STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Joe Paterno is now peerless in his profession.
His friend and last remaining contemporary among major college football coaches, Bobby Bowden, retired after last season. With Bowden out at Florida State, the career victories record is pretty much Paterno's to keep — whether he cares about it or not.
Paterno knows he's in the twilight of his own Hall of Fame career at Penn State, but still gives no hint of exactly when that will come. These days, nobody seems to be itching to see Joe go.
At 83 years old, Paterno's health has become as closely watched as that of a pope — every hint of a limp analyzed, every slip-up with words parsed.
But at this point it makes no sense asking when Joe will go. His contract runs through 2011 for whatever that's worth. In the meantime, in case you didn't notice, the Nittany Lions are humming again, racking up wins (11 last year) and challenging for championships. And that still gets JoePa fired up.
"You like the competition," he said Thursday at Beaver Stadium. "If you don't like it, you ought to get out of it, that's the way I've always felt about it."
Paterno has 394 victories, while Bowden finished with 389 — minus 12 that were vacated by Florida State this year because of an academic cheating scandal.
The next milestone for Paterno is the 400-win club, a mark that only Eddie Robinson (408) and John Gagliardi (471) have reached. JoePa could get there by late October.
"You know, when I'm down and looking up, are they going to put 399 on top of me or are they going to put 401," Paterno asked at Big Ten media day in Chicago. "Who the hell cares? I won't know."
But the legion of blue and white fans are no doubt keeping track — and not just of wins and losses.
The health watch started in earnest in 2006 after Paterno tore left knee ligaments in a sideline collision with a player during a game at Wisconsin.
Early in the 2008 season, Paterno hurt his hip after trying to show his players how to execute an onside kick in practice. He needed hip replacement surgery in December — but only after leading the Nittany Lions to a Big Ten title and the Rose Bowl. Both the knee and hip injuries forced Paterno to coach from the press box.
Earlier this year, Paterno was able to shed his smoky thick-rimmed glasses after getting laser eye surgery. "Robo-coach," he was nicknamed by one of his staffers.
A new concern emerged this offseason after Paterno missed Big Ten meetings in May and three appearances before alumni groups around the state, stops typically part of his summer schedule.
The rumor mill churned anew. Was this really it for JoePa?
His spokesmen and family said Paterno was sidelined by a nagging intestinal bug. Paterno in June also told The Associated Press he had a second ailment after suffering an overreaction to antibiotics prescribed for dental work.
Speaking slightly slower and in a lower tone of voice the first day of Big Ten media days, Paterno pleaded he was just fine and ready for the season. He repeated as much in State College on Thursday.
"I have one request," he said to start off the news conference at the packed Beaver Stadium media room. "Please, don't ask if I'm going to die. Believe me, I got a few more days left."
His son and quarterbacks coach, Jay Paterno, watches the back-and-forth with some amusement. "It used to be they'd ask him when (was he) going to retire. Now they're asking when is he going to kick the bucket," he joked.
For his part, the younger Paterno hasn't noticed his father slowing down.
"It didn't concern me because I've been at the house with my kids. He's chased them ... I haven't seen that element of him slowing down," Jay Paterno said.
The boss, though, has said he's less of a hands-on coach on the field than he used to be, allowing his loyal assistants to do the bulk of that work — though Paterno is still known to pull a player aside for some face time if he's unhappy. Paterno said he prefers "to stick his two cents in" at staff meetings.
Paterno also plans to make fewer appearances on Thursday night radio show broadcast throughout the state. He said it's become more of a problem for him in recent years because he has to go on the air right after practice.
"It's a pain in the rear end. I want to get home. I want to start doodling, figure out what has to get done, so that maybe I can figure out a couple things for the game on Saturday," Joe Paterno said. "And I don't get paid a lot of money."
He's also got a Wednesday speaking engagement with hardcore fans and a pregame radio show on Saturdays, and Paterno said he wasn't sure how many of those appearances he would get to.
Linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden disagreed with Paterno's suggestion Thursday that the head coach might be letting the assistants "carry him" more.
"That's one of the great marks of his leadership, that he lets you coach on the field, which makes it a lot more fun. You don't have somebody looking over your shoulder all the time," Vanderlinden said. "But, if he sees something he wants to discuss with you, he will definitely talk it over in the staff room."
Whenever Paterno does call it quits, here's a list of some names who could be in the running to take over, with internal candidates listed first:
—Tom Bradley, Penn State defensive coordinator. The energetic Bradley, a master recruiter, is architect of a defense consistently among the best in the country. He's the most talked-about internal candidate among fans.
—Larry Johnson, Penn State defensive line coach. Another top-notch recruiter, Johnson has opened a pipeline into the Washington-Baltimore area that has helped get recent stars like Derrick Williams and Aaron Maybin to Happy Valley. Also known for developing top linemen such as Maybin, Tamba Hali and, most recently, Jared Odrick.
—Jay Paterno. He has the marquee name and has answered critics questioning whether he benefited from nepotism by developing QB success stories in Michael Robinson and Daryll Clark, though the Anthony Morelli era was considered a flop. His father has said that Penn State might not be the best place for him to start his head coaching career.
—Al Golden, Temple coach. He spearheaded the Owls' rise from FBS afterthought to MAC title contender. Played tight end for Paterno from 1987-91, and coached linebackers at Penn State in 2000. Golden has also made coaching stops at Boston College and Virginia.
—Greg Schiano, Rutgers coach. Defensive backs coach at Penn State from 1991-96 and a native of New Jersey — a fertile recruiting ground for the Nittany Lions.
—Kirk Ferentz, Iowa coach. A Pennsylvania native who grew up a Penn State fan, Ferentz has turned the Hawkeyes into a Big Ten contender, though he's under contract through 2015 at about $3 million a year.
But for now, Penn State is not in the market for a coach — and it's anyone's guess when they will be.