Trip to Tuscaloosa can't get Bear off Paterno's back

Posted: September 12, 2010

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. - As Joe Paterno, hands deep in his khaki pockets, eyes fixed on Alabama ground softened by afternoon showers, walked uneasily toward Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday afternoon, a thick gauntlet of Crimson Tide fans chanted his name.

"Joe Pa-ter-no! Joe Pa-ter-no!"

He looked more comfortable later, an hour or so before Alabama began dismantling his 45th Penn State team, when he hugged Bobby Bowden, his 80-year-old rival, one who finally stopped chasing Paterno's victory record when Florida State made him quit last winter.

He seemed pensive when, with 101,000-plus fans roaring in pregame anticipation overhead, he stood in a darkened stadium tunnel, about to accompany his players out into the humidity and hysteria of a Saturday in Tuscaloosa.

What was Joe Paterno thinking?

Did the old coach allow himself a break from his fabled X-and-O focus to recall other Alabama games? Maybe that '79 Sugar Bowl loss, his most painful ever?

Did he remember Bear Bryant, the 'Bama legend who both impressed and intimidated him? "Self-confidence hung in the air around him," Paterno once said of Bryant, "like a fine mist."

Did he ponder his future?

His mortality?

We can't really know. Paterno won't tell us. And after the 130th loss of his legendary career, he didn't feel like getting philosophical. In fact, he didn't much feel like answering questions at all. Throughout a brief few minutes with the media, the coach was uncharacteristically gruff and agitated. When one reporter said he hadn't heard an answer, Paterno said, "Tough."

During the 24-3 loss, as he paced the sideline in a blue jacket despite the oppressive heat, undoubtedly aware that his Nittany Lions and their true-freshman quarterback had little chance, you had to wonder, as people have been wondering for more than a decade now, when the end was coming.

There's nowhere to look for hints, no one to compare him to, no other octogenarians who've been at the helm of a big-time program for nearly half a century.

It's too bad Bryant wasn't around. He'd have known. The crafty wizard in the checkered hat always seemed to know what was going on inside Paterno's head.

The Alabama coach beat Paterno's Nittany Lions all four times they met. And the Tide's national-championship win in the '79 Sugar Bowl was, far and away, Paterno's most painful.

"Nothing of the kind ever compared to this loss," Paterno wrote in his 1989 autobiography. "It got to me. It hammered at my ego. When I stood toe to toe with Bear Bryant, he outcoached me."

It's possible, maybe even likely, that Bryant is still in his head. Maybe he's the reason why Paterno is still coaching at 83, even though players on the 1966 Penn State team, his first, are now collecting Social Security. (The Nittany Lions from 1950, when Paterno was a Rip Engle assistant, are now in their 80s, too.)

Bryant at least tried to walk away, retiring in 1983. Thirty-seven days later he was dead. That's a lesson Paterno hasn't forgotten.

"Retire? What am I going to do?" Paterno said. "Cut the grass?"

And maybe that's why he got a little testy last week when reporters, as was only logical in advance of this matchup with No. 1 Alabama, asked him about Bryant.

"I don't want to talk about Bryant," he said several times. "Why get into it?"

Bowden, who watched as a fan as his alma mater ran over Penn State, knows as well as anyone what Paterno may be thinking. And what he surely is missing.

"The pressure," Bowden said, "Right away, I could feel the pressure lift right off me."

But Bowden also understood how Paterno has reached this point, this apparent psychological impasse. When he was a 40-year-old coach at West Virginia and saw that 53-year-old Darrell Royal had retired at Texas, he said he imagined he, too, would be finished at that "advanced age."

"But then you sign a new five-year contract and another and then another, and pretty soon you're 60 or 70 or 80," he said.

What was Joe Paterno thinking?

On the long ride from the Birmingham Marriott to Tuscaloosa did he permit himself a look at all the decorated RVs, the sea of tailgaters surrounding Alabama's newly enlarged stadium?

Was he looking out the window at the colorful pregame parade of spectators when the Penn State bus rode past?

Probably not. Bowden said that a year ago he wouldn't have looked either.

"I saw tailgaters!" Bowden excitedly exclaimed Saturday, as if he'd spotted leprechauns. "I'd never seen tailgaters before."

Alabama, perhaps as a two-time national champion, is coming to Happy Valley next fall. After that, it will be at least another decade before these two programs meet again in the regular season.

Surely Paterno, in his 90s by then, will be gone.

Sprinkled among the tide of crimson-and-white T-shirts that transformed Bryant-Denny Stadium into a massive Phillies uniform were a few that said, "Welcome back, JoePa!"

It almost certainly was goodbye.

But we can't know for sure.

After Alabama's easy victory, Paterno, surrounded by burly state policemen, sought out 'Bama coach Nick Saban and shook his hand. Then, with fans cheering him, with players and assistant coaches seeking him out, he walked back into that darkened tunnel.

What was Joe Paterno thinking?


Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or at ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com.

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