Bob Ford | Paterno still does it his way

Posted: September 02, 2007

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - Joe Paterno thought he would make it all the way, but running into the stadium with the team to begin a 42d year as Penn State head coach was far from a sure thing yesterday.

He still gimps a bit on the left leg that was broken in a sideline collision last year and, well, the man is 80 years old. How many 50-yard sprints do you plan to do when you reach that age?

"I've been running a little bit in the last couple weeks, and I felt pretty good about the ability, but I do get tired," Paterno said.

There are other things that have wearied him as well since the 2006 season ended with Paterno watching from the press box and the Lions finishing off with a nice-enough win in a second-tier bowl. It was a decent year, but all four regular-season games against ranked opponents ended in losses. So in the pantheon of Nittany Lions seasons, it was packed away and relegated to a small anteroom.

Since then, Paterno has had to deal with an off-campus fight in which six players were involved and two were eventually charged, and just this month, with another two players who were cited for underage drinking - during camp!

None of this lessened Joe's general crankiness, and one result is that the Lions will be spending part of today helping clean Beaver Stadium of the residue from yesterday's perfunctory, 59-0 pasting of Florida International in the season opener.

Penn State might be on the verge of a season worth remembering this time around. The defense, built around linebacker Dan Connor, is going to be very good again. The offense, with senior quarterback Anthony Morelli finally filling his own shoes, could well keep pace. Ten wins and a good bowl bid is a reasonable guess. A break here or there and it could be much more.

There could be stumbles along the way, even unexpected ones, as No. 5 Michigan learned yesterday against Appalachian State. That's all it takes in college football. Take a day off, and the national championship is gone, never to return. It is a good reminder when you schedule your patsies to make sure they are patsies. Penn State got that part right, judging by yesterday's result, and even its wildest championship dreams are still alive.

"Things went pretty much the way we expected them to go," Paterno said. "It was a good first game for us."

The second game, here against Notre Dame on Saturday, will be a better gauge. But first the stadium has to be cleaned.

Like an old-fashioned coach who makes the entire team run wind sprints when one player misses a block, Paterno will have the Lions scraping up smushed hot-dog buns and collecting drippy nacho trays after every home game this season.

Of course that figures, since Paterno is an old-fashioned coach. If the players are grumbling about the punishment, they are keeping it to themselves.

"If Coach Paterno wants us to do it, we'll do it," center A.Q. Shipley said. "I don't think it will be a big deal."

And if it seems a mixed message that Paterno wouldn't play the drinkers yesterday but did play the guys facing criminal charges, then there are some things that still need explaining.

Not that Joe will be explaining them. He makes the decisions, and those who don't like them, whether inside the team or out, can lump them. Even at 80, he still appears willing to raise the lumps himself.

Paterno, in fact, wanted to remove the two players caught drinking from the team, but Connor and the other captains interceded on their behalf. Another punishment was settled upon, and despite everything, the season - Paterno's 58th on the staff at Penn State - rolls on smoothly.

"They're good guys. I've gotten in trouble myself, and I know how it feels," Connor said. "They made a mistake, but you always have to pull for your friends on the team."

So they pull together, with only a walkover win behind them and the usual uncertainty ahead. This morning at 7:50, they will clean a section of the stands, but beyond that is anyone's guess.

Looking at it another way, Penn State's season began yesterday, and Michigan's ended. All that quickly.

That is why, when the sun is shining on a perfect late-summer day, and 107,678 people have come to celebrate the possibilities, you should run through the cool tunnel and onto the rich glare of the grass while you still can.

"I can't lie to you," Paterno said. "It felt good to be able to run out that tunnel."

He made it all the way. Not that there was really any doubt, because you can't expect them to follow if you don't lead.


Bob Ford |

Inside

Penn State has no problem handling its opponent. Game Report, E15.

Mickey Shuler shines in his first start. E15.


Contact columnist Bob Ford

at 215-854-5842 or bford@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/bobford.

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