Paterno still puts his stamp on the big decisions, like naming a "true" freshman to start the season at quarterback for Penn State for the first time since 1910. "He's not taking himself out of the picture," Blackledge said. "That's a decision that he has to make."
Paterno and his wife, Sue, have five children—all Penn State graduates. Their son, Jay, is a Penn State assistant coach. A former Brown University quarterback, Paterno has amassed 395 victories, the most in Division 1-A history and a record-in-progress unlikely to be broken. He has won two national championships. He has raised millions of dollars for the university, personally donated millions himself and turned the program into the third-most profitable in the nation, according to Forbes magazine.
Notwithstanding several unpleasant off-field incidents involving players, the program still adheres to the tenets of Paterno's Grand Experiment, which proved that athletics and academics could coexist. Penn State last year led the Big Ten with an 89 percent graduation rate, tops among schools ranked in the AP Top 25 poll.
Still, some fans and boosters, all of whom acknowledge his huge contributions to his school and the sport, always will clamor for Paterno to step down. He suffered on-field injuries in 2006 and 2008, forcing him to coach from the press box and providing additional fodder to the critics. But the squawking grew louder last month after Paterno showed up at a Big Ten media event looking thin and frail, hunched over, his voice weak. He missed several university functions during the spring and acknowledged he had suffered from a gastrointestinal illness and a reaction to medication.
The first question Paterno took that day was whether he planned to coach until he died. Talk about setting a tone. He shrugged it off, and when he met with local reporters a few days later, he wryly began by joking, "Don't ask me if I'm gonna die tomorrow. Believe me, I've got a few days left."
Paterno no longer travels to recruit and said he will limit his off-field media activities. But he has no plans to relinquish his job, despite such pleas to quit like the one penned by a Pittsburgh columnist who recently wrote: "Will Paterno's health let him finish the season? I have serious doubts."
"His age is a high number, no question about it," Blackledge said. "But I've met guys 20 or 30 years younger that act older than him. Age is not really indicative of who he is, his wit, his enthusiasm, his energy for what he's doing."
The day is coming, however, when Paterno will step down. That, said Blackledge, will be sad.
"It's gonna be hard," he said. "He is the face of Penn State football, the heart and soul of it. It's kind of hard to imagine anyone else leading the team. That's why it's important for us to enjoy, cherish, savor whatever how many years are out there. Penn State won't ever be the same and, frankly, college football won't be the same whenever he rides into the sunset."
Bob Cohn is a veteran sports reporter based in Pittsburgh