At all but a few tables there was always an open seat available. At Joe Paterno's table, which was situated, perhaps not coincidentally, near the entrance to Ballrooom 375C at the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place, it was standing room only. As it should have been.
This was likely Paterno's final visit to Big Ten media days (surely, he would be in favor of that, no matter how many more years he were to coach). His mind is as keen as ever, but there is a frailty to him, a softening to his voice. Few, if any, people his age possess his vitality, but he is not battling men his age. He is up against Pat Fitzgerald and Jim Tressel and Bret Bielema, men who are in their prime.
"What did Mark Twain say, the rumor of my death is greatly exaggerated or something?" Paterno had begged a day earlier at his media session. "I forget. I used to know a little more about those."
There is no joy in penning an epitaph for Paterno's career, much less for Paterno himself. He has not "lost it," not in terms of lucidity. And God bless anyone, male or female, who has that much hair atop their head in their ninth decade on this earth. But you wonder if next year, as the Big Ten shifts gears into a new era of 12 teams, two divisions and one championship game, if it is not best if he just remains behind as the conference crosses into its land of Canaan.
"It's a little fascinating to me, the interest in me," said Paterno, 83, who will begin his 45th season at Penn State when the Nittany Lions host Youngstown State on Sept. 4. What is equally fascinating is that Paterno is not the least bit disingenuous when he makes such comments.
"I really like the way he thinks, the way he runs everything," said senior guard Stefen Wisniewski, who is arguably Penn State's best player. "He's not about money, he's not about the show. He makes a lot of sense."
There is a lovable cantankerousness to Paterno, who arrived at these festivities appearing more tanned than Snooki -- and certainly, he has no idea who that is ("He doesn't talk much about current stuff," Wisniewski added). When the first question posed to him Monday was, verbatim: "I'm thinking you're going to be the coach at Penn State until the day you die. What do you think about that?", it was clear that JoePa had little interest in discussing either himself or his mortality. When asked a day later, in front of only a few people, if he considered that question crass, Paterno tossed up his hands, stammered a bit and finally said, "Well, you know, I am going to die some day."
Some day. Aren't we all? And more than half of us who were in that room today will die before our 83rd birthday. Most of us will retire long before that age, and likely none of us, with the possible exception of Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, will have a statue erected in our honor (as already can be found just outside Beaver Stadium at Penn State).
Joe Paterno took the field as a head coach at Penn State exactly seven days after this writer was born, and I now have just as much gray hair atop my scalp as he does. I do have more hair than he does, but numerous people my age have less. He is an ageless wonder, but as little as his appearance has changed over the decades, Paterno's character and sensibility have changed even less.
Of course, someone had to ask him what reaching 400 career victories (he begins the season with 394) would mean, and his response was vintage JoePa: "You know, when I'm down and looking up, are they going to put '399' on top of me or '401'? What the hell will I care? I won't know."
He really does not care.
Paterno long ago found his Shangri-La (State College) and one key to his longevity is that he has spent so much less time searching than most men do. Certainly less than any man in his profession. Nick Saban has coached four different places in the past dozen years, and despite having won a national championship at two of them -- LSU and Alabama -- he still comes across as more restless than Paterno. Saban's Tide, by the way, will square off against Paterno's Nittany Lions in Tuscaloosa on Sept. 11.
I would gladly have paid for the 20 or so minutes I sat next to Paterno on Tuesday morning, listening to him discuss his team, his sport and, reluctantly, himself. Because days such as these will not last and, when Paterno goes, an era vanishes with him. Here he was discussing how it is easier these days to get work done at his home than at the office. "I have everything I need there," Paterno said. "I have a phone. I can look at tapes. I have a fax machine."
A fax machine.
"I'm not sure if he knows what Twitter is," said Nittany Lions cornerback D'Anton Lynn (Wisconsin's Bielema, by contrast, monitors his players' Tweets). "I hear he doesn't have a computer."
I asked Lynn, Wisniewski and tailback Evan Royster if friends of theirs who are not part of Penn State football ask them to obtain an autograph of Paterno for them. All of them smiled and said: "Yes."
Do they do it?
"Depends on who they are," said Wisniewski, whose dad, Leo, and uncle, Steve, played for Paterno. "He doesn't like doing it, but he'll do it."
Royster said, "My first or second year here, yeah, I ended up getting it for them, but now I just tell them to come to a game and try for themselves."
"To be honest with you," said Lynn, "I don't even know if I could get his autograph. But I would like to get a photo of him before I leave."
I know that this column has been written before. In fact, this column has been written more than a decade ago. In fact, columns predicting Paterno's demise, or arguing that the sport has passed him by, have been around longer than every current coach in the Big Ten ... with the exception of Paterno.
This, however, is not about Paterno's demise. It is a lionization of a Nittany Lion, a reminder to all that no matter Penn State's record this season, we should savor Paterno. We should remember his utter aversion to self-importance even though he is the grandest icon the game has. None of us will leave the legacy that he does, but maybe we can remember to never take ourselves too seriously, to always be approachable.
When a reporter confided to Paterno on Monday that it was "kinda tough to write about your bowel issues," Paterno quipped back, "It's tougher to have them."
Enjoy Joe Paterno. They've discontinued that model. Unfortunately.