When you've been "the old man" as long as 83-year-old Joe Paterno has, the inevitable concerns over health, longevity and succession fade into background noise. Reporters have been asking these questions for 20 years; the "How long does Joe Paterno have left?" column has been a staple for the last ten. Rumors of lingering health issues and recruiting malaise (JoePa has long ceased traveling off-campus to visit prospects) are an annual rite, and it didn't raise many eyebrows when both cropped up again this offseason. But Paterno's croaky appearance Monday at Big Ten media days certainly did:
Paterno's usual insistence that he's "feeling really good" and his (apparently ongoing) intestinal issues are "nothing very serious" didn't seem to persuade anyone in attendance. Former Nittany Lion quarterback Todd Blackledge admitted his old coach "spoke a little softer" and "wasn't as playful" or "vibrant" as usual. Even under a headline describes JoePa as "strong-willed," USA Today acknowledged that "it seems the sickness has taken a toll." The Harrisburg Patriot-News' David Jones compared the appearance to Paterno's livelier turns in the spring and pulled no punches: "(H)e is 83½ and for the first time he looks it."
All of which sounds very familiar. Paterno spent the entire second half of 2006 in the press box after breaking his leg on the sideline, and was upstairs again for nearly the entirety of the Nittany Lions' Big Ten title run in 2008, a season I labeled "The Paterno Farewell Tour." At the end of it, he signed a three-year contract extension.
The man is, by all appearances, an unusually high-functioning zombie, and seemingly content to go on indefinitely as a popular figurehead while offensive coordinator Tom Bradley and his other long-tenured assistants run the day-to-day. But this season will probably see more retreats to the press box, and more predictions that it will be Paterno's last. They have to be right eventually
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.