• Video: Joe Paterno at Big Ten media days:
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CHICAGO — Joe Paterno is still a seven-point favorite over the Grim Reaper. His mind is sharp enough to recall that Bill Glassford once coached at Nebraska. He’s coming off an 11-win season, the 15th time he’s won that many in 45 seasons leading Penn State.
So the woman from USA Today wanted to know: was JoePa going to coach college football until he dropped dead?
“Is that wishful thinking or what?’’ Paterno said.
He got a big laugh from the room of writers. It was a nice ice-breaker for what was an uncomfortable line of questioning.
How does an old coach know when to walk away?
Nebraska, the new kid on this block, was the topic of the day at Big Ten media days at the Hyatt at McCormick Place. And that meant that Paterno was the hot topic, too.
He brought Penn State into the Big Ten 20 years ago, and he’s called for more expansion, and now he has a bookend in his old friend Tom Osborne. The two legends posed with commissioner Jim Delany in a dramatic flashbulb moment when Osborne slipped in a side door at the end of the session.
Somebody in the Big Ten called it “The Moment.’’ The symbolism was clear: the Big Ten had Osborne and Paterno and wanted to flaunt it. It’s a powerful combination, coming soon to a flat-screen TV near you.
The question is, how much longer?
Paterno is 83 now. Think about that — coaching big-time college football at 83. He looks frail. That crackling voice is softer. Paterno has always been the game’s rock, just rolling along, but the rock is rolling along slower these days.
A couple of years ago, he had a hip replacement. He’s seen fewer games on the sidelines. This past spring, he was out three months when he had a bad reaction to some medication he took before a visit to the dentist. The symptoms were called a flulike gastrointestinal condition.
Feel free to use your imagination. When the USA Today writer asked Paterno if he had intestinal issues, the old lion cracked, “It was a little bit below the intestines.’’
He put it another way: “The problem I had was not having control of some things, and I had to be careful that I didn’t get myself in a position where I would embarrass myself.’’
A Penn State scribe told Paterno, “It was a little hard to write around that issue.’’ To which Paterno cracked, “No kidding? It’s a heck of a lot harder to have.’’
The questions kept coming. Are you OK? Are you more tired this year? Will you walk the sidelines this season? Finally, Paterno just shook his head, lowered his glasses and said, “Hey, I’m fine. I’m fine. I feel good, all right? I’m not worried about leaving you guys, OK?’’
This is what happens when you coach into your 80s. Things happen to your body. And when things happen, people connect dots.
“I had a little bout earlier in the year, nothing serious,’’ he said. “I’m feeling really good. And as long as I enjoy it, I’ll continue to coach, unless I don’t think I can do a good job or anybody else doesn’t think I can do a good job.
“But we’ll talk about that later. Right now I have no plans whatsoever as far as whether I’m going to go another year, two years, five years or what have you. We’re just trying to have a decent year this year.’’
Thankfully, he did have time for some other topics.
On Nebraska joining the Big Ten: “I think it’s a really good addition to the Big Ten. We’ve had some great games with them before we got into the Big Ten. I coached, actually as an assistant, against them, before even Bob Devaney and Tom, when Bill Glassford was coaching out there. They beat us out there and they had a great running back — I think Bobby Reynolds was his name — one of the best backs in the country.
“I’m looking forward to spending a little time with Tom, especially since he’s here.’’
On his opinion on the makeup of two Big Ten divisions: “I think there’s a lot of different combinations that would be good, where you could be champions of the Big Ten and be in position to be national champs. But I really haven’t had a chance to give that much thought to it.’’
On closing in on 400 victories (he has 394): “When I’m down and looking up, are they going to put 399 on top of me or are they going to put 401? Who the hell cares? I won’t know.’’
On whether he will pick his successor one day: “I would hope they would sit down with me. I don’t expect to name it. But I would hope there would be some kind of dialogue.’’
Let’s hope it’s not anytime soon. Nebraska vs. Paterno has been too much fun over the years. But, clearly, the time is coming.
“I think he looks good,’’ said Todd Blackledge, the former Penn State quarterback who attended Big Ten media days for ABC. “He spoke a little softer, but he didn’t stutter and stammer and he didn’t misunderstand the questions.
“We’re lucky — I don’t mean just Penn State people, but anyone who loves college football — every day that we have with him. There won’t be anybody like him. We lost Bobby (Bowden, who retired) this year and I hated to see that happen to him. We’ll miss Bobby Bowden. We need to just relish however many more days, months, years we have Joe.’’
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• Video: Big Ten coaches talk about conference realignment at media days:
• Video: Jim Delaney at Big 12 media days: