LOS ANGELES -- Joe Paterno has long defied his age, but there was a time earlier this season when Penn State's venerable, 82-year-old coach was not looking well. Carrying a cane and ailing from a hip injury sustained during preseason practice, Paterno was in serious pain -- and it was painful to watch. At a postgame news conference following his team's 13-6 win at Ohio State on Oct. 25, I literally looked away because it was too hard to watch just how difficult it was for him to descend the two steps from the podium. (He needed assistance and braced himself against the wall.)
But then Paterno had hip-replacement surgery the day after the Nittany Lions' Nov. 22 regular-season finale against Michigan State, and at his Rose Bowl press conferences here Tuesday and Wednesday, you would never know anything was ever wrong. JoePa doesn't just look physically better; he seems completely reenergized and spirited, cracking jokes like he used to, an observation USC counterpart Pete Carroll affirmed after the two teams' staffs had dinner together Tuesday night.
"Coach Paterno was fired up," said Carroll. "He was telling stories all night long about former coaches or players or games, and you can tell that he has tremendous love for what he's doing. He's a remarkable person to be able to carry this kind of spirit for so long through his career. He might be the living image of Benjamin Button."
Paterno may know his football, but he's not quite the pop-culture buff. Asked later about Carroll's theatrical reference, Paterno said, "I've seen two movies in the last 40 years. ... I'm sure Pete meant it in a very nice way. And I'm going write him a note and tell him thanks."
Sadly, Paterno hasn't quite recovered enough to spend the second Rose Bowl game of his 43-year career on the field. After testing himself without the use of his golf cart during practice the past two days, Paterno said Wednesday he'll once again coach from the press box. He still gets tired after standing for too long.
"I don't think I can handle three-and-a-half, four hours on the sideline," he said. "I told Pete five or six days ago, 'I think I'm probably going to go upstairs, but if you would agree not to throw the ball more than 15, 18 times, if we can get that game over in less than three hours, I might be on the sideline.' "
Penn State recently announced a new three-year contract for Paterno, squashing months of speculation that this would be his final season. Hard as it may be to believe, after being around him this week and talking to his players about him, it actually seems feasible he could fulfill the three years. Yes, he has his senior moments (referencing a 2005 loss to Michigan, Paterno referred to former Wolverines receiver Steve Breaston as "the kid from Western Pennsylvania"), but nothing you wouldn't excuse from an 82-year-old man.
Remember, it was only four years ago that Paterno seemed down to his last days, having suffered four losing seasons in five years. The fact he and his staff have turned things around so dramatically and led the Nittany Lions to two BCS berths in four years is nearly as remarkable -- though obviously nothing can come close to matching Paterno's ever-astounding longevity.