Penn State coach Joe Paterno speaks during Big Ten media days in Chicago on Monday. Paterno says he’s fit and ready, just in time for fall practice which begins on Friday. The Lions will open their season on Sept. 4 against Youngstown State. Penn State takes on defending national champion Alabama the following week in Tuscaloosa.AP photo
He was thinner. Perhaps a bit more deliberate with his speech. But after having to skip a trio of offseason public appearances, Joe Paterno was back in the spotlight on Monday at Big Ten media days in Chicago.
“What did Mark Twain say, ‘The rumor of my death has been overexaggerated,’ or something,” Paterno chuckled. “I forget. I used to know a little bit more about those.”
Well, it wouldn’t have been normal for the Penn State coach to get the quote he was referencing exactly right. Or particularly close, in this case.
A bout of intestinal flu followed by an adverse reaction to antibiotics after April’s Blue-White Game kept Paterno away from most public events this summer, including all three stops on his annual fundraising and promotional tour across the state.
“I didn’t lose any time. 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,” Paterno said.
“But as far as looking at tapes and talking to kids … there was really no difference except I couldn’t make as many public appearances as I’ve had, because of the fact that I could be standing up here and all of a sudden have to leave.
“Nobody obviously would want to be in that kind of position. So I don’t seem to be any different. I think – I hope I’m ready to go. I think I am. I’ve done my homework.”
At the very least, the 83-year-old coach doesn’t expect his routine to change for the upcoming season, as fall practice begins on Friday and the schedule opens Sept. 4 against Youngstown State.
That includes remaining on the sideline for games rather than returning to the coaches’ booth, something he admitted he hated when a hip injury forced him off the field during the 2008 season.
A reporter from USA Today even remarked that she thought Paterno was “going to be Penn State’s coach until the day (he dies),” drawing a pause and a smirk from Paterno and some laughter from the rest of the room.
“Is that wishful thinking or what?” Paterno deadpanned. “Ahh, 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 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.”
Beyond talking about his health, Paterno was relatively tight-lipped about the forthcoming changes to the Big Ten, whether it was how a conference championship game should be handled or how the divisions should be aligned.
“I’m just glad that I don’t have to make that decision,” Paterno said. “I think there’s a lot of different combinations that would be good, where we could have a team that would be champions of the Big Ten and be in a position to go on and be national champs.
“But what the makeup of each division is, I really haven’t had a chance to give that that much thought. … I have a lot of confidence that the people who are going to make the decision will give it the thought that it’s going to take to do a good job and will come up with something that will be good for the Big Ten.”
Paterno later drew some of the biggest laughs of the event – which featured press conferences with all 11 coaches from the league – when asked about what it would mean to reach 400 career wins this year.
“When I’m down (in the ground) and looking up,” Paterno 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.”