LOS ANGELES — Joe Paterno’s brow furrowed as some voices from outside the room interrupted his final press gathering of the 2008 season on Friday.
But when he saw some old friends walk through the doorway, the 82-year-old bolted out of his seat and rose to his feet as fast as he had all year long.
Following a Penn State spokesman into the room were Jimmy Johnson and Barry Switzer, stopping by for a quick hello from FOX’s nearby TV studios, where both former coaches serve as football analysts.
There was plenty of backslapping and laughs between the legends, who at one point in the 80s were three of the most successful college coaches in the nation when Johnson was at Miami and Switzer at Oklahoma.
What followed was a mish-mash of clashing accents and laughter, with Switzer declaring to Paterno, “The hell with those (media) bastards! You keep doin’ what you’re doin’!”
The whole exchange lasted barely two minutes, but during that time, Paterno looked as young as he had in many months.
For while Paterno is feeling much better and largely pain-free since having hip replacement surgery in late November 2008 was still the most trying year of his life from a physical standpoint.
And though he is proud of his team’s accomplishments, finishing 11-2 with a Big Ten title and a trip to the Rose Bowl, he’s thankful to leaving this year behind him.
“It has not been a comfortable year for me,” Paterno said at the small, relatively informal season wrap-up session at Penn State’s team hotel. “Before I got the operation, every day was an ordeal, physically, regardless of whether it was football or what. It was tough to concentrate. Then, coming out here where I was really hoping I could be on the sideline and I was disappointed I couldn’t. That’s all behind me now.”
Paterno said he was upset that he wasn’t able to coach on the sideline for the past eight games because of his hip, most of all Thursday’s 38-24 loss to USC in Pasadena.
He acknowledged that his presence on the field wouldn’t have helped his Nittany Lions overcome the Trojans’ onslaught, but it was still tough on him, nonetheless.
“I don’t know whether it’s important for the team, but it’s important for me (to be on the field),” Paterno said. “I’m frustrated. I don’t think I could have changed anything ... but there’s (USC coach) Pete Carroll barking at the officials and grabbing them and the whole bit and trying to get a break here or there, and I’m sitting upstairs. I’m not down there telling some of those guys, why don’t you wake up, that kind of thing.
“But, even just being around the kids – when things start to go bad, you’d like to be around them and just grab them and the whole bit.”
Fortunately for his sanity, Paterno expects to be back on the sideline to start the 2009 season. Another season like this one that confines him to the coaches booth might just be enough to call it quits.
During some of the most painful stretches of the year for him, trying to get around with a badly damaged hip, Paterno said he thought this season might just be his last.
“Yeah, I did before the operation, yeah,” Paterno said. “I think everybody, when you’re my age and you’ve got aches and pains, you can’t do some things you’d like to do.”
He described all the things that he couldn’t do for much of the fall that he used to, including keeping up his regimen of walking 15-20 miles a week and keeping active.
Before squad meetings on Friday, he enjoyed walking down to the woods behind his house to clear his head and get some ideas for the upcoming game.
With a new hip and a new three-year contract, Paterno is hoping to be able to do all of those things again in 2009.
And forget about 2008.
“It’s been a tough year for me personally,” he said. “But I think in a lot of ways, it was very rewarding because so many people came to the front to make sure that these kids had an opportunity to have as good a year as they could have. And we fell short a little bit, obviously, but I think we had a good year and it was a productive year.
“But I’m glad that for me – for me, personally – it’s over.”