TODAY IS JOSEPH Vincent Paterno's 85th birthday. But this latest anniversary of his 1926 arrival on Earth is unlike any the longtime and now former Penn State football coach has ever experienced, and not seemingly much of an occasion for celebration.
By all rights, the winningest coach in Division I college football history should be doing what he had done 37 previous times at this time of year, which is preparing his Nittany Lions to play in a bowl game. That has become a near-annual rite of winter for the school he built into a perennial national power after he succeeded Rip Engle in 1966. But JoePa, who surpassed the late Eddie Robinson, of Grambling State, when he won his 409th game on Oct. 29, a 10-7 squeaker over Illinois in Beaver Stadium, won't be in Dallas on Jan. 2, when the 9-3 Lions take on 12-1 Houston in the TicketCity Bowl. He'll likely be in the same place he has been for most of these past 6 weeks, behind closed doors of his unpretentious McKee Street home in State College, within walking distance of his campus office.
Maybe Paterno would have been on the sofa in his living room anyway, given his Nov. 18 lung cancer diagnosis, and the refractured pelvis he suffered in a fall at his home only 23 days later. Maybe his longtime defensive coordinator, interim coach Tom Bradley, would be filling in for his mentor and role model in "historic" Cotton Bowl Stadium, which opened in 1929 and is 3 years younger than Paterno.
And, just maybe, JoePa's advancing age and declining health would have meant an end to his 46-year head-coaching career in Happy Valley, and to his 62 years in the program he has served since 1950, despite his expressed desire to lead the Lions into his 90s. No one, probably not even Paterno, expected him to last forever on the job with which he for so long has been instantly identifiable.
But no one - certainly not the throngs of admirers throughout the nation who celebrated the teacher and the humanitarian as much as the established winner - could have anticipated that his departure from that job would come under a cloud of scandal.
Just 5 days after the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse bombshell fell, Penn State's Board of Trustees fired the legendary Paterno. Thousands of students poured into the streets of State College to protest, even as some commentators and pundits were chipping away at Paterno's "Saint Joe" as fraudulent.
It might take months or years for all the facts to be made known about what Paterno did or did not know about Sandusky's alleged improprieties with underage boys. In the sort of rush to judgment that is so prevalent in today's microwave world, the court of public opinion already has ruled against Paterno.
Paterno's alma mater, Brown University, is in the process of removing his name from an award it has given annually to a first-year varsity student-athlete. The Big Ten went a step further, removing his name from its conference football championship trophy, which was awarded for the first time this year and is now dedicated solely to the memory of the late Amos Alonzo Stag. And Pennsylvania's U.S. senators, Republican Pat Toomey and Democrat Bob Casey Jr., withdrew their bipartisan nomination of Paterno for the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
You can count the Baltimore Chapter of the PSU Alumni Association among his admirers. It posted Paterno's home address on its website and was hoping he would receive 109,000 birthday cards, one for each seat in Beaver Stadium.
To Paterno's legion of admirers, those who would disassociate themselves from him so swiftly and without conclusive proof of wrongdoing on his part are guilty, if nothing else, of disloyalty to someone to whom that word is not merely an entry in the dictionary, but a code to live by.
It will be interesting to see how Paterno handles a future without football. He might have unintentionally described what lay ahead for him in August 2006, when, at 79, he spoke of climbing 2,070-foot Mount Nittany.
"When I got to the top, it was all right, but it was tough coming down," he said. "The old legs started going. I got almost all the way down when my right leg began to ache. One of my sons-in-law said, 'I don't know how many guys over 75 could do this.'
"I said, 'I ain't coaching against guys over 75.' "
The view atop Mount Nittany has been glorious to Paterno for ever so long. Now that he has been obliged to descend, one can only wonder what the world looks like to him.
But whatever he sees through his trademark glasses, here's hoping that the octogenarian birthday boy glimpses something lasting and of value, and not just the perception of an old man who perhaps looked away.