STATE COLLEGE — Though the fans chanted his name as the clock ticked down to roses, the lone face missing from the on-field celebration was Joe Paterno himself.
The 81-year-old coach’s right hip again confined him to the booth during the game and kept him waiting in the locker room with the Big Ten championship trophy while his players celebrated on the field.
A field Paterno didn’t set foot on all afternoon. But one he vowed to return to.
Though he likely faces hip replacement surgery in the next week and his contract expires after Penn State’s trip to the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day, Paterno has no plans of retiring.
At a Friday night pep rally, Paterno announced to a packed crowd at Penn State’s Rec Hall that he plans to return for the 2009 season, where he will “run out of that tunnel” once again.
He reiterated that sentiment after his Nittany Lions won the Big Ten title on Saturday, with Penn State President Graham Spanier and athletic director Tim Curley standing not 10 yards away.
“I’m planning on coming back, yeah,” Paterno said. “I never planned otherwise. Everyone’s making a big deal that I don’t have a contract signed. I’ve never even asked to do that. I’ll sit down some time in the next couple weeks with Tim Curley, President Spanier, and say, ’Hey, what do you think of this, what do you think of that, what are we going to do,’ and that kind of thing.
“So when I talk to a high school kid, I can be honest with them. Right now, I have no plans to leave. We’ll see what happens.”
Paterno had previously mentioned that he was eager to get out on the road and recruit after the season.
But up first will likely be surgery, perhaps as soon as this week. Paterno hinted a week ago that he will likely need to get his right hip replaced after reportedly injuring it while demonstrating an onside kick in practice early in the year.
He acknowledged that an operation is imminent, but wouldn’t give any further details.
“Ah, let’s talk about the football team,” Paterno said. “All right? For crying out loud, you just saw a bunch of guys play a heck of a football game and you guys are worried about if they’re gonna stick a needle in me. ... I don’t know. We’re gonna get it done this week, probably. In fact, I’m sure we’ll get it done this week.
“But if I say I’m gonna go at this time or that time, there’ll be 50 people waiting for me at the (hospital) to get in there. A three-ring circus. And I don’t need that.”
Players said Paterno had been very emotional at a squad meeting on Friday, getting choked up at times while addressing the seniors and what they had brought to the program.
Most of those seniors had dealt with the annual season-ending rumors about Paterno’s future for four or five years and this year was no different.
It all added up to a significant moment for another senior class that the coach was able to see all the way through.
“He’s seen it all, the highs and the lows,” senior linebacker Tyrell Sales said. “For him to show his emotion, it’s really heartfelt. And as a group, it’s pretty emotional for us as well. Looking around, there were guys a little red in the eyes. And that’s just how much we mean to him and how much this whole team and this program means to all of us.”
“Joe is not a coach. Joe might as well be a professor. He’s an educator,” his son, quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno said. “He’s a guy who’s trying to get people ready for life and that’s how he’s been his whole career.
“I think when you talk to our kids 10 years, 20 years down the road ... the older you get, the smarter he gets. The more you live, the more you see that son of a gun’s right.”