NEW YORK - Penn State coach Joe Paterno had stayed up well past his usual bedtime the night before, and he thought he was coming down with a touch of the flu, so he probably felt he had a good excuse for missing the beginning of yesterday morning's news conference honoring the 14-member 60th anniversary class of the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame.
But if Paterno thought he could sneak unnoticed into his reserved seat at the end of the dais at the Waldorf-Astoria, he was mistaken. Legendary figures, not even the Nittany Lion variety, do not arrive in any room on little cat's paws.
"I saw JoePa come in and flashed back about 40 years, when he came to recruit me in Elizabeth, N.J.," said one of the inductees, former USC linebacker Richard Wood, who interrupted another speaker to call attention to Paterno's somewhat tardy entrance.
"I apologize for being 1 year and 20 minutes late," said Paterno, who was to have been inducted last year with his friend and fellow coaching icon, Florida State's Bobby Bowden. But Paterno was still recovering from the broken left leg he suffered last November when he was plowed under at Wisconsin by two players sailing out of bounds.
"I'm only sorry I wasn't here last year with Bobby Bowden, somebody I respect so much and who has done such a magnificent job at his school," Paterno said. "We've both been very fortunate to have had good health. But every once in a while you get a little sloppy on the sideline and let somebody run into you."
Truth be told, Paterno - who turns 81 on Dec. 21 - hadn't really delayed the inevitable by putting off this latest honor for a year. The Brooklyn, N.Y., native has been summoned here to receive awards so often by the National Football Foundation, this annual gathering of college football's best and brightest almost could be described as the Joe Paterno Invitational.
In introducing Paterno, NFF president Steve Hatchell read off a veritable laundry list of his accomplishments: Five times Coach of the Year . . . two national championships . . . 73 first-team All-Americans . . . 15 NFF Scholar-Athletes . . . 300-plus players who went on to the NFL, including seven College Football Hall of Famers.
And that doesn't even include the prestigious Gold Medal he and Bowden received in 2006, or the Distinguished American Award conferred upon him in 1991.
Not bad for an Ivy League kid with Coke-bottle glasses who hadn't even planned on a career in coaching.
Paterno's parents sent him to Brown University with the idea he'd become a lawyer, a respectable profession for a kid born in Brooklyn's gritty Bedford-Stuyvesant section. But Paterno's coach at Brown, Rip Engle, had another idea.
"When I got out of college, my dad wanted me to be a lawyer," Paterno recalled. "I only started coaching to save some money, so I could pay off some debts before I started Boston University Law School. But then I got hooked [on coaching]. I called my father up and said, 'Pop, I'm going to coach.' He said, 'Whatever you do, have an impact.' That's always been kind of in the back of my head.
"I think he'd be proud right now," Paterno said of his father, who passed away many years ago.
Paterno probably would have made a fine attorney - Lord knows, he has pleaded his case many times with stripe-shirted officials during games - but he doesn't mind admitting that he was not immediately a smash hit as a coach.
"The Ivy League had spring practice in those days," Paterno said. "Rip asked me to coach the freshman quarterback, because I had played quarterback. I did that. Then when [Engle] got the job at Penn State, he offered [an assistant's position] to a guy named Bill Doolittle. Bill decided to stay at Brown, so Rip asked me.
"I didn't know anything about coaching. I said, 'How do I start?' He gave me about six reels of the old 16-millimeter film. He said, 'Take them home, look at them, then come back to me with some questions.' Which I did. And then he sort of spoon-fed me. He was a great teacher."
Engle's prize pupil, who succeeded his mentor in 1966, has evolved into a professor of life as well as of football. The reception Penn State held for him Monday night was so packed, they almost could have booked Madison Square Garden.
"A tremendous turnout," Paterno said of a throng that included his five children, their spouses, his coaching staff, many of his former players and even some classmates from his old grammar school.
"It was really moving and emotional. [John] Cappelletti was there, Franco [Harris] was there, Lydell Mitchell was there, Greg Buttle was there. I didn't get to spend enough time with any of them. It was like holding court."
Paterno's schedule while here has been so pinched, in fact, that he was unable to bring his family members back to his old neighborhood. And make no mistake, although he's been away for these many years, New York is still home.
"I don't miss the city, except every once in a while in the springtime," Paterno said. "But being here is special. I'm a New Yorker. I'll always be a New Yorker. So, yeah, it's great to come back."
In addition to Joe Paterno and Richard Wood, other living inductees in the Hall of Fame's Class of 2007 include Oklahoma center Tom Brahaney, Clemson linebacker Jeff Davis, Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie, Texas defensive back Johnnie Johnson, Ohio State quarterback Rex Kern, Oregon wide receiver Ahmad Rashad, Indiana running back Anthony Thompson, Dartmouth linebacker Reggie Williams, Notre Dame defensive tackle Chris Zorich and Central Michigan coach Herb Deromedi. Houston defensive tackle Wilson Whitley and Michigan defensive back Dave Brown, who were inducted posthumously, were represented by their widows. *