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Milestone victory not on Paterno’s mind

While some question his health, coach concentrates on team

Penn State coach Joe Paterno answers questions at Penn State’s media day last month. Paterno missed three offseason public appearances due to illness.

Don Carey/The Times Leader

Joe Paterno has said he will cut back on some of his off-field appearances this year. One of the things he won’t be doing anymore is appearing live on the radio on Thursday nights. The new "Penn State Football Show" will feature taped segments with Paterno. Fans can still submit questions for the 83-year-old coach ahead of time to be answered on the air.

Don Carey/The Times Leader

Joe Paterno quieted the packed room by announcing that he had a request for the assembled reporters at team media day.

“Please,” he began, pausing for emphasis. “Don’t ask me if I’m gonna die tomorrow.”

It was by far the biggest laugh Penn State’s 83-year-old patriarch has drawn in 2010.

“Believe me,” he continued, “I’ve got a few more days left.”

Yeah, it’s been that kind of an offseason for Paterno.

Heading into the 2010 campaign just six wins shy of 400 for his career, Paterno was expecting to have to answer questions about himself. But after a pair of health issues forced him to cancel three public fundraising appearances in between spring practice and fall camp, those questions morphed into something decidedly different. Like this observation from a USA Today reporter at Big Ten media days in Chicago:

“Coach Paterno, I’ve followed your career for a long time. And I’m thinking you’re going to be Penn State’s coach until the day you die. What do you think about that?”

That would be the one that prompted Paterno’s tongue-in-cheek plea a week later at Penn State’s own media day.

Of course, Paterno is skillful at brushing aside pointed questions about his own mortality. Recall his response to the Texas A&M yell leader who blurted out before the 2007 Alamo Bowl that the coach needed a casket: “Maybe he’s accurate.”

This summer in Chicago, the USA Today question was the first one he fielded at the event.

“Is that wishful thinking or what?” Paterno responded. “Oh, I really don’t think about that. I just – I’m enjoying it. I like to coach. I had a little bout earlier in the year, nothing serious. Didn’t make a big deal out of it.

“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 the job. But we’ll talk about that later. But right now I have no plans whatsoever as far as whether I’m gonna go another year, two years, five years or what have you.”

Scrutiny of Paterno’s appearance and speech rose after his appearance in Chicago for his first press conference since his offseason troubles, which included intestinal flu and an adverse reaction to an antibiotic.

While the ordeal seemed to take something out of Paterno when he returned to the public eye, he said he still expects to spend games on the sideline and keep up his typical coaching routine.

What could change, however, is his off-field schedule.

One notable change could come with his weekly live radio show, “Nittany Lion Hotline” on Thursday evenings, in which he answers questions from callers during the show’s final segments.

“Well, the Thursday night show is a tough show for me because of the fact I’ve got to come right off the field and go into that radio show,” Paterno said. “That’s always been a problem for me because of the fact that I go in there and … if we have a lousy practice and somebody wants to ask me, I feel like telling them, ‘Go jump in the lake.’

“And it’s a pain in the rear end. I want to get home. I want to start doodling. I want to figure out what we didn’t get done so that maybe I can figure out a couple things for the game on Saturday.”

Paterno lumped the show in with some of his other weekly public appearances, including the Quarterback Club luncheon on Wednesdays.

As a compromise, the radio broadcast is now known as the “Penn State Football Show,” and features a segment with Paterno typically taped ahead of time. Fans can still submit questions to Paterno that might be answered during the program.

Regardless of his desire to conserve energy, Paterno wasn’t acting any different during preseason camp, according to his players.

When asked if Paterno had dialed things down in camp, Evan Royster just laughed and said “No. Not at all.”

“He seems like the same old Joe to us,” said the senior tailback, who is entering his fifth season with the team. “He still jokes around with us and gives us a hard time and still gets in our face at practice and yells at us. So I don’t think we really see a difference.”

Some variation of that line was echoed by teammates and assistant coaches alike.

One thing that certainly hasn’t changed is his penchant for downplaying his own place in history, which will be further cemented when he almost certainly collects win No. 400 in the next few months.

“You know, when I’m down (in the ground) and looking up,” he said, “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.”

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