PHILADELPHIA – The 18th-century English poet Edward Young probably didn’t have Penn State coach Joe Paterno in mind when he wrote, “All men think all men mortal but themselves.”

You have to wonder, though.

“I’ve been up since 4:30 this morning,” Paterno said while taking occasional sips from a cup of coffee during a recent interview in Chicago. “I still get by on five hours sleep. I walked six miles yesterday and the day before, up and down hills, 85 degrees, you know. I don’t feel like an old man, but you guys (in the media) want to make me an old man.”

The start of practice on Monday marks Paterno’s 40th season as Penn State’s head coach; he joins Amos Alonzo Stagg as the only head coach to reach four decades at the same school. Paterno will be 79 in December, and his contract takes him past his 82nd birthday.

Although he has joked that perhaps he is the exception to the natural order of things, he offered a rare moment of reflection when he said: “There are a lot of people my age who are gone, a lot of people who helped get me where I am, so, yeah, it gets tougher in that respect.

“That’s the hard part. It’s not the coaching. The coaching is easy because you enjoy it and you know how to handle it. Even the recruiting I enjoy. But, yeah, every now and then, when I’m restless at night, you sit back and think about some things and you get a little nostalgic.”

It may seem crazy to suggest this may be the most important season of Paterno’s career, but look at the circumstances surrounding him. The Nittany Lions are 26-33 the last five years, 16-24 in the Big Ten Conference, with one bowl appearance and four losing seasons. Last season, their offense was futile enough to make national news.

To the bottom-liners, those grim numbers are evidence that Paterno’s time has passed, that he’s become a detriment to the program he built. “That’s natural,” he said. “But it doesn’t bother me. That doesn’t mean I don’t second-guess myself, but it’s never on what certain people think.”

Privately, some members of the administration worry that another losing season might make it impossible for Paterno to leave the job with dignity. They worry because they know how unseemly it could look to force out a man who arguably has done as much as anyone to transform Penn State from a regional agricultural school to a nationally respected university.

There is apparently no plan for succession because Paterno steadfastly insists he has no plans to retire. Instead, he has dug in his heels, determined to return Penn State to prominence.

Some believe it’s Paterno’s ego that won’t allow him to step aside. “It’s hard for me to explain but I don’t have an ego,” he said. “I don’t have an ego. It’s not about me.”

Others worry that he’s tarnishing his legacy.

Why does Paterno go on? It’s probably no more complicated than the fact he loves his job and is still physically able to do it. Despite his age, he’s a high-energy man who maintains a schedule that would wilt many who are much younger.

Some look forward to retirement. Some don’t think much about it. Some fear it. Where does Paterno stand on the issue? As is often the case with Paterno, he offered a circumspect answer.

“I think you get to a certain point in your life or your career where a lot of things have a bearing on how you feel about (retirement),” he said, alluding to mounting personal responsibilities. “If you said to me that I could take everything else out of my life, some of the problems, then I could coach 10 more years if I could. But that’s not the way it goes.

“But I feel healthy. I like the kids. I like to get on the field. I enjoy being around them. I get up in the morning and I get a pad and a pencil and start thinking maybe we should put this guy here or this guy there. I look at who we’re going to play on tape – those things are fun for me.

“Now, if you say to me how do you adjust that with a lot of other things that have happened – friends who are dying, family you feel you have an obligation to, then at my age it starts to chip away at your ability to concentrate on just football. So it’s difficult to answer that question.

“If I could just somehow handle all the other things that go with the fact that so many people who have helped me over the past 50 years at Penn State, some of who are gone, some who need help, and still have enough time to be able to direct my attention on football, then retirement is not even an option to me.”

Judging from the reaction of his players, it’s difficult to argue that Paterno doesn’t relate to the current generation of athletes. Senior cornerback Alan Zemaitis said he dismisses all criticism of Paterno.

“There’s something called respect,” Zemaitis said. “I just don’t know where people get off bad-mouthing him.”

Senior quarterback Michael Robinson, whose career to now remains unfulfilled because of the way Paterno has bounced him from one position to another, said it’s unfair to criticize Paterno based on his record of recent years.

“I get upset when I read or hear people criticize him because I feel like they’re talking about my dad,” Robinson said. “He’s influenced my life in so many positive ways, in ways that don’t take into account wins and losses. I think that’s more important. He’s not just coaching football. He’s coaching life. Some of the things he tells us, we’ll carry with us in the years to come, and we’ll pass them on to our kids and maybe they’ll even pass them on to their kids.”

Offering an example of how Paterno remains involved with his players, Robinson told of the big “S” on the carpet in the middle of the locker room. Any player who steps on the “S” must do push-ups.

“So Coach comes in and walks on the S and everybody hollers that he’s not supposed to do that and that he has to do push-ups,” Robinson said. “He said he couldn’t do push-ups anymore because he messed up his rotator cuff. Instead, he does sit-ups – 50 of them. I couldn’t believe it. It actually started to make us nervous. I’m thinking, “Please stop.’ But he did them.”

Robinson looked across a large room at Paterno and added: “I’m convinced that the fountain of youth is somewhere in Central Pennsylvania, and he found it.”

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