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"At least they didn't fire me"

Sports | Penn State's Joe Paterno is winning again in his 40th season with the Nittany Lions

Issue: "Samuel Alito," Nov. 12, 2005

Meet college football's newest innovator-78-year-old Penn State coach Joe Paterno. Told years ago by pundits that he should hang up his whistle and retire, Mr. Paterno, in his 40th season as head of the Penn State program, doggedly insisted that things would soon turn around for the struggling Nittany Lions. This year, he is right. With a team back in the driver's seat of the Big Ten with an 8-1 record into this month, Mr. Paterno is once again the genius coach, the master recruiter, the living legend.

Some said the game had passed up the coach who has become college football's icon. After all, up until 1999, Penn State under Mr. Paterno's leadership suffered only one losing season in 34 years. But in the past five years, the Nittany Lions finished above .500 just once. The drumbeat grew louder: Joe Pa can't coach, can't recruit, can't relate to the young player.

Ever since Penn State joined the Big Ten in 1993, coaches have attacked Mr. Paterno in recruiting battles by telling high-school athletes that Mr. Paterno wouldn't be there long enough to see them through their senior season. Funny, because with Wisconsin's Barry Alvarez departing at the end of the 2005 season, Mr. Paterno will have outlasted at least one coach at every Big Ten school.

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"Lots of things have passed me by, but coaching isn't one of them," Mr. Paterno said. "Coaching isn't a mystery. It's not a question of the game passing you by and Xs and Os. Every play you guys talk about, I've seen.

"The one thing I said to some people in the university at times when they were asking me about the future when we hadn't won the last two games, I said, 'Look, everybody just stay stable, we will be OK. I have a bunch of great guys around me. We have to go out and recruit a couple of kids and we will be OK,'" Mr. Paterno said. "I am not sure they believed me, but at least they didn't fire me."

He was right. Freshmen Justin King and the recently injured Derrick Williams have become offensive playmakers. Somehow the stodgy Mr. Paterno became fresh. Before this season, he dispatched assistant coaches to Austin, Texas, to study how University of Texas coaches used the dynamic quarterback Vince Young. It helped Mr. Paterno and his staff to reinvent the team's offense. He hasn't abandoned his history, either-linebackers Dan Connor and Paul Posluszny have emerged as the newest faces of Linebacker U.

Not bad for a man who built a college football dynasty, watched it crumble and then built it back. "I'd like to win another national championship. It's an ego trip."


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