SAN ANTONIO, Texas - Forty-two down and at least one more to go.
Penn State coach Joe Paterno put the turbulent, exhausting 2007 season in the books yesterday - one day after the Nittany Lions clipped Texas A&M, 24-17, in the Alamo Bowl - when he met with the press for an intimate interview.
After the conquest, the 500th game and 23d bowl win of his career, Paterno said the past season was one of the most trying of his 42-year head coaching stint at Penn State. He reiterated that statement before a roomful of reporters yesterday.
"It's been a very difficult year for me . . . obviously, physically," Paterno said, referring to the leg injury he suffered last season. "I'm still fighting some bumps and bruises. I get tired."
But as the 81-year-old icon knows full well, there isn't much time for rest and getting back into shape - at least until recruiting for the 2008 class is over. And then there are more pressing concerns, namely Paterno's contract situation, his retaining his coaching staff, and naming a possible successor.
However, Paterno didn't seem the least bit anxious about the fact that the four-year contract extension he agreed to before the 2004 season expires in almost one year. In fact, he said he didn't plan to approach Penn State president Graham Spanier or director of athletics Tim Curley about adding years to the deal, since he said he plans to coach for up to maybe five years.
"I've never went to the university
Paterno said. "But they've come to me the last couple of years."
Still, with one assistant coach already departed and the possibility of others entertaining offers to go elsewhere, Paterno admitted that keeping his aides is of the utmost importance. For someone like defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, that could mean either setting in place his eventual transition into the head job or giving him the assistant head coach title that Paterno once gave former offensive coordinator Fran Ganter.
Paterno, though, said he's in no hurry.
"When I think it's time, I'll sit down with Curley and say, 'Hey, this is the way you're going.' I've got to protect my staff," Paterno said. "But I don't want to set it now. I don't want to tie his hands or anyone's."
Some Penn State observers believe Paterno hasn't endorsed a successor because he wants his son, Jay, to succeed him. Jay Paterno, the quarterbacks coach and a frequent offensive play-caller, is often the source of ire from fans unhappy with the Lions' recent mediocrity.
"He's got the ability to be a head coach," Paterno said. "But I don't think Penn State would be a good place for him now. That's tough."
On the field, after consecutive 9-4 seasons, there's reason to think next season could return the Lions to prominence. They return perhaps 19 starters, including both kickers, and have Paterno talking national championship.
"I always feel that way," Paterno said. "That should be our goal, that we're in the hunt."
Coming into the 2007 season, some college football watchers had Penn State as an under-the-radar team to watch in the national-title picture. But back-to-back September losses to Michigan and Illinois doomed those hopes, and then a number of off-the-field incidents gave the team a national profile, but for dubious reasons.
On the same early October weekend, running back Austin Scott was accused of sexual assault and a dozen or so players were involved in an on-campus fight. The events compounded an off-season that involved an April off-campus fight and several arrests for underage drinking.
Paterno said he needed to fine-tune the behavior message to his players.
"I've got to sit down and break some kids in and do some things and talk to them about the whole bit," Paterno said. "It's unfortunate. They have to understand that it's a different world. They get more attention. They get more people talking about them."
With increased media attention, Paterno is fully aware that his program is under closer scrutiny. Even his recent involvement in a traffic dispute made headlines. It's one reason Paterno prefers to scale down his news conferences. Twice last week, he forbade photographers from snapping shots during his interviews. Yesterday, he barked at any reporter who put a tape recorder on the table near him.
It's a wonder why Paterno would want to continue to coach, not only at his age but also with mounting off-the-field problems magnified by the increased glare of the media in the digital age he so dislikes. He admitted that the thought of retirement did recently cross his mind once or twice.
"I'd be dishonest if I didn't say every once in a while, 'Hey, wouldn't it be nice if I would sit on my backside someplace down in the Bahamas,' " Paterno said. "But then I think, 'How long can you sit on your backside in the Bahamas?' "