Pronouncing his recovery from a broken leg ahead of schedule, an upbeat Joe Paterno said he fully expects to be on the sidelines on New Year’s Day in Tampa when Penn State takes on No. 17 Tennessee in the Outback Bowl.
The official bowl pairings were announced Sunday night.
“I’d be disappointed if I’m not going to be on the sidelines,” said Penn State’s veteran coach, who’s been out of commission since being injured Nov. 4 at Wisconsin. “I’m expecting to be on the sidelines.”
Paterno, who turns 80 later this month, also made it clear he has no plans to retire anytime soon. This latest experience only solidified his mind-set.
“I don’t want to walk away from it because of this little bit of a setback,” he said via teleconference from his State College home. “I had not intended to walk away from it in the next couple years because I didn’t have any plans (to do so), and I still don’t have any plans to walk away.”
Both Paterno and Tennessee’s Phillip Fulmer expressed excitement about the Outback Bowl matchup. The Nittany Lions (8-4) own a 2-0 mark in the game, having beaten both Auburn (1996) and Kentucky (1999). The Volunteers (9-3) have one previous Outback appearance, defeating Boston College in ’93.
The teams have taken similar paths this season. All three of Tennessee’s losses came against top-10 ranked opponents from the SEC – Florida, LSU and Arkansas.
Penn State, meanwhile, fell to BCS teams Ohio State, Michigan, Notre Dame, as well as No. 6-ranked Wisconsin.
“Both of us have played tough schedules and both of us have something to prove,” said Fulmer, whose club finished 5-3 in the SEC.
“It’s kind of an interesting matchup,” Paterno noted. “Tennessee lost to three of the best teams in the country and, obviously, we lost to three or four of the best teams in the country. We’re excited about having the opportunity to play against a good football team.”
The series is tied 2-2, with both of Penn State’s wins coming in bowl games – 42-17 in the 1992 Fiesta Bowl, and 31-13 in the ’94 Citrus Bowl.
The Vols earned their wins in regular season contests in Knoxville – 31-11 in 1971 and 28-21 in ’72.
Fulmer, when told of Paterno’s coaching plans for the game, laughed.
“I really wouldn’t have expected anything less,” he said. “His whole story is amazing … to be in coaching and do it like he’s done it and win at that level for so many years. It means a lot to be playing a team with the tradition that Penn State has.”
Paterno has been getting around with the aid of wheelchair and walker the last four weeks. He admitted being “bored silly” since having surgery on his left leg and knee (ligament damage). When he’s done with his daily rehabilitation schedule, the coach explained he’s gotten caught up with correspondence and other business matters.
He’s also watched lots of film, including a few tapes of Tennessee.
“Phil and his staff do a great job with their football team,” he said.
Paterno will be forced to skip tomorrow’s College Football Hall of Fame Induction dinner in New York City, as well as Thursday’s official Outback Bowl Coaches’ press conference in Tampa.
“For me to be in a wheelchair and have them worry about getting me up on the dais, I didn’t think that was appropriate,” he said of the induction ceremony. I didn’t want it to take away from (fellow inductee) Bobby (Bowden) and the other guys.”
As for his recovery, “I’m getting closer all the time,” the coach said. “It’s kind of interesting to challenge yourself.”