Sans cane, 82-year-old Paterno roams sidelines for spring drills
Penn State coach Joe Paterno on hand Friday for PSU's spring practice
Paterno underwent hip surgery four months ago but deemed himself healthy
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) -- The glasses were thick and smoky, and the Nike sneakers were as jet-black as ever.
Yup, Joe Paterno's back. No cane in sight, the 82-year-old Hall of Famer paced the Penn State practice field Friday, the second day of spring drills.
Four months after hip replacement surgery, Paterno pronounced himself back at 100 percent, with the continued goal of returning to the sideline when the season opens this fall. Paterno spent the last eight games of the 2008 campaign coaching from the press box.
"I feel great. I'm not sure about from the neck up, but from the neck down, I'm OK," he joked before practice in his first meeting with reporters since the Rose Bowl. "I'm fine, really. That's a dead issue."
As for the Rose Bowl, that's a different story.
The 38-24 loss to Southern California on Jan. 1 made for bitter offseason memories in the minds of the Big Ten champions.
"Absolutely," Paterno quickly replied when asked if the loss lingered over the winter. "We didn't play well, we didn't coach well. I walked away from it not feeling good about anything. I think we can do better."
No break for the returning players when they returned to Happy Valley. They went right into what fifth-year linebacker Sean Lee described as one of the toughest winter workout regimens he's been through in his career.
"We want to get back to a situation like that, if not better," said Lee, who missed last season because of a right knee injury.
To do so, though, Paterno will need to patch many holes. Just five starters return on offense and four on defense. The entire secondary must be replaced.
Paterno has been especially fond in the past of using the spring to shuttle younger players into different positions to see if they're a better fit elsewhere.
"I think we got a lot of work ahead of us, but I don't think it's situation where we can't be a good football team," he said.
Gone, at least, is last spring's drama about Paterno's expiring contract, a distraction that hung around the program until JoePa and the university finalized a three-year extension last December.
Now, the focus is seemingly just on football as Paterno heads into his record 44th season as head coach, and his 60th on the Penn State staff counting his days as an assistant.
There's a solid footing of leaders next year with Lee back from injury and quarterback Daryll Clark ready to take charge on offense.
Another key returnee is defensive line assistant coach Larry Johnson, who interviewed for the Illinois defensive coordinator job but ended up staying at Penn State. Paterno said he had been worried about losing Johnson, one of his top recruiters, but told him he didn't need to be a coordinator to eventually take a head-coaching job.
Paterno also weighed in on the situation facing his friend and Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden, who may have to forfeit as many as 14 of his 382 career wins as part of NCAA sanctions over an academic cheating scandal. JoePa is the leader for victories among major college coaches with 383.
Florida State has accepted some of the NCAA sanctions, but has said it will appeal the punishment to strip the school of victories.
"I don't think that should have anything to do with Bobby's record. I don't think Bobby had much to do with what happened," Paterno said when asked if he had spoken to Bowden. "I just hope people don't distort what a great coach Bobby Bowden has been, which he has been."
Otherwise, an affable Paterno traded his usual friendly jabs with reporters, and put a pitch in for the Penn State basketball team. He plans to watch the Nittany Lions in New York when they play Notre Dame in the NIT semifinals.
A native New Yorker, Paterno said he played basketball in the old Madison Square Garden in high school, and told stories of watching big men like George Mikan play there in the NIT.
Then, hamming for the camera, Paterno displayed his free-throw technique from his youth -- a two-handed underhand shot that started between his knees.
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