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Jan. 2, 2010
ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) -His health is fine, his contract is secure and his players stayed out of trouble.
Joe Paterno just wrapped up a season relatively free of non-football issues that could distract him from the job he's had a record 44 years - head coach at Penn State.
"Maybe we're just doing a better job of trying to cover it up," Paterno quipped Saturday, drawing chuckles during his annual end-of-season session with reporters.
The round-table meeting is a glimpse at Paterno at his most relaxed, a brief respite before the calendar begins anew when he returns to Happy Valley to concentrate on recruiting.
The campaign began five months ago with the anticipation of JoePa's return to the sideline after spending most of 2008 in the press box with a balky hip.
It ended with Paterno pacing the soggy turf at the Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium, leading the No. 11 Nittany Lions (11-2) to their best victory of the year in beating No. 13 LSU 19-17 at the Capital One Bowl.
The hip is fine, Paterno said Saturday, though he's a bit tired from the nonstop schedule this year. A revised academic calendar, plus a lack of a bye week, wore out players and coaches and made bowl prep a challenge.
"It was not easy," Paterno said. "This is one of the toughest ballgames that we've ever had to prepare for because" of final exams.
Paterno won his 24th bowl game in his 36th appearance - both records - and won his record 394th game overall.
The extension signed at the end of 2008 keeps him under contract another two seasons. Paterno, who turned 83 on Dec. 21, is a dinosaur in the coaching ranks for his longevity, especially now that Bobby Bowden has stepped down at Florida State.
Paterno called the 80-year-old Bowden a "great asset to college football" and recalled a conversation in which the Hall of Famers discussed setting up a series at neutral sites.
Bowden's suggestion wasn't quite neutral enough for Paterno.
"I said, 'What are you thinking about?' and he said, 'Jacksonville,"' a smiling Paterno recounted.
Bowden ended his career five wins behind Paterno for most victories among major college coaches, and was replaced by Jimbo Fisher, who was already on Bowden's staff as the eventual successor.
Don't look for a such a publicized succession plan any time soon at Penn State, even though JoePa's staff includes longtime assistants like defensive coordinator Tom Bradley who could ease into a head position.
"I've said many times, that's not the way to do it. ... It wouldn't be the way to do it at Penn State," Paterno said.
It should be noted, though, that Paterno got the Penn State job after 16 years as an assistant at the school.
Paterno's time-tested formula includes a focus on finding recruits with character who don't want to shirk academics. Penn State's graduation success rate for football players is 85 percent, trailing only Northwestern's 92 percent in the Big Ten, according to the NCAA.
This year's senior captains, linebacker Sean Lee and quarterback Daryll Clark, might have been the perfect examples of Paterno's blueprint. Lee was the finance major with a polished and polite off-field demeanor.
Clark, who struggled with academics early on, got his grades on track and transformed into the charismatic and record-setting face of the offense. Coach and quarterback had such good interactions that the 23-year-old senior often called Paterno his friend.
Not to say that Penn State players don't run into trouble at times. The program went through a particularly rough patch off the field from the spring of 2007 through the first half of the 2008 season.
"You guys made too much out of the problems we've had," Paterno said. "They're not that bad ... that didn't affect my attitude about whether I enjoyed coaching or not."
The drive and determination don't appear to have waned after all these decades. Barring major health concerns, Paterno seems to have the energy to remain on the sideline well into the new decade.
Just give Paterno a break before asking him about 2010. With several key seniors like Clark and Lee done, next season might be a rebuilding campaign.
"Oh geez, you guys," the coach lamented. "I got about four hours sleep last night and you're talking to me about rebuilding a team?"