They asked Joe Paterno just what he'd be doing to celebrate his 83rd birthday last week, and one of the oldest and wisest major college football coaches in the land broke into a devilish grin.

"I don't know. I'll probably be at church praying," joked Paterno, Penn State's legendary coach. "May not make it another year."

Penn State should pray Paterno sticks around another 10 years.

Because when he finally leaves, all the honesty and integrity and resiliency Paterno's filled Penn State's football program with during his 44 years as the school's head coach will go out the door with him.

And if that kind of character isn't impossible to replace, it'll be difficult to duplicate.

"It took me a long time to realize I was playing for coach Paterno when I got here," Penn State senior quarterback Daryll Clark said. "We come out of that tunnel every Saturday, and just to look across the field and see him over there, to realize you're playing for his football team really means a ton."

It's not just the winning seasons that mean so much to Paterno's players. It's the way he demands accountability from them -- starting from the time they first step into a college classroom -- that makes Paterno just as much of a coaching icon as his Division I-leading 393 victories.

"And for him to be as passionate as he is now, at his age," Lions linebacker Sean Lee said, "and to still be coaching with as much integrity as he has .


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"I don't think there will be anyone ever like him again in college football."

Just two years ago, some people around Penn State acted as if they'd seen enough of Paterno.

He went through the roughest stretch of his career to start this decade, suffering through four losing seasons in five years, and followed a feel-good 11-1 season in 2005 with two years of team turmoil that put about the same number of players in a police lineup as Penn State's starting lineup. That's when some Penn State alumni started to think they'd had enough of Paterno.

But he not only did more than enough to produce consecutive double-digit win seasons for the first time in more than 15 years, Paterno straightened out his team's image again while coaxing that success on the field.

"If you get around him, you will understand how plugged in he really is, how witty he is, how much he knows about you," Lee said. "How much he remembers from my recruiting visit, which was five years ago. And he's gone through a ton of them over his career. He's an incredible guy. And if you come to one of our practices, you will realize how plugged in he is, how much passion he has and how much he is doing for this program."

Nobody can keep doing it forever, not even a ball of limitless energy like Joe Paterno.

The fact that he joked about not being around Penn State next year shows he's at least thinking about the subject. In the back of his mind, Paterno has to know that Penn State's New Year's Day Capital One Bowl battle with LSU on Friday afternoon could be one of his last.

"Never intended to coach when I came here," said Paterno, who scrapped plans for a law career to spend 16 years as an assistant with the Nittany Lions before taking over as their head coach in 1966. "I have enjoyed every minute of my career."

All football fans should enjoy it right along with him. For as long as it lasts.