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Joe Eternal: Lion King for life

Sometime in 2019, the holographic Inquirer that beams directly onto the tabletop in your breakfast nook will feature a story about Joe Paterno's frozen head coaching Penn State football from a cryogenics lab in Phoenix.

Sometime in 2019, the holographic Inquirer that beams directly onto the tabletop in your breakfast nook will feature a story about Joe Paterno's frozen head coaching Penn State football from a cryogenics lab in Phoenix.

"We're taking Obama A&M very seriously," JoePa's head will be quoted as saying. "As I was telling Ted Williams' head just a few minutes ago, the Fightin' Presidentes can not be taken lightly."

Meanwhile, the press and the Ultranet message boards and MSBs (mainstream bloggers) will be abuzz with speculation about whether Paterno's head will retire at the end of the 2020 season and who might succeed him if he does.

This not-so-futuristic picture snapped into immediate focus last night, as news of Paterno's three-year contract extension hit. At 81, Paterno has more job security than Andy Reid, Charlie Manuel and, well, everybody else in the worst U.S. economy most of us younger than JoePa care to remember.

The question that springs immediately to mind is this: What in the heck does this mean?

The answer that springs immediately to mind is this: Joe Paterno is going to coach Penn State football for as long as he lives, if not longer.

There are people who will cheer this information and embrace the aged, ageless JoePa as a freak of human nature. He's the man who put Penn State football on the map and, it follows, Penn State football will remain on the map as long as Paterno is the coach.

There are people who will abhor this new deal as fresh proof that Penn State, somewhere in the Middle Ages perhaps, signed a deal in blood with the Devil to keep Beaver Stadium packed - and furthermore, that the Devil wears white socks, black shoes and unfashionably enormous spectacles.

What is indisputable now that Paterno's team has gone 11-1, flirted with BCS championship consideration and earned a trip to the Rose Bowl, is that JoePa is an utter and complete American original. He's as one-of-a-kind as Bob Dylan, Maya Angelou or Jack Nicholson. Comparing Paterno to another college football coach is like comparing Alfred Hitchcock to the guy who made the Saw movies.

Maybe the most delightful aspect of all this is that Mr. No Frills/Black Shoes/Tradtional Values has become a kind of subversive figure through his sheer refusal to take his place with the old folks. You get the feeling the Penn State Establishment would love to divorce itself from Paterno and from the football program's on-campus chicanery of the last few years. Not so long ago, when the Nittany Lions were going 3-9 and 4-7, you got the feeling Paterno was on the verge of being gracefully nudged out of his job.

Now the Nits are 11-1 and JoePa is doing all the nudging, thank you very much.

Really, it would be a great story if some young, up-and-coming hotshot had been hired after the 2003 team went 3-9 and had taken the program to its current lofty heights. It would have been a great story like 100 other great stories in college sports.

But this guy? The cranky old guy who chases students around campus hollering about their driving habits? This guy is going to pull the program out of its mid-2000s tailspin and turn it into a contender for the national championship?

What is this, a George Burns film project? The sequel to Oh, God?

Penn State announced two things yesterday: Paterno's contract extension and the signing of quarterback Kevin Newsome, a blue-chip recruit who could have gone to Virginia Tech or, well, anywhere he wanted.

If you think these two things are coincidental, you do not follow college football.

Paterno is, in the parlance of our times, the brand. Penn State football is only attractive, in the minds of a number of top players, because the legendary old-school coach is stalking the sideline (or, when he's hurting, sitting up in the press box).

Think about it. You're a superstar high school football player being recruited by 50 clones in $1,000 suits and Vince Lombardi. Some percentage - apparently enough to go 11-1 in the Big Ten and play Southern Cal in the Rose Bowl - are going to choose the singular icon over the cookie-cutter junior sales execs.

It was pure theater, the clause in the contract that allows the university to shorten or lengthen the deal at its discretion. Somebody somewhere in the hierarchy saved face with that bit of lawyering.

The bottom line is that Joe Paterno was Penn State football, Joe Paterno is Penn State football and Joe Paterno will be Penn State football until he gets tired of it. Or he departs this mortal coil. Or his head is shipped off to the Phoenix lab where Ted Williams awaits the chance to hit .400 again.

He has outcoached many. Turns out Joe Paterno will outlive us all.