At best, Paterno faces a grueling rehabilitation that would be difficult for a man half his age. He's stubborn enough to take his best shot and certainly won't go into retirement without a fight. But that retirement is inevitable -- even for college's football all-time coaching legend. Perhaps sooner than later. Perhaps after this season.
If Paterno does lead Penn State out of the Beaver Stadium tunnel and jogs across the field before the 2007 opener against Florida International Sept. 1, it will be his greatest feat.
Greater than his 361 wins.
Greater than the way he routinely puts 105,000 fannies into the Beaver Stadium seats.
Greater even than his astonishing longevity.
First Published November 12, 2006 12:00 am