The Outback Bowl has been very good to the Tampa Bay area, with an economic impact – when the Florida Gators aren’t in it – estimated at more than $35 million. It’s an annual 65,600 sell-out with good ESPN TV ratings and chamber-of-commerce-pleasing video of palm trees, sand sculptures and the downtown streetcar. As a bowl game venue – encompassing Gulf beaches, Ybor City pep rallies and Busch Gardens’ outings – the Tampa Bay area is a prime winter draw for hard-core fans and boosters of Big Ten and SEC schools.
This year the Outback lucked out with the Penn State -Tennessee match-up. That meant fan bases that travel well, but it also meant one more appearance by the not yet retired, iconic, media magnet that is 80-year-old PSU coach, Joe Paterno.
Some outtakes from Paterno’s press conferences during Outback week:
* Paterno’s teams have won 363 Division I games, including a record 22 in bowls (three of them in the Outback). He was asked to contrast the bowl experience now (as in more games, more money, more media scrutiny, more ways to use the month-plus layoff, etc.) to his first one in 1967 (against Florida State in the Gator Bowl).
His answer, punctuated by that Joe Pesci delivery: “Aw, you guys keep bringing that (1967) up. OK, it was a lousy call.”
Who knew that among the nearly 500 games Paterno has coached, a 17-17 tie in 1967 is still gnawing at him 40 years later? The reason: roiling regret. Ahead 17-0, Paterno goes for it on fourth down and one at his own 25 in the middle of the third quarter. Not only doesn’t he get it, but the play is a catalyst for a 180 shift in momentum. Penn State never regains it, and the Lions pry a tie from the jaws of victory.
*“Should I be coaching at 80?” reflected Paterno, the octogenarian. “Sometimes I’m looking at tape late at night, and I think ‘What the hell am I doing?’ But, overall, it’s still fun. If I didn’t enjoy it, I’d get out.”
*Paterno, who has been the head coach of Penn State for 41 years, acknowledged that the days of one coach having his (or Bobby Bowden’s) kind of tenure are probably history. “The whole environment has changed,” he noted. “There’s a lot of pressure (to win). They’re paying coaches too much, and you have to expect that kind of pressure. I’m not sure how many Athletic Directors and Presidents can handle that. At Penn State, I’ve outlived most of the boosters.”
*Paterno on longevity: “Good pasta, good booze. Seriously, the Greeks had a phrase for it: ‘The glory belongs to our ancestors.’ My mother lived to 93.
“And one other thing: Never let the calendar determine where you are in life.”
*“Good recruiting is about bringing in good players to compete with other good players,” pointed out Paterno. “You don’t get better playing schlemiels.”
*In answer to a question, Paterno was unwilling to accord the ultimate accolade — “best ever” — to his two-time All-American linebacker Paul Posluszny. “When you give to one, you take away from the others,” he reasoned.
*Responding to a query (from a Pennsylvania reporter) about his broken left leg and ligament damage: “No, I don’t wear a brace. But I can still swing my leg. I can still hit a lot of big targets like your rear end.”
*New Year’s resolution: “Lose a little weight; get this leg right; and prove if you’re over 80, you’re not over the hill.”
*And then there was this question from a local scribe — OK, this one — about the cardboard stand-ups and Paterno masks that have been popular items in Pennsylvania the past couple of decades. “What’s it feel like to reach the point in life where your success translates into a marketable visage? In other words, what’s it like to see perfect strangers with your face?”
The media ham then donned a Paterno look-alike mask.
“Maybe I’m in the wrong profession,” Paterno deadpanned, although no one, of course, had ever intimated that his were matinee-idol looks. “Naah, I don’t take it very seriously. But it’s nice for people to identify with you. Makes you think that maybe you’ve had some impact on values and lifestyle.”