Penn State coach wins honor day before his 79th birthday
Wednesday, December 21, 2005
By Chico Harlan, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In the same way that Joe Paterno grouses about celebrating birthdays -- his 79th greets him today, and those who know him believe he would rather stick his face in the cake than acknowledge the attention -- he similarly shies away from celebrating great seasons.
Even this one, a 10-1 season that has led Penn State to the Jan. 3 Orange Bowl and emphatically restored pride in a program and the man who almost single-handedly built it.
Now, Paterno has a twofer of attention he would rather go without. A day before his birthday, The Associated Press named Paterno its college football coach of the year, an award that caps his most recent year of improbable achievements.
Entering the 2005 season, Penn State -- and its increasingly beleaguered coach -- had floundered through four losing efforts in five years. That period converted loyalists into questioners, until Paterno became virtually the final public figure speaking faithfully about the direction of his football team.
He said the team was close. That it needed only a few freshman playmakers at a few key positions. That it required patience and faith.
One Big Ten championship later, all of those notions only inspire agreeing head nods, but there's one thing Paterno refuses to say: "I told you so."
"What good does it do for me to say, 'I told you so?' " he said. "... I'm not a vindictive guy. I don't read the papers. I realize the media's got a job to do and I realize the alumni, if they're interested in your program, are going to die when you lose and so forth, and a lot of them get carried away."
Paterno has left anecdotal evidence -- this award, most recently -- to speak for the convictions he always had. Forty-five of the AP's 65 participating media members voted for Paterno, who beat out Texas's Mack Brown (eight votes), Notre Dame's Charlie Weis (three votes) and Southern California's Pete Carroll (three votes). West Virginia head coach Rich Rodriguez received two.
Yesterday, the Sporting News also named Paterno its coach of the year.
This year, Paterno charted a course of challenges and changes. Before spring practice began, Paterno, forcing himself to become more involved in recruiting, had already signed several of the top recruits, including Derrick Williams and Justin King, who would help key the Nittany Lions' turnaround. Williams and King enrolled at Penn State for the winter 2005 semester, and even then, players and Paterno alike teemed with confidence.
Still, Paterno faced obstacles. He helped his offensive assistants implement a playbook with more reliance on three- and four-wideout sets. Several seniors faced discipline problems in the spring and summer. During a summer vacation, Paterno's wife, Sue, broke her leg, resulting in a trying recovery process that turned Paterno, when at home, into a caretaker.
Now, though, Penn State has only one game remaining -- the Orange Bowl against Florida State. In preparation, the Lions traveled yesterday to Delray Beach, Fla., where they will practice for almost a week.
"You play it by ear," Paterno said of how his team will prepare. "I will watch them and make sure that we try to stay focused and understand what a tough game this is going to be because Florida State is going to be, maybe, as tough a game as we could possibly have played."
Penn State hasn't played since Nov. 19, when it defeated Michigan State and clinched its conference title. In the most recent month, the Lions have relaxed, and, to a degree, relished their accomplishments of the season.
Not that Paterno is joining them.
"The only thing I feel sometimes is that the head coach gets too much credit," he said. "I think sometimes it ought to be the coaching staff of the year."
NOTE -- Linebacker Paul Posluszny and defensive lineman Tamba Hali were named to the Sporting News' All-American first team. Cornerback Alan Zemaitis was on the second team.
Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, who turns 79 today, received 45 of the 65 first-place votes for The Associated Press coach of the year.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report. Chico Harlan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1227.)