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Joe 'JoePa' Paterno not finished just yet
83-year old Joe 'JoePa' Paterno has been coaching college football for 43 years, but he's not ready to give it all up just yet.

83-year old Joe 'JoePa' Paterno has been coaching college football for 43 years, but he's not ready to give it all up just yet.

By Sean Nolan

If you have seen Pixar’s Up, then you know what Joe Paterno looks like.

‘JoePa’ is the arch-typical old man. Small, grouchy looking and possessing a giant pair of spectacles, the coach of Penn State looks like he should be spending his days playing bingo and bridge. Instead, the 83-year-old is preparing for his 44th season at the helm of one of the biggest names in college football.

Paterno makes Alex Ferguson look like a fresh-faced rookie. He has been on the coaching staff at Penn State since 1950, making him easily the longest serving coach in college football. In that time, he has won two national championships (1982 and 1986) and in his 44 years, he has only had six losing seasons.

College football, and basketball, are the nearest things the US has to the GAA. It is a fiercely local affair, with fans developing strong attachments to their nearest college side. It is also ostensibly amateur, but every aspect of the game is ruthlessly professional and it has a regional structure that is steeped in local rivalries.

It also has an even more complex system than the backdoor to decide who should reach the final rounds, so much so that even after the season ends, losing sides can have a legitimate claim to being the actual champions thanks to a dizzying array of ‘bowl games’. These create a whole raft of end-of-season winners.

Paterno has floated through all this complexity for a lifetime and is still coming up with wins. He needs six more to reach 400 as a head coach, a milestone that is infinitely more impressive than Alex Rodriguez’s 600 home runs.

More incredibly, his last five seasons have been among his most productive. In 2003, he won just three games and the following season he picked up just four, meaning Penn State didn’t make a bowl game for the second consecutive year, a disaster for the Nittany Lions.

The talk was that JoePa was too old and perhaps it was time to hang up his whistle. Speaking at the time Paterno said:

"This losing's for the birds. I didn't expect to end up a career with the way things are going. But I think we had to put some pieces together and we're on the verge of putting it all together."

Like all great coaches, he had the belief in his abilities as a manager and, crucially in college sports as a recruiter, to think that what he was doing was right and that results would eventually reflect that on the field.

So he went on, lost just one game in 2005 and won the Orange Bowl, one of the most prestigious of the Bowl Series games. He has made a bowl game every season since, winning three and losing just one, the 2009 Rose Bowl to the University of South California.

Paterno still roams the sidelines during games, even though in 2006 he was hit by an opposing player, injuring his knee.

In 2008, he damaged a hip trying to show players how to execute an on-side kick in training. That injury eventually required a hip replacement last December and confined him to coaching from the stands.

Heading into the 2010 season, Paterno looks a little frailer than he did in previous years. He has admitted that he delegates more responsibilities than he used to to his assistants. He has not visited a potential player’s home, a crucial aspect of the recruitment process of high school players, for over two years and he has promised to limit his media appearances this season.

But Paterno is stoic. Appearing at a recent mandatory media day he drawled in his Brooklyn accident:

"Please, don't ask if I'm going to die. Believe me; I got a few more days left."

Realistically Penn State should struggle to recreate their performances of recent seasons when it all kicks off in a few weeks. Paterno’s team are in what looks like a strong division this time, headed by Ohio State, with Iowa and Wisconsin also ranked ahead of them on the Big 10.

But we all remember the happy ending in Up, as the old man enjoyed one last adventure. Could JoePa claim one more national championship before heading off into the sunset? It would be a fitting end to a remarkable life in football.

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