CHICAGO -- At 5:50 p.m. Monday, some three hours after finishing his last media interview, Joe Paterno strolled past me in the lobby of the hotel where the Big Ten media days are taking place.
Still wearing his blue blazer, tie and khaki slacks from a day's worth of interviews -- his first in nearly three months because of health issues -- the avid walker stepped outside ready to take to the streets of downtown Chicago.
He stood still for a moment, then turned to come back into the hotel. A couple of young men standing near the large glass doors recognized the legendary coach and stopped him for autographs, which he accommodated with a smile and a few words.
The Associated Press
Joe Paterno answers questions Monday at Big Ten media days.
Paterno came back inside, headed toward me and, with a disappointed look on his face, said, "It's raining outside."
We chatted for a couple of minutes about nothing important, and from a mere foot away, Paterno looked great. He's tan -- as always after his summer beach vacation -- had a smile on his face, spoke clearly, walked effortlessly and was truly engaging.
Twenty minutes prior to that chance encounter, I was busy typing a rough draft of this column on my cell phone during dinner. Here's how I had planned to start that piece:
"Try as he may to convince everyone that he's fine, Joe Paterno did not look the part Monday. He looked tired. He sounded weak. He had the appearance of a coach who will have a difficult time physically making it through an entire college football season."
Those words echoed the overwhelming sentiment shared by the throng of media members who had interviewed Paterno earlier in the day. The coach, many of them said in casual conversation, looked and sounded old, even frail, and clearly had lost some weight from his health ordeal.
Many fans at home saw the same thing on the Big Ten Network and ESPNews and posted on numerous message boards about how bad Paterno looked.
I agreed with all of them. Until 5:50 p.m. Monday.
The Joe Paterno I saw walking in the hotel lobby looked vibrant and relaxed, much different than he had appeared hours earlier in front of the cameras and recorders. Spending a few minutes alone with him provided a different perspective than the one more than 100 media members -- myself included -- had formulated earlier in the day.
Maybe I'm wrong about what I saw and about giving Paterno the benefit of the doubt with his health this season. He is 83, and regardless of how physically fit he has always been, 83 is 83.
But it's entirely plausible that what everyone else had witnessed with regards to his appearance Monday is exactly what former Nittany Lion quarterback Todd Blackledge suggested.
"I really don't think he enjoys these things at all," the player-turned broadcaster said. "And so, it's like for a lot of us maybe going to the dentist, is what this is like for Joe. He wasn't as playful maybe, he wasn't as vibrant as he's been in the past, but I think part of that is he just wants to go back home and coach."
Paterno had not made a public appearance since a May 5 press conference with Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt. Most of the summer he battled intestinal issues, which forced him to cancel appearances at three high-profile fundraisers.
Describing exactly what he was going through would be quite crude, but basically Paterno had to make sure he remained close to a bathroom.
"The problem I had was not having control of some things, and I had to be careful that I didn't get myself in a position where I would embarrass myself," Paterno said.
The coach smiled, and the room burst into laughter when JoePa explained that his biggest problem was "a little bit below the intestines."
Paterno frequently talks about how he doesn't like dealing with the media, and after a three-month absence, he got a doozy of a question right off the bat Monday.
"I'm thinking you're going to be Penn State's coach until the day you die," a reporter from USA Today said. "What do you think about that?"
"Is that wishful thinking or what?" Paterno replied. "Oh, I really don't think about that. I just -- I'm enjoying it. I like to coach.
"I'm feeling really good," he later added. "And as long as I enjoy it, I'll continue to coach, unless I don't think I can do a good job or anybody else doesn't think I can do the job. But we'll talk about that later. But right now I have no plans whatsoever as far as whether I'm going to go another year, two years, five years or what have you."
When the health-related questions came up, Paterno, who loves to quote literature, downplayed them with his usual intelligent sense of humor.
"What did Mark Twain say? The rumor of my death has been overexaggerated," he said.
Blackledge, along with probably everyone who follows PSU, said he was concerned about Paterno's health and curious about how the coach would look at the Big Ten event.
"I haven't seen him since the bowl game ... and I thought he was great then and full of energy then," Blackledge said. "I think he looks good. He spoke a little softer, but he didn't stutter and stammer, and he didn't misunderstand the questions. He knew what he was saying and how he wanted to say it."
Some of the things Paterno said include:
* He does not believe his health is having a negative impact on recruiting.
* He expects to be on the sideline all season.
* He remains in favor of the Big Ten expanding east to give Penn State a regional rival.
* He hasn't given much thought to Big Ten division alignment.
* He was able to watch film and perform other coaching duties while he was sick this summer.
* He hopes to and expects to have some say in his successor at PSU but noted nothing official is in place with the university.
* He also hasn't thought about closing in on 400 wins, which he needs six more to reach.
"When I'm down and looking up, are they going to put 399 on top of me, or are they going to put 401?" he said. "Who the hell cares? I won't know."
Cory Giger can be reached at 949-7031 and email@example.com.