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Lions need Paterno to be field general

Coach best when part of sideline mix

Penn State coach Joe Paterno may still walk with some difficulty because of a brutal collision on the sideline during a game last season, but he needs to get back on the sidelines, where his enthusiasm makes him most effective.

AP photo

The evidence is still there – a slight limp as Joe Paterno walks to and from a desk covered in microphones and recorders to discuss the upcoming season.

The obvious truth is that 80-year-old men, even if they happen to be legendary college football coaches, don’t do much of anything as quickly as they used to.

Including heal.

Of course, while the 42nd-year head coach of Penn State may still hobble around a bit thanks to a violent sideline collision during a game in late 2006, critics and sycophants alike must note that the injury hasn’t slowed his sense of humor.

“I think I’m 100 percent. I’m not as quick as I used to be,” Paterno said, his voice slowly dropping to a droll hum. “But when I was 18 … there wasn’t a girl that was quick enough for me.”

Laughter.

There’s no telling how many times Paterno has deadpanned the same joke during these last four decades, but it still draws the same reaction.

“I’m fine, I really am,” he said about his rehabilitation from a fractured left leg and torn knee ligaments. “I’ve enjoyed practice. … I thought from day one that if I could go through two-a-days, then I’ll be fine. One-a-days have been a snap for me. I haven’t had any problems so far.”

A season without any more physical mishaps would be a plus – Paterno was also run over in a practice by his own players early last season – but it’s not his footspeed that’s most important to the Nittany Lions.

Even if Paterno isn’t quite able to charge/jog the whole way out of the tunnel on Saturday when Penn State opens up its 2007 schedule, the Lions just need him to be there.

Much was made of Paterno’s comments at Big Ten media day in August when he talked about some of the benefits to sitting up high in the booth, as he was forced to for the final part of last season.

But Paterno doesn’t want to be up there. Not really. His players and the coaching staff hold the same sentiment. As Paterno has delegated more and micromanaged less in the past few years, it’s more important than ever for him to be in the middle of things – encouraging, admonishing, congratulating.

That sort of energy is what has kept him relevant as a coach. Even if his grasp of some things off the field isn’t quite as sharp.

“You’re talking to a dinosaur when it comes to some of the technology and all that kind of stuff,” Paterno said. “People say DirecTV – if I can’t get a station on my television, I say, ‘Hey Sue (his wife), this thing’s not working.’ Sue comes in and somebody pushes a button and I can’t get WPSU when I want it and I gotta ...”

Point taken.

Paterno would much rather push the buttons of his team, which he has done mostly to success the past two seasons after a dark stretch from 2000-04 that featured just one bowl appearance.

He convinced Penn State president Graham Spanier and athletic director Tim Curley to let him stay on and keep his entire staff, preaching patience. It’s paying off now.

“I said a couple of years ago when we were having our trouble and were a couple of players away, if I could keep my staff together, we’d be fine,” Paterno said. “And we’re a pretty good football team right now. We’re not great. We’ve got a ways to go. But this team that we have right now, keep them all in school and keep all with their noses to the grindstone and make sure some have some patience – we’ll be a really good football team someday. We may not make it this year, but it’s going to make it.

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