We forget that Joe Paterno is nearing 60 years old. He still wears the conservative-cut blue suits that look tailor-made, and his hair is still mostly black and wavy. And there's no hint of excess flab. For all we know, there's a portrait sitting on his desk that shows the age lines that surely must accompany 35 years coaching football. But Paterno, himself, still looks young and hard.
Even so, Paterno -- who until very recently often was referred to as "Young Joe" -- will begin his 20th season as head coach of Penn State this Saturday in College Park. He'll turn 59 in December, and the thought did cross his mind last winter that the song might be over.
"After the season was over, before I went out recruiting, I wanted to make sure of what I was going to do. I didn't want some kid to ask me, 'Well, how long are you going to be around, Coach?' and I not have an answer for him. I didn't want to say to our kids, 'Yeah, I'll be around,' then get out of here," Paterno said recently.
"I wanted to make sure I wasn't conning myself, so I sat down and tried to analyze a couple of things about myself. I spent a couple of days thinking it over. Then I sat down and talked to my family, I said, 'Hey, I had been looking forward to spending a little more time with everybody, and having a different routine. If I stay in it, I can't do those things.'
"And they kind of laughed at me and said, 'What do you think we are, crazy?' And that was pretty much it. They didn't think I could just walk away."
He couldn't. The introspection that he carried out and reconfirmation that he was seeking -- that he was doing what he should be -- seem to have propelled Paterno into the 1985 season. Certainly, he has nothing to prove. Since 1966, when he became head coach at Penn State, Paterno's teams have gone undefeated three times, compiled an 11-4-1 record in bowl games, won seven of eight games on New Year's Day (including a national championship in 1982) and finished in the top 10 thirteen times in 19 seasons. Among those who have coached at least 12 years, Paterno's winning percentage of 80.1 (176-43-2) places him 10th in college football history.
Yet one of Paterno's best friends -- Jim Tarman, the director of athletics at Penn State -- says, "He seems more driven this year than ever. I've never seen him as intense as he was last spring. He's challenging everybody: his friends, the team trainers, me, townspeople. He's so intense now it's like touching a hot stove.
"At first I started thinking, 'This isn't the guy I used to know.' But he's starting over because of what happened last year."
Last year the Nittany Lions finished with a 6-5 record, their worst since Paterno's rookie year, and didn't go to a bowl game for the first time since 1970.
"He was so intense in the spring, I wondered if it was strain or pressure, or part of Joe's game plan," Tarman said. "But he never does anything related to football that isn't planned . . .
"I guess I was concerned . . . I was hoping the strain wouldn't get to him at this stage. But the fact that he can get himself up again, well that takes a 'young' guy.
"It's hard for me to believe this guy everybody called 'That young coach at Penn State' is suddenly the dean of college football coaches, or just about, and threatening 60 years old. He's still the picture of vitality and youth."
Part of the reason Paterno seems so young is that he seems to be everywhere, on every front, being quoted on how to stop cheating in recruiting, on educational reforms, on the exploitation of an "entire generation" of young black football players by white institutions.
Paterno makes waves. He said he took a stand because, "It was getting to the point where athletics were just an end to itself; there wasn't much educational value."
Sometimes people get upset about his stances on education and call them "self-serving." Rogers Alexander, a linebacker from DeMatha high school, said, "I hear it all the time. People say, 'He doesn't care as much as he says he does.' "
Paterno said he doesn't care what the critics say. "I turned down a lot of professional offers (New England Patriots, Los Angeles Raiders and Pittsburgh Steelers among them) because I didn't want to get into anything that was just entertainment, just football," he said. "To me, football's just an opportunity to teach 'em something they're not going to learn anyplace else in the university. I still believe that."
It's not just that he believes, but that he speaks. "I've always had an opinion," Paterno said. "There were times when I was reluctant to speak, but there comes a confidence -- when you have some success -- to take some stands publicly."
And largely for that reason, Paterno has become a full-scale public figure, much like Georgetown's John Thompson, whom Paterno candidly admires. Paterno once was described as "near the intersection of Vince Lombardi, William Sloane Coffin, Thomas Aquinas and Shelly Berman; the coach as authoritarian leader, libertarian educator, conservative scholar and stand-up comic."
That's a complex assessment of a man whose players call him "Joe."
"It does sound strange for a man so great, who is like royalty in some circles, to be called "Joe" by a 20-year-old," Alexander said. "But it's not like 'Hey, buddy,' There's a certain affection that comes along with saying 'Joe.' That's the way he wants it. It makes it more comfortable in a working environment. But we know the hierarchy."
Paterno has worked Alexander and the rest of the Nittany Lions extremely hard this preseason. A man who wins 80 percent of his games for 20 years doesn't take real kindly to being 6-5.
"One of the things I felt I didn't do very well, is that I would go into the office and get upset very easily when something didn't go right, forgetting the fact that the day that everything goes right is the unusual," Paterno said. "I had to be convinced that I could (again) enjoy going in there with some problems and try to enjoy starting to rebuild the whole program."
Tarman says it's rare that a man who has been through so much can retain the vigor that Paterno is putting into this "rebuilding."
"He's stirring the pot, mentally," Tarman says. "So much time has passed. He can't be 'Young Joe' Paterno, still. But you look at him and hear him, and you figure, 'Maybe he is.' "