As if to add to the retro feel, Penn State's sports marketing folks set up a good, old-fashioned press conference for Paterno and a small group of reporters at the Lettermen's Lounge at Beaver Stadium Thursday.
In an event that harkened back to Paterno's intimate discussions with beat writers around a conference table at Toftrees in the early to mid 1980s, only a handful of media types (15, to be exact) were on hand Thursday, all but one of them writers. After a light lunch at which Paterno went from table to table making small talk, he settled back into a brown leather chair and fielded questions for 90 straight minutes.
The theme of the day was supposed to be his pending induction into the Hall of Fame, and indeed Paterno spent much of the press conference reflecting on his life and career.
“I'm indebted to college football,” he said. “I appreciate what college football has been able to do for me. … [The Hall of Fame induction] is a tribute to what college football can do for an individual.”
He repeatedly stated that he could have never gotten to where he is by himself, and thanked his family, his parents, his high school and college coaches, and the assistants who helped him turn Penn State into a national power.
But Paterno — without much prompting — also touched on the state of his program, how much longer he hopes to coach, what he believes are the prospects for the Nittany Lions in 2008, what if any changes he expects to his staff following PSU's upcoming bowl game and the release of his salary figures.
The 80-year-old also went out of his way at the end of the press conference to ask reporters to be fair in their coverage of some of the off-field issues that have hampered the program in the past year, saying “We're not perfect, and I'm not about to tell you I have a bunch of angels. But I have a good bunch of kids.” He added that four or five “are jerks now, but they are young and they're not going to be jerks forever. They'll grow up.”
Time and again, though, he reflected back on his career.
“Penn State has been the middle of the whole thing,” Paterno said. “I think it's been a great trip for me.”
Here is a breakdown of some of the timely topics Paterno addressed:
• On what he is telling recruits now regarding his future (2008 is the final year of his current contract): “I can say I'm going to be the coach here this year, next year — maybe three years.” At other points of the press conference, he said he hopes to go, “three, four, five years,” if his health holds up. When it is time for a change — and he said he has not thought that far ahead — “All the positive things that are here are still going to be here when I leave.”
• Earlier in the press conference, Paterno suggested that the next head coaching change should be like the last one, the implication being he would like his current staff to remain a part of the program. But he also said he is not sure if he will be asked to help pick the next coach. “This place has been great to me, and whatever happens when it happens, I want to make sure I'm fair.”
• On how he would like to go out: Paterno joked when he said, “I think the perfect ending is you drop dead at the end of the game after you kick the winning field goal. And they carry you off the field, and everyone is singing, 'So long Joe, you've been wonderful.' "
• Paterno spent a lot of time talking about Bear Bryant. He told some funny stories, parts of which were off the record. But the most telling moment was when he said this: "When you guys talk about retiring, I've often thought about, when he left and didn't have anything else to do … he was dead in, what, six months, a year later?" Several reporters said it was closer to six weeks.
• On Penn State's 8-4 regular season: “I thought we'd be better this year. We should have been a 10-2 team this year but we weren't,” he said. “We didn't do a couple things in a couple of games.” He later said he blamed himself more than anyone for coming up short in certain games.
• On his outlook for the 2008 season: “I think we should be right in the thick of things next year for the national title.”
• On the off-field problems that the program has dealt with this year, including two well-publicized fights that resulted in criminal charges being filed: “Some people want to make it look like we are a bunch of bums.” He added that there were fights, but there were “no guns, no knives.” Paterno said in years past, police would call him when a player got into minor trouble, and he would take the athlete to his own house, put him in bed, and then wake him up at 5 a.m. and make him run sprints. “It's all a public event now,” he explained. But he repeatedly said, “We have good kids.” He admitted that he has to do a better job of developing leaders to help keep the younger players in line.
• On whether the staff will stay intact after this season: “I have no indication anyone is leaving. I think we're all right. But I couldn't promise you.” Later, he said keeping the staff together, “Is the biggest job I have” at the moment.
• On Penn State's likely bowl destination: “I don't know. I'm still trying to figure it out. I've been on the phone this morning. I was on [athletic director Tim] Curley's back all day yesterday.”
• On his salary, which has long been kept secret but was recently released ($512,664 per year) thanks to a Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision: “I'm paid well. I'm not overpaid. I have all that I need.” He added that what he clears is more than the figure that was released due to money he earns outside of his university salary. He also said his one financial concern is making sure his 16 grandchildren all have a safety net provided something happens to their parents. Then, after talking about how much money DOESN'T mean to him, he laughed and said, “Don't get me wrong; I have not taken a vow of poverty.”