With the forced retirement of Florida State's Bobby Bowden, there is only one holdover from an era when the best and most enduring of college coaches were larger-than-life figures instantly identifiable with their programs. At 83, Penn State's Joe Paterno is the last of his kind, a symbol of stability and excellence in a profession given over to coaching nomads who tend not to stay long at any one school, by their choice or not.
Paterno is in his 61st season in Happy Valley, his 45th season as head coach of the Nittany Lions. With Saturday evening's nationally televised date at Alabama looming, one might think it would be the perfect occasion for JoePa, whose head-to-head meetings with Bryant's Crimson Tide became the stuff of legend, to take a meandering stroll down memory lane. Paterno is a veritable treasure trove of war stories. He might not remember the names of every one of his current players, but he reaches back to recite down-and-distance of a game situation in a year before today's Nits were born.
But this week apparently is not the time for Paterno to dive into the misty-water-colored memories of the way he was. During his weekly teleconference with the media, someone asked him to recall his rivalry with Bryant, against whom he was 4-8, 5-8 if you include the 1959 Liberty Bowl game in Philadelphia when Paterno was an assistant coach on Rip Engle's staff.
"I'll talk about my relationship with Paul Bryant sometime [next] spring, OK?" Paterno said. "Right now, it's Penn State vs. Alabama. A year from that they stick my picture up. Everybody's going to say, 'Who's the long-nosed guy?' They'll stick Bryant up there with that hat and they'll say, 'Who would wear a funny hat like that these days?'
"I think it's two football teams playing and they don't really care if a guy by the name of Paterno coaches one team and a guy by the name of Bryant used to coach the other team."
Perhaps. But the inexorable march of time doesn't erase history, it only tends sometimes to obfuscate it. And what the heck was Paterno talking about when he said they'll "stick my picture up" next spring? He's already in the College Football Hall of Fame, as is Bryant. Was that a subtle hint that this season really might be his last before he marches forward into what passes for earthly immortality? Paterno's contract expires after the 2011 season.
Make no mistake, Bear Bryant is never far from Paterno's thoughts, particularly these past few years when conjecture about his death or retirement from coaching, whichever comes first, became a statewide and then a national obsession. Paterno is well aware that Bryant, who coached at Alabama from 1958 through the 1982 season and won six national championships there, was only 69 when he died 4 weeks after he voluntarily separated himself from the sport he so loved. Paterno has never bothered to deny that he feels that staying on the job not only keeps his mind occupied, but is a means to cheat death for as long as is humanly possible.
So the pesky media inquisitors press on, waiting a while before asking Paterno about great Penn State-Alabama games of the past, most notably the Sugar Bowl that capped the 1979 season, in which Crimson Tide linebacker Barry Krauss' fourth-down, goal-line stop of Matt Suhey prevented the Nits from winning what would have been JoePa's first national championship. Alabama won that game, 14-7, taking the title that a few extra forward inches for Suhey would have gone to Paterno.
"It was one heck of a football game, defensively," Paterno recalled. "Krauss made a heckuva play, although you can debate whether Suhey scored on second down.
"There are so many stories I could tell, but why get into it?"
Maybe Paterno - who said this year's team is his youngest ever - doesn't want to recall near-misses because he doesn't think Saturday's game will be close enough to qualify. Alabama coach Nick Saban, who in his fourth season in Tuscaloosa reminds some of Bear's glorious reign, guided the 2009 Tide to the national championship, and this year's team is ranked No. 1 and the popular choice to repeat.
"That's why you come to places like Penn State . . . to play in games like this," Paterno said. "Now, that doesn't mean a miracle's going to happen. But we'll be a better team for having played the game."
Speaking of miracles, Paterno said the Crimson Tide is the best team Penn State has faced since the Miami Hurricanes in the Fiesta Bowl that concluded the 1986 season. But five interceptions of Vinny Testaverde opened the door for a 14-10 upset and JoePa's second national championship.
Penn State fans can only hope there is something to the supposed Sports Illustrated cover jinx, what with Alabama tailback Trent Richardson on this week's cover. But maybe the Crimson Tide is immune; this is 'Bama's fifth SI cover in the past year, but that hasn't prevented a 25-game regular-season winning streak . . . Dont'a Hightower, a sophomore middle linebacker from Lewisburg, Tenn., who has the daunting task of replacing 2009 Butkus Award winner Rolando McClain, now a rookie with the Oakland Raiders, says his mom is a Penn State fan, sort of. "I know she liked them," he said. "She had the Nittany Lions sweatshirt all the time I was younger. I don't know if she was an actual fan or she just liked the shirt." *