Keeping Things in Perspective at PSU

CHICAGO — The upcoming football season will be Joe Paterno's 40th as head coach at Penn State. Speaking at the Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon Tuesday, Paterno said he doesn't attach much significance to such milestones, insisting that “if they didn't have a calendar, I wouldn't know how old I was.”

But as he spoke wistfully about the people he's outlasted, people who were instrumental in helping him become one of the all-time great coaching icons, it was hard not to be reminded of the passage of time.

Paterno, 78, said he would happily sign on for another decade at Penn State if it were simply a football decision. “The coaching,” he said, “is easy.”

It's the other part he finds difficult. Paterno missed the first day of the Big Ten's media summit to help his wife recover from a broken leg. Sue Paterno has had a number of health problems in recent years, including a hip injury she suffered on a trip to Spain that forced the family to come home early. Paterno's brother, George, a longtime member of the Nittany Lions' radio broadcast team, died in 2002. Members of the coach's entourage have drifted away from the practice field, with Jerry Sandusky retiring after the 1999 season and Fran Ganter taking an administrative position last year. With each passing year, the Penn State football community gets a little less familiar.

“So many people have helped me over the past 50 years at Penn State, some of whom are gone, some of whom need help. To still have enough time to direct my attention to football, it's not even an option,” Paterno said. ”Every time you get a phone call from somebody, you've got a kid who's sick, or you get a wife who calls you and says, so-and-so is dying. I've got a lot of people at my age who are gone, the people who helped me get where I am. That's the biggest problem you get.”

Paterno didn't sound at all remorseful about missing the first day of the Big Ten's annual media event to help his wife. “This is important, but not as important as that,” he said, seated at a round banquet table with reporters two-deep at its edge. “She's in a lot of pain and I think I need to be around. It's as simple as that.”

As is his custom, Paterno declined to predict when he might step down. Nor did he specify the manner in which he would make such an announcement. When Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez announced last week that he will retire after the 2005 season, he said the timing of his announcement was dictated by his desire to avoid any disruption in the program. Paterno, whose current contract runs through the 2008 season, said he hadn't given the matter any thought.

“Barry knows what's best for Wisconsin and what's best for him, and I admire and respect him for it,” he said. “I have not gotten to that point yet where I want to say, hey, I'm going to get out of it this year or next year.”

As for the immediate future, Paterno expressed confidence that Michael Robinson will blossom in his first and only season as Penn State's starting quarterback.

One of the reasons for his confidence in the passing game is the presence of high-profile recruits Justin King and Derrick Williams. Paterno broke with his own tradition by discussing them openly and even allowing the players to give interviews during the off-season. At the Kickoff Luncheon, he mentioned another incoming freshman, Lydell Sargeant, without any provocation, saying he had heard good things about the newcomer's special-teams potential.

“I've tried to be a little bit more sensitive to the whole environment out there,” Paterno said. “These kids have so much more exposure in high school because of the Internet and the recruiting gurus, the interest the media has in kids when they're in high school. They're a lot more poised. As a result, when you get them, you feel a little more comfortable that they can handle some of the things that go along with playing.”

Paterno also said senior center E.Z. Smith would be returning to the team, though not as a starter. Smith was expelled from school after an incident last January in which a number of arrows were launched through the wall of an on-campus apartment into an adjoining unit. The expulsion expires at the end of the summer semester. Smith, an 11-game starter last year, will be allowed to practice but will start at the bottom of the depth chart, Paterno said.

The coach feigned incredulity when asked why he was optimistic about the coming season. “Who said I was optimistic?” he asked.

Well, nobody. But he sounded, if not optimistic, then at least hopeful that after going 7-16 the past two years, the team's worst days are behind it.

“I think we've got a good young squad,” Paterno said. “We were competitive last year regardless of what people think. I think we'll be a little better and have some people who can make some plays. Hopefully we'll have a little better field-goal kicking and maybe we'll have a chance with some of the younger players to make some plays in the kicking game. I think all of that may add up to a couple more wins.”

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