Bernard Fernandez: Penn State's Paterno continues to bowl 'em over

ORLANDO, Fla. - Joe Paterno doesn't bother denying it anymore. He plans to cheat death as long as possible, and if it takes staying on the Penn State sideline until he's pushing 90 or even beyond, it's a bargain he'll gladly strike.

"I'm still having fun, and my health is good," Paterno, 83, said earlier this year when asked for the umpteenth time about his time frame for stepping away and enjoying a post-football life. "As long as I'm still enjoying it, why quit?"

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Penn State coach Joe Paterno talks with QB Daryll Clark.

Why indeed? In a profession that increasingly chews up and spits out coaches before they qualify for Social Security benefits, Paterno - whose current contract runs through the 2011 season - is the last vestige of a bygone era when legendary coaches stayed on the job for periods measured in decades, not merely years. Alabama's Bear Bryant, Ohio State's Woody Hayes and Oklahoma's Bud Wilkinson have long since crossed over into the great unknown. Bobby Bowden, 80, is being forced out at Florida State after he coaches the Seminoles against one of his former schools, West Virginia, in tomorrow's Gator Bowl.

With No. 11 Penn State (10-2) set to tangle with No. 13 Louisiana State (9-3) here in the Capital One Bowl tomorrow, Paterno's remarkable longevity - in comparison to the heart palpitating stress that is forcing Florida's Urban Meyer, who is only 45, to take an indefinite leave of absence - has stamped him as something more than the college game's last grand old man. He is more like a wrinkled, obstinant rock star unwilling to leave the stage, an Eric Clapton or Keith Richards of the X's-and-O's set. And once he's gone, friend and foe agree, his like will never be seen again.

Such is the legacy of a man who arrived in Happy Valley in 1950 as a 23-year-old assistant to Rip Engle. Paterno's idea was to coach for a couple of years until he saved up enough money to pay for law-school tuition. A reasonable plan, but one that was scrapped even before most American families owned their first television set. Paterno has remained on the job for 60 seasons, the past 44 as the leader of the program he has made over into his own tradition-encrusted image. Barring an unforeseen development - like the complete collapse of what figures to be a very young team in 2010 - JoePa, who has compiled a 393-129-3 record, should hit the 400-victory mark sometime next season.

"I remember going against Joe in 1993, when I was [an assistant coach] at Boston College," LSU offensive coordinator Gary Crowton recalled. "Even then I wondered how long he might go on. I'm still wondering."

LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis, asked a question about the staying power of Penn State offensive coordinator Galen Hall, himself a senior citizen of 69 who was Penn State's starting quarterback in 1960 and '62, gave an answer that applied even more to Hall's boss.

"It's a young man's game, but certainly there's still a place for coaches who want to stay in it a long time," Chavis said.

The thing is, most coaches don't stay in it long enough to put up anything close to Paternoesque numbers. Oh, sure, the pay is very good if you're winning big, but the toll of all those 16-hour work days and the relentless expectations of fans can put even the most successful coaches on the fast track to burnout. Just ask Dick Vermeil.

Asked what he does to avoid stress, Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, a former player for Paterno who is in his 31st season on his staff, laughed and said, "Coach doesn't have any stress. He creates stress."

Paterno also creates loyalty. The 10 assistant coaches on Paterno's staff have been with him a combined total of 160 years, with offensive-line coach Dick Anderson (32 seasons) and Bradley the longest-tenured.

LSU coach Les Miles, on the other hand, has a coaching staff whose nine members have been with him a total of just 12 seasons. Wide receivers coach Billy Gonzales (from Florida) and running backs coach Frank Wilson (from Tennessee) are the newbies, joining the Tigers after the conclusion of the regular season in November. Chavis, in his first season at LSU after a 14-year run at Tennessee, could soon be gone; he's being courted by Georgia.

Those who dismiss Paterno as a figurehead who leaves most of the heavy lifting to his veteran assistants miss the point. JoePa trained these guys and got them to buy into his system.

"Joe is Penn State," Daryll Clark, the Nittany Lions' senior quarterback, said when asked if he minded the amount of attention Paterno gets in relation to his players. "I've developed a strong rapport with him. He wants us to succeed in life and in the classroom as well as in football."

So Penn State stays the course set so long ago by the helmsman with the thick glasses and rolled-up trouser legs, an island of familiarity in a sea of change.

"When I say every Penn State team looks the same, I mean it as a compliment," Chavis said. "They might not be fancy, but they do what they do as well as anybody."

3 things to look for

* The condition of the chewed-up grass field at Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium could become a factor. "Bad turf always slows down fast players," judged LSU offensive coordinator Gary Crowton.

* With only one game remaining in his stellar Penn State career, figure on linebacker Sean Lee to play his heart out even more so than usual and to amass, oh, 15 tackles or so.

* LSU will become the 16th straight team to not have a running back rush for 100 or more yards against Penn State's suffocating run defense.

Prediction

LSU 24, Penn State 21. *

Send e-mail to fernanb@phillynews.com