Paterno has captive audience at Big Ten Media Day

coach Joe Paterno speaks at Big Ten Media Day news conference.ASSOCIATED PRESS
coach Joe Paterno speaks at Big Ten Media Day news conference.ASSOCIATED PRESS (Penn State)
Posted: July 29, 2011

CHICAGO - A double standard? Sure, there is one in college football, at least as it pertains to Big Ten Media Days.

While most of the other 11 head coaches in the numerically misnamed league get peppered with perfunctory questions about, well, football, the annual appearance here by Penn State icon Joe Paterno always draws a bigger crowd that is more interested in his thoughts on the state of the game, his health, future and, oh, maybe the musings of a long-dead Greek philosopher.

Even Ohio State interim coach Luke Fickell and Nebraska's Bo Pelini, whose Cornhuskers bring a history of success and national credibility to their first year in their new conference, were mere side attractions under the big top, which again featured JoePa holding court in the center ring.

And the 84-year-old Paterno didn't disappoint, giving entertainingly disjointed responses on a variety of topics that called to mind a verbal amalgamation of Casey Stengel and Don King.

It was only a year ago that Paterno, who missed three alumni functions around Pennsylvania because of nagging, flulike symptoms last summer, arrived here at something less than the top of his form. His seeming frailty gave rise to speculation he might not make it through his 45th season as the Nittany Lions' field leader.

But Paterno, the winningest Football Bowl Subdivision coach ever with 401 career victories, is back for a 46th autumn and the version that almost bounded onto the stage yesterday at the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place - while still prone to answer a direct question with a meandering yarn from way back when - did everything but drop to the floor and do one-armed push-ups like late actor Jack Palance once did at the Academy Awards.

So, Joe, how's your health these days?

 "Well, I feel a lot better than I did a year ago," he said. "I had a tough 2 years physically, with the kid from Wisconsin running into me on the sideline and breaking my knee. Then I threw my hip out showing off when I shouldn't have been trying to show a kid how to kick a football. I couldn't kick when I was healthy. I sure as hell couldn't kick with a broken knee."

Someone else wanted to know how Paterno felt about the mess at Ohio State, which resulted in the forced resignation of coach Jim Tressel and the NCAA socking the Buckeyes with severe sanctions.

"I don't know enough about it," he said. "Ohio State, to me, is a great, great college football program through the years. All of a sudden now there's something going on there. But I don't know enough about it, and I sure as heck don't want to be critical of situations when I'm not that familiar with them. I try not to even read anything about it.

"We've always had problems, and you're gonna have problems when you have the kind of competition that's going on. What's that the good Lord said? Let he who is without sin cast the first rock."

If anyone is qualified to fling a stone or two at the rules-benders, Paterno would seem to be the guy. His program might not be totally squeaky-clean, but Penn State has never been cited for major infractions on his watch.

"Maybe we're lucky," Paterno said, which might be the case since he admits to not being fully aware of everything in the NCAA's ever-thickening rules book.

"We're not allowed to watch [players] in preseason," Paterno continued. "I got into a jam because I was walking by and some kids were running around. I stopped to watch them. I mentioned that on some TV show and we had to turn ourselves in. But it is nice to know we haven't had a major violation. I'm proud of that."

It wasn't always that way, he admitted. Before, when a Lion engaged in some relatively minor incident, Paterno had the luxury of dealing with it in-house. Now, in part because of social networking, no misdeed escapes public scrutiny.

"I used to get telephone calls from one of the campus cops who'd say, 'Coach, you'd better come up here and get a hold of Mike. He's had too much to drink and he's making a lot of noise,' " Paterno said, Mike being a fictional representation.

"I'd go there maybe at 2 o'clock in the morning, grab Mike, bring him home, put him in bed, get him up at 5 [a.m.] and run his rear end off for a week. You guys [in the media] never heard about it."

It seems there always have been a lot of "Mikes" in need of a good scolding from their elders.

"Every now and then, I hear guys say, 'Oh, the kids today,' " said Paterno, who sometimes has been accused of being unable to relate to players young enough to be his grandchildren. "They ought to go back and read Socrates. Socrates, in 400 B.C., said, 'The kids today are terrible. They tyrannize their parents and don't pay attention.' That's 2,500 years ago."

JoePa doesn't go back that far, of course, but he does predate the era in which coaches had contracts.

He officially is in the final year of his most recent one, a signal to some that his incredibly long run could soon be reaching its finish.

"I never signed a contract" when he succeeded Rip Engle as head coach in 1966, Paterno said, noting that he had a handshake agreement with then-athletic director Ernie McCoy to take the job for $20,000.

"Four or 5 years later, when the [New England] Patriots were fooling around with me, [PSU officials] said, 'Hey, you'd better sign a contract.' I said, 'Why do I have to? You guys write up a contract and I'll sign it.' " Negotiations between Paterno and Penn State have been low-maintenance ever since.

When his 15 minutes at the podium were over, Paterno exited without having mentioned the name of a single Penn State player. No one in the audience seemed to mind.

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