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Fire still burning hot for Paterno

Coach hasn’t thought about stepping down since ’79 Sugar Bowl

Joe Paterno tries to inspire his team during the 1979 Sugar Bowl. Penn State lost a chance for a game-winning touchdown late in the game because of a penalty for too many men on the field during a punt. Paterno still blames himself for the mistake more than 30 years later.

Alabama coach Paul "Bear" Bryant of Alabama (left) and Joe Paterno get together before the 1979 Sugar Bowl. Penn State’s loss in that game to Bryant’s Crimson Tide left Paterno questioning his future as a football coach.

AP FILE PHOTOS

Coach Joe Paterno was confined to a golf cart at media day earlier this month after injuring his right arm and hip in a collision during practice. He said he hopes to be at full strength this week and coach from the sideline when the Nittany Lions open the season Saturday.

FRED ADAMS/FOR THE TIMES LEADER

It was just a few days into 1979 when Joe Paterno decided he was going to quit.

His Nittany Lions had lost the national championship to Alabama in the Sugar Bowl earlier that week. In a game of near-misses and goal-line stands, Penn State was penalized for too many men on the field on a punt and missed a chance to score. The Penn State coach blamed himself for the flag, and the play still bothers him three decades later.

Distraught at the time, Paterno could think of nothing else but returning home to Brooklyn.

For nearly a week, he walked through his old neighborhood. He visited his old parish. He prayed.

“It was the only time I ever said, ‘Hey, you’ve had it. You did it. You did all you can do. You’re not good enough anymore,’” Paterno said. “Then, when I came home, I realized that wasn’t what I wanted, so I decided to stay. That’s the only time I really said to myself, ‘Hey, you can’t get it done.’”

And at age 84, Paterno still believes strongly that he can get it done. Though this season will mark the 25th anniversary of his last national championship squad, Paterno still holds out hope for one more shot at winning another.

He came close twice in the last decade, losing on the final play to Michigan in 2005 and again to Iowa in 2008. Penn State won the Big Ten both years and went to a BCS bowl, but the one loss kept the Lions out of the title game both times.

Paterno and his staff had been eyeing 2011 – the final year of Paterno’s contract – as another chance to make a run at the top .

Much has conspired against the Lions in the past year, however, including a shuffled schedule that includes conference newcomer Nebraska as well as trips to Ohio State and Wisconsin – all in a three-week stretch to close out the season in November.

And even if Penn State were to pull through that, the Lions would then have to win a 13th game – the inaugural Big Ten championship this December in Indianapolis – to claim a spot in the BCS championship game.

That daunting path hasn’t stopped Paterno from preparing for a big season, though.

Upset with himself for being too soft on his young team that finished 7-6 in 2010, Paterno set out this summer to toughen his squad up.

To a man, every player said preseason camp was the most grueling any of them had experienced.

“I went into this preseason with the idea that we were going to have a tough camp,” Paterno said. “Last year … I don’t know that we were tough enough in some games. With that, I think you always have to go back to the head coach. I wasn’t demanding enough. We weren’t physically tough enough.”

Beyond that, Paterno has been stricter off the field as well. Multiple players were suspended for all of preseason camp for violating team rules, including a fifth-year senior in tailback Stephfon Green.

And Paterno sought to practice what he preached. After chewing out his players for not working hard enough through injuries, the coach himself was sent to the hospital after being run over on the sideline at a practice.

He was admitted on a Sunday night for injuries to his right arm and hip. He was released on that Tuesday morning and was back at practice that Wednesday.

His plan is to be back standing on the sideline for Saturday’s opener against Indiana State.

Retire? Not just yet.

“I still believe that there’s a place for a good, solid program,” Paterno said. “And there’s a place for a bunch of kids coming together, holding hands, working their tails off, developing a little camaraderie and going out and having a good time playing football. Playing the kind of football the fans enjoy and coaches like to coach.

“The day I wake up in the morning and I say, ‘Hey, do I have to go to practice again?’ I’ll know it’s time to get out.”

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