Joe Paterno has coached 507 games at Penn State, winning 379, but the focus now is on the next two: home against Michigan this week and at Ohio State on Oct. 25.
Two games, not yet contested, could calibrate the end-game terms of a brilliant career that is currently stuck in twilight.
Paterno turns 82 in December and his legs hurt. He definitely should not have offered his right leg to an on-side kick demonstration back in August. Now he coaches from the press box and requires help off news conference podiums.
How soon can Paterno get back to prowling the sideline?
“I don’t know,” he says.
Paterno has succumbed to using a cane and may need hip surgery at the end of the year. Two years ago, remember, his left leg was broken in a sideline collision.
Don’t play the sympathy card, though.
“I don’t get get-well cards,” Paterno said at his weekly news conference. “Can we talk about the football team and not me, for crying out loud?”
Penn State, for crying out loud, is 7-0 and ranked No. 3 in the country.
In Happy Valley, though, you can’t talk about the team without talking about the man.
Play out this ironic possibility: The three top-ranked teams this week -- Texas, Alabama and Penn State -- hold their positions through the final Bowl Championship Series standings.
Texas and Alabama would play for the national title and Penn State would go to the Rose Bowl with a chance to finish another season undefeated without winning a national title.
Maybe Penn State could play Oregon again and it could be like 1994 -- except for the part where Nebraska walks away with the grand prize.
Five times Paterno has led teams to unbeaten records -- 1968, ’69, ’73, ’86 and ’94 -- yet only his 1986 squad emerged with a trophy. Paterno’s 1982 championship team had one defeat.
This unfolding drama is only in Act One. Paterno’s contract expires in a couple of months and there is no stated succession plan. Penn State President Graham Spanier said the situation would be addressed at year’s end.
Some people probably want Paterno nudged out, or at least a timetable set for his departure, but another magic-carpet ride sure could buy an old coach a lot of term-dictating.
Maybe Paterno’s failing legs won’t allow him to continue, but the choice at the end of a 13-0 campaign could be totally his, and it could be magnanimous.
Losses against Michigan this week and Ohio State, conversely, could trigger a collapse that changes the inner politics.
The last time the Nittany Lions started 7-0, in 1999, they extended it to 9-0 before losing three straight. The team went 10-13 the next two seasons and Paterno found himself on the firing line. But at least then he had more wiggle-room time on his game clock.
A one-two knockout punch against Michigan and Ohio State -- one home, one away -- could intoxicate Paterno with end-game power.
What’s the threat of 2-4 Michigan this week; a team that last weekend couldn’t get out of Toledo’s way?
Well, try this: Paterno has lost nine straight games to Michigan, his last win coming in 1996.
“No, no, no, it’s not a mental thing,” Paterno insisted this week.
It’s just a losing thing.
It is enough of an issue, though, that Paterno mentioned it after his team pounded Wisconsin, 48-7, in Madison.
Paterno said he warned his players: “They know how to beat us. I said, ‘We’d better be ready to go.’ ”
If Paterno can beat down the Michigan hex and take down Ohio State in Columbus, what future opponent or back-channel opposition movement is going to force his hand?
Paterno says he doesn’t like to talk about vindication, but he will talk about it. He’ll mention the people out there that “are pecking away at you,” and the “website mob” that don’t sign their names. “They don’t do anything but criticize you,” he says.
Paterno, educated at Brown, can even invoke a former British prime minister in explaining the waning attention span of a populace.
“I always tell people [Winston] Churchill got kicked out after he saved the western world from a dictatorship,” Paterno said. “And when they kicked him out, they asked him what he thought about gratitude. He said, ‘Gratitude? Gratitude doesn’t exist in politics, only in history.’
“It’s the same way in football. Gratitude doesn’t exist in football.”
The poll voters, for now, are back on board.
And his players have never jumped ship.
“Coach Paterno, he’s our coach,” sophomore defensive end Aaron Maybin said. “We love him, he has our utmost support, we enjoy playing our hearts out for him, and that’s not going to change.”
But change, as Sam Cooke sang, is going to come. We just don’t the “how” or the “when.”
* What happened to the “first family” of college football? Terry Bowden, who once led Auburn to an undefeated season, is working for Yahoo! Jeff Bowden, two years ago, resigned under pressure as offensive coordinator for his dad’s team at Florida State. Monday, Tommy Bowden resigned as coach under pressure at Clemson.
That leaves Bobby Bowden, in his 33rd year at Florida State, as the Bowden left standing.
“They kept on predicting I’d be gone in two years,” Bobby joked Wednesday. “I told ‘em, ‘I’ll outlive all you guys.’ ”
Bobby says Terry definitely wants to coach again and he suspects Tommy will too: “Let him sit around and fish for about five or six months, I bet he’ll probably get that bug again, I don’t know.”
Bobby Bowden keeps rolling along.
“I’m just 78,” Bowden cracked. “It does seem strange, doesn’t it?”
* The big game in the Pacific 10 Conference this week is . . . California (2-0) at Arizona (2-1)? You better believe it. Cal at 2-0 is the only unbeaten team left in conference and will try not to repeat its 2006 visit to Tucson, when the Bears entered the game ranked No. 8 and left with a 24-20 loss. That spoiled a mega-showdown the next week at USC. Cal lost that one, too, 23-9. Cal is 1-4 in its last four trips to Tucson.
* You may have heard the Pac-10 is down this year. The league’s record in nonconference play is 13-15 and the longest winning streak is shared by Cal and USC, two. Brigham Young, by contrast, has won 16 straight games.
Also, it was announced this week that Oregon’s game at Arizona State on Oct. 25, one of the most anticipated conference games entering the season, will not be televised. Arizona State was picked to finish second in the Pac-10 this year. Oregon was picked to finish third.
* Ten undefeated teams remain but only three are 7-0 -- Penn State, Ball State and Utah. Washington (0-5) and North Texas (0-6) have yet to win.
* Texas offensive guard Cedric Dockery on whether the Longhorns are the best team in the country: “We will know in the middle of January.”