STATE COLLEGE — It’s a stereotype as old as Joe Paterno: Penn State’s football teams are slow because they’re usually populated by the tough but plodding sons of steelworkers and coal miners.
The obvious rebuttals, of course, stretch all the way from Lenny Moore to LaVar Arrington, not to mention that there probably are fewer steelworkers and coal miners than Sixers fans left in the state.
Anyway, that old standard is replayed whenever the Nittany Lions have a dance partner from the traditionally swift Southeastern Conference, as they will when they meet Tennessee in the Jan. 1 Outback Bowl in Tampa, Fla.
But while Paterno’s sloths might not be able to outrun the speedy Southerners, they have won a majority of their bowl games against them. Paterno’s Penn State teams are 6-4 in postseason appearances against SEC teams.
They beat Louisiana State in 1974, Georgia in 1983, Tennessee in 1992 and ‘94, Auburn in 1996, and Kentucky in 1999, while losing to Alabama in 1975 and ‘79, Florida in 1998, and Auburn in 2003.
“I haven’t felt that when we’ve played the Southeastern Conference teams, that they were necessarily faster than we were,” Paterno said Thursday at a pre-Outback Bowl news conference.
Still, the old coach admitted that this year’s opponents, the 9-3 Volunteers, are quicker than his team. All-SEC wideout Robert Meachem, who caught 67 passes this season, particularly frightens him.
“I think we have a team that can run,” he said. But against Tennessee, “I think speed obviously is a problem for us.”
The 8-4 Nittany Lions looked a step slow — particularly on offense — in losses to Ohio State and Michigan. And on the other side of the ball, Tennessee’s overall speed will challenge a few of the Nittany Lions’ slower defenders.
So, assuming his teams have defeated lots of speedier foes during his 41 seasons as head coach, how has Paterno managed it?
“The big thing is that good defensive football teams line up properly,” he said. “With all of the formations you have to play against these days, they don’t get themselves in a bad position. They anticipate certain things, and that makes them play a step faster than maybe they are. It’s really a team-doing.”
Paterno, making his first visit to the Beaver Stadium media room since injuring his leg on Nov. 4, got a little cranky when photographers began snapping pictures of him maneuvering in his wheelchair.
“I want us to be talking about my football team,” he explained. “I want us to be talking about where we are going, the place we are going to, and the team we are going to play.”
Being photographed “is very annoying to me, to be very frank with you, because I don’t think I should be the spotlight,” he said. “I think the football team should be the spotlight.”
The coach revealed that he was 1 1/2 weeks ahead of his rehabilitation schedule and that on Wednesday, he put weight on his surgically repaired left leg for the first time since his operation a month ago.
“I have all of the flexibility that they said I wouldn’t have,” he said proudly. “I’m not looking forward to it being a problem. If it turns out to be a problem, obviously, I will have to reevaluate my situation.”
According to Paterno, just before he was hit by two players on the Wisconsin sideline, he had been talking with someone behind him. When he turned his attention back to the field, he was knocked over.
“I didn’t think I got hurt that much,” he said. “I knew I got hit, but when I started to get up, I knew I had (taken) a good shot.”
Even though Penn State has had several Floridians over the years — Michael Timpson and Dave Daniels are two — it is one of the few big-time teams without a player from the recruit-rich state on its roster.
That’s because Paterno has always advised his assistants to focus first on local players.
“I’ve said many times that if you take a 500-mile radius of State College, there are probably 50 million people . . . and there are probably 400 or 500 outstanding prospects,” he said. “First we should try to recruit those guys and then go from there.
“To just go in there and blanket the state of Florida in order to get kids out of Florida when we have good kids in Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey, New York, Maryland and northern Virginia, it doesn’t seem to make much sense to me.”
According to Paterno, he and his staff had been preparing to meet Auburn until late last week.
But when Arkansas selected the Capital One Bowl, Auburn ended up at the Cotton Bowl and Tennessee in Tampa.
“I haven’t looked much at Tennessee yet because we all thought we were going to be playing Auburn,” he said.