Paterno Adds to Legend

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- The sounds of celebrating Penn State fans practically shook the trailer housing the postgame press conference. "JoePa-terno, JoePa-terno," they chanted. The old man flashed a young smile and deservedly so.

Penn State clinched the Big Ten's automatic BCS bid with a 31-22 victory over Michigan State on Saturday and with it brought validation that Paterno, at 78, still has what it takes to win on college football's grand stage.

If he felt vindication, he refused to show it.

"I didn't know I had any critics," Paterno said, smiling.

In fact, Paterno seemed more interested in looking ahead, not back.

"We've got another [bowl] game to play," he said. "This thing isn't over yet."

Instead of focusing on his satisfaction of resurrecting a team that went 7-16 in the last two years and endured four losing seasons in the last five, Paterno spread the credit to his players and coaching staff.

"I wanted to win, obviously, and get the Big Ten championship, but it means a lot more to the kids," he said.

"I've had a lot of good teams, and I've been in a lot of locker rooms where we all felt pretty good about what we've done. The kids are the ones -- they're all fired up."

Championship hats were immediately distributed on the field afterward, and players wildly celebrated with the fans.

Paterno wore "an ear-to-ear grin," center E.Z. Smith said, when Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany presented him with the Big Ten trophy.

"We all felt good we could give him that," Smith said. "He wants to keep coaching, and as long as he wants to, I think he should be able to."

Paterno has primed practically every team he's coached into thinking it can contend for the national title. This year, his message struck a chord prior to the season, and the Nittany Lions were good enough to go 10-1.

They remain one play -- Michigan's last-second touchdown -- from an unbeaten season.

"They've been a great bunch of kids," Paterno said. "I was hoping some things would break for us and they did, [with] just the one disappointment. They've played hard consistently."

When few believed in this team and the program anymore, Paterno still did.

"He told us he had no doubt we could win every game this season," senior safety Chris Harrell said. "Right from there, we all started believing that we had a chance because he's seen undefeated seasons."

Five of them, but none of those required as much of a rebuilding job as this year's team.

"He is so valuable to this program," Harrell said.

Paterno admits the losing took its toll. He fought inevitable suspicions, even some of his own, of whether he could be effective anymore.

"I had to make sure," he said, "that I was not going to start doubting myself."

Paterno has not had an easy year physically. His back bothered him early in the season, when he was often bent over, hands on knees, and a flu lingered for a couple of weeks. He blew his nose more often than usual Saturday.

He also lost sleep over his wife, Sue, who suffered a broken leg over the summer and is still using a walker.

"I've got a cold and got into lousy sleeping habits," he said. "I probably need four-five days [off]. As soon as I get that, I think I'll be fine."

With the fans still chanting outside, Paterno talked about his resolve. He said his father, who died in 1958, did some recreational boxing and often passed along the message that the only fighters who didn't get up were the ones that didn't want to.

"I always thought I wanted to get up again," he said.

Though his players were bothered by the criticism of the past several seasons -- "it's Joe Paterno, he didn't deserve a lot of what he was getting," quarterback Michael Robinson said -- the coach himself said he was unfazed.

"Criticism has never been a problem for me," he said. "When you've got a bunch of people this interested in what you're doing, and die when you don't get done what you want done, they're going to be critical."

Many of Paterno's critics were sardined in front of him in Michigan State's visiting team media trailer Saturday night. And there wasn't a soul who didn't feel good for him.

FightOnState contributor Neil Rudel covers Penn State football for the Altoona Mirror.


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