STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — The door to the Beaver Stadium conference room swung open, revealing an unusual sight.
Photographers snapped pictures as Joe Paterno arrived in a wheelchair for a news conference about Penn State’s trip Jan. 1 to the Outback Bowl against No. 17 Tennessee.
But Paterno, arriving for his first news conference since undergoing left leg surgery last month, wasn’t happy with the greeting.
“I want us to be talking about our football team, and where we’re going. The team we’re going to play,” Paterno said Thursday after getting upset about the snapshots. “I don’t think I should be in the spotlight.”
Injury or not, Paterno has long drawn attention for his penchant to get the Lions to a bowl game.
After a rocky start to this decade — four losing seasons in five years — Penn State (8-4) is making back-to-back postseason trips for the first time since getting bowl bids to cap the 1998 and ’99 campaigns.
In his 41st year leading Penn State, Paterno’s 362 career wins are three behind Florida State’s Bobby Bowden among major college coaches. Paterno’s visit to the Outback Bowl will mark his record 33rd postseason appearance; he’s also the career leader in postseason victories (21).
But getting win No. 22 won’t be easy.
While the Lions’ defense has been a bright spot, the offense has sputtered at times, maligned by red-zone mistakes, an inconsistent offensive line and growing pains with first-year starting quarterback Anthony Morelli.
On the other side, Tennessee receiver Robert Meachem shredded opponents for 1,265 yards and 11 touchdowns and helped revive an offense that bounced back from a subpar 2005 campaign. The Vols have passed for 264 yards a game this season, 13th-best in the country.
“They’re not that very far away from Michigan and Ohio State,” Paterno said. The Lions lost to both Big Ten heavyweights this season.
Looking grandfatherly in a dark plaid sweater, the 79-year-old Paterno was wheeled up a ramp to a microphone. He hadn’t held a news conference since Penn State tight end Andrew Quarless and Wisconsin linebacker DeAndre Levy ran into him on the sidelines during the Lions’ 13-3 loss to the Badgers on Nov. 4.
He was anxious to talk football, but was asked a few questions about the injury.
Paterno said he had not been focusing on the field and had been barking out orders on the sideline when the players came barreling at him.
“I didn’t see the kid from Wisconsin. I saw the tight end come over and got away from him,” Paterno said. “I didn’t think I got hurt that much. ... When I started to get up, I knew I had a good shot.”
He had surgery the next day to repair a fractured shinbone and two torn knee ligaments. Doctors told him that he wouldn’t be able to put weight on the leg for at least six weeks.
But a restless Paterno said he is ahead of schedule, having put weight on the left foot for the first time on Wednesday, 10 days ahead of schedule.
Paterno has said that he is optimistic doctors will let him coach from his feet on the sidelines in Tampa.
And he’s got no plans to step away from coaching either for the foreseeable future. He turns 80 on Dec. 21.
“I’m not looking for it to being a problem. If it turns out being a problem, then obviously I’ll back away and re-evaluate my situation,” he said. “Right now, I’m planning to do exactly what I planned to do before I got injured.”