By PETE THAMEL
The New York Times
Published: September 6, 2007
Joe and Sue Paterno have not seen a movie in a theater since “Titanic” and watch so little television that they were delighted to stumble upon a show this spring that they had not seen before.
“We discovered ‘M*A*S*H,’ ” Sue Paterno said, laughing. “I had heard about it, but I didn’t know what it was about.”
A national audience will tune in to Penn State’s game against Notre Dame at Beaver Stadium on Saturday and see Paterno’s classic tie, oversize glasses and black coaching shoes on the sideline for the 42nd consecutive season.
They will see an 80-year-old who in the last few years has overcome health problems, an attempted overthrow by his superiors and a dearth of talent that resulted in four losing seasons in five years. But thanks to days that begin at 3:30 a.m. and a resurgence in recruiting, Penn State’s place among college football’s elite has popped up like a familiar rerun.
After the chaos of the first week of the season, Penn State’s two toughest September opponents — Notre Dame and Michigan — look vulnerable after ugly losses. That means that Saturday’s game with the Fighting Irish could launch Penn State (1-0) into national title contention.
“I stay in it because of games like this,” Paterno said in a recent telephone interview. “It’s fun.”
It has not always been fun for the Paternos the last few years. There was Sue’s recovery from a broken femur while Penn State endured a 4-7 season in 2004. Then there were two awkward home visits later that fall from the university’s president, athletic director and other high-ranking university officials to try to force Joe to retire.
But there was no give in Paterno, who arrived at State College in 1950 as a 23-year-old assistant coach who made $3,600 a season. Since then he has helped spark Penn State’s growth into world-renowned university with a billion-dollar endowment.
And that was why the home visits to discuss an exit plan for Paterno hurt so much. The Paternos’ influence on the university transcends the athletic department; a library is named after them, and they have endowed numerous academic scholarships.
“My faith never wavered,” Sue Paterno said. “It doesn’t matter who the president is or the administration, no one can hurt my love for Penn State. And I think that’s where he was, too, that we really love this place. When he thinks that it’s better off without him, he’ll get out, he’ll go. Right now he loves it.”
Joe Paterno has seemingly not changed. He lives in the same cozy ranch-style house and, until recently, walked through campus to work. He turns in most nights around 10:30 while watching game film, pencil in hand. He does not have a cellphone, has never sent an e-mail message. He laughed when the N.C.A.A. banned text messaging between coaches and recruits this summer.
“I get a big kick out of all the fuss,” Paterno said. “I thought it was tech messaging — T-E-C-H.”
Sue Paterno is similarly unwavering. She volunteers at the university’s library and is a charitable leader, including for the local Special Olympics. And although she admits that she would rather be playing with her newest grandchild, the Paternos’ 16th, this week she has been baking cookies for recruits and preparing meatballs for the 40 to 50 visitors who will traipse through the Paterno residence before the game Saturday.
Indeed, the Paternos revel in family. Sue Paterno said their best friends are their five children and their families. For Joe’s 80th birthday in December, the most appreciated gift was a picture with handprints and signatures from all the grandchildren.
“I’m not a big celebrator,” Joe Paterno said. “Never have been and I’m not going to start now.”
Imagine Tommy Lasorda still kicking dirt on umpires, Sidney Poitier still lighting up the big screen or Harry Belafonte still touring sold-out arenas. They were born within a year of Paterno.
And while retirement questions have dogged Paterno for two decades, the latest set of doubts about his ability to endure came after his leg was broken in a gruesome sideline collision last November.
But once preseason practices started, the Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley said, Paterno darted into the secondary on the first day to give the defensive backs individual instruction. There were balls flying and bodies moving, whipping through drills, and a fiery 80-year-old in the middle of it all.
“That’s when I knew he was fine,” Bradley said. “He’s the same.”
Sue Paterno jokes that her husband might not have been a model patient in his recovery. But as she fetched game films from his den for him to watch from his makeshift hospital bed set up in a side room of their house, she knew he would not retire.
“There’s no way to put a timetable on him,” Penn State’s director of athletic medicine, Dr. Wayne Sebastianelli, said of Paterno. “A guy with his gift and mental alertness and ingenuity, as far as I’m concerned, he can go as long as he wants.”
The members of Penn State’s board of directors now feel the same way. After the unsuccessful home visits by administrators in 2004 to try to persuade Paterno to retire, Paterno responded with an 11-1 record and No. 3 ranking after an Orange Bowl victory against Florida State in 2005, then another top-25 season capped by a bowl victory against Tennessee in 2006. Paterno is 364-121-3, and his job is safe.
“He clearly has the support of the board today,” said Steve Garban, the vice chairman of the board of trustees, who was one of those who visited Paterno to talk about retirement.
The latest controversy Paterno wrestled with was an off-campus fight in April involving numerous players. With their coach declaring that “we need to prove to people that we’re not a bunch of hoodlums,” about 100 Penn State players showed up at Beaver Stadium by 8 a.m. last Sunday to clean up after their 59-0 victory against Florida International. Paterno arrived around 9:15 to inspect their work, and ordered the players off the buses to continue cleaning because he did not think they had done a thorough enough job.
“A lot of times I just stare at him,” Florida Coach Urban Meyer said of Paterno. “He doesn’t give the Coach 101 junk. He’ll make his kids clean up the stadium after a game. That’s a good old guy doing the right thing.”
And Paterno is a guy who appears to be sticking around for a while. The only major change on tap for the Paternos appears to be in their television watching.
“They don’t show ‘M*A*S*H’ anymore,” Sue Paterno said. “But we haven’t seen ‘Cheers’ yet. Maybe we’ll find ‘Cheers’ soon.”