TAMPA, Fla. – With the help of an iPad, a reporter quickly consulted the Internet before posing his question.
Calling up Google’s search engine, the media member jotted in “Joe Paterno latest rumors” and was not surprised to come back with 393,000 hits, a number he eagerly passed along to the Penn State coach.
One imagines that number has skyrocketed in recent weeks, as Paterno, who just turned 84 eight days ago, has been the subject of even more outrageous talk than usual at this time of the year.
No, he says, he is not retiring after Saturday’s Outback Bowl against Florida. No, he does not have stomach cancer. No, that infamous e-mail that has spread around the Penn State fanbase on the Web, guaranteeing Super Bowl-winning coach Tony Dungy will be replacing Paterno in 2011, isn’t true either.
“My favorite one,” Paterno said Tuesday at Outback Bowl press conference, “was the other week. Someone said I was down at Hershey Hospital. Hershey Hospital? I was chewing out a guy for being late for a meeting. I honestly don’t know where this stuff comes from.”
Paterno had hoped to head off some of the talk in November by saying he fully plans to be back for next season, though he admitted it wasn’t 100 percent his decision. Paterno is entering the last year of a three-year deal after the bowl game.
Instead, the rumors have only hit a fever pitch. Matters weren’t helped earlier in December when Paterno did a Tampa-area radio interview in which he couldn’t hear any of the host’s question, and then had trouble speaking the next day at a press conference in State College because of a sore throat.
But on Tuesday, Paterno looked and sounded as well as he has all year long, dating back to the summer when he had to cancel multiple booster club appearances throughout the state because of gastrointestinal problems.
When questions about his future inevitably popped up Tuesday, Paterno dismissed them in much the way he always does.
“I haven’t thought about it,” Paterno said. “The situation around me is very stable. Our athletic director (Tim Curley) played for me as a walk-on. And our president (Graham Spanier) has been around 14, 15 years. The staff is together. I feel great.”
The Nittany Lions arrived in Florida a week ago, working out and practicing at the Philadelphia Phillies’ offseason facility in Clearwater before moving into Tampa a few days ago.
They made the trip down from Pennsylvania without three reserve players, none of which were expected to see the field against the Gators on Saturday.
Sophomore quarterback Kevin Newsome, sophomore tight end Mark Wedderburn and true freshman offensive lineman Thomas Ricketts are not with the team.
After falling behind Matt McGloin and Rob Bolden on the depth chart midway through the season, Newsome has been contemplating a transfer, and his absence in Florida suggests that could be coming sooner rather than later.
Earlier this month, Paterno met with Newsome, hoping to get him to stick around for spring practice.
But Paterno was terse on Tuesday when asked about Newsome.
“He’s not with us,” Paterno said flatly. When asked to elaborate on his status with the team going forward, he replied, “Haven’t talked to him yet.”
Wedderburn has yet to make any kind of impact with the Lions. Despite Penn State playing most of the year without its top two tight ends, Andrew Szczerba and Garry Gilliam, Wedderburn has no catches.
Ricketts was redshirting this season and stayed home with a medical issue, according to multiple reports.
Long-time defensive coordinator Tom Bradley was a finalist for the head coaching job at Temple along with Lions linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden. But the Owls, who were pulled out of abject mediocrity by another Penn State assistant in Al Golden, elected not to replace him with another Lion after Golden accepted the head job at Miami.
Instead, Temple went with one of the men Bradley and Vanderlinden will square off against on Saturday in Florida offensive coordinator Steve Addazio.
“Obviously, whatever’s best for Tom is the best for all of us,” Paterno said Tuesday. “He’s been with the program 30 years, and if he feels he can make something for himself with a head job somewhere else, great. I asked him, ’You want me to help you, put a word in?’
“He came back (from the interview) and I asked him how it went, and he said, ’Eh, OK.’ I figured if he wanted to talk about it, we’d talk about it. It’s easier for me if he stays, obviously, but I don’t wanna interfere with any of that.”
1 p.m., Jan. 1