ORLANDO, Fla. - With Bobby Bowden down to his last game, today against West Virginia in the Gator Bowl, Joe Paterno has the national stage to himself for as long as he can keep it.
"Unless college football changes significantly, coach Bowden and coach Paterno will be the last ones," LSU coach Les Miles said of the two octogenarians who are ranked at the top of the Division I-A record list. "It's a very special position coach Paterno has. I think every coach in college football has to look at what coach Paterno has accomplished in a very special way."
Paterno is usually at his best in front of a large contingent, be it alumni or media, and the message he left at Friday's final press conference at the Renaissance Plaza showed why he's been able to persevere through his 83rd birthday.
Paterno used the topic of Urban Meyer's health - which may lead to a premature retirement or at least a leave of absence for the decorated 45-year-old Florida coach - to emphasize perspective.
Asked how he manages stress, Paterno turned on the charm and said, "a lot of garlic and a lot of olive oil. When I got sick, I'd be in the bathtub, and my mom would rub olive oil on my head and shove garlic down my throat. I figured you're better off saying you're OK.''
Turning more serious, Paterno said, "I hope Urban's going to stay in it. College football's special, and I'd like to keep it special. I don't want it to become something that boosters who give enough money and media drive people to ask for more money than you should make or make people get out of it.
Rudel's best/worst list
The Mirror's Neil Rudel has covered 22 Penn State bowl games. Here are the Nittany Lions' best and worst five performances that he's witnessed:
RankBowl/yearOpponent/score1.Fiesta/1987Miami, 14-10Skinny: Superior defensive scheme upset top-ranked team with far more talent for JoePa's greatest win.
Skinny: Lions relied on offensive arsenal to help control Herschel Walker en route to first national title.
Skinny: No. 13 Nits crushed No. 6 Vols as Collins and Carter sparked an offense that would preview 1994.
Skinny: Lions went from being dominated in the first half to again physically overpowering UT.
5. Outback/1996Auburn, 43-14
Skinny: Richardson and Engram, despite a driving rain, teamed to make it four straight over SEC in bowls.
1. Rose/2009USC, 38-24
Skinny: Carroll could have made it worse as outclassed Lions were blown out 31-7 by halftime.
2.Blockbuster/1992 Stanford, 24-3
Skinny: In last year as independent, JoePa later admitted he lost this team. They played like it and finished 7-5.
Skinny: Listless effort that was sandwiched by pair of appearances in title game and '88 losing season.
4.Capital One/2003Auburn, 13-9
Skinny: Game ended with Larry Johnson complaining about his role in the offense. Imagine that.
5.Citrus/1998 Florida, 21-6
Skinny: Outcome was pretty much determined after Curtis Enis (agent dealings) was suspended and Joe Jurevicius (grades) was left at home.
"I'd hate to see us lose a guy like Urban Meyer or Bobby Bowden, unless it was on Bobby's terms."
When the topic shifted to today's Capital One Bowl game, Paterno shifted back to the big picture.
"For every five pros, there's 50 kids who won't play after college, and their whole life will be influenced by the experience they've had," he said.
Those messages separate JoePa.
Even though his teams of the last few years don't match his teams of the 1980s and early '90s, and even though his memory plays tricks - he called former Lion quarterback Michael Robinson "Mike Johnson" Friday and keeps saying the Lions beat LSU in the 1974 Orange Bowl 7-0 (the score was 16-9) - it's clear all who come in contact with the man who will someday retire as the all-time winningest Division I-A coach are in the presence of greatness.
"Icon," Miles called him.
That doesn't mean Paterno wants to trade too many lessons for victories.
"Coach definitely wants us to be the best football players possible," quarterback Daryll Clark said, "but he's also trying to develop successful young men."
It's in front of that backdrop, against a speedy LSU team, that Joe Paterno is poised to end his sixth decade at Penn State and ready to start if not finish a seventh.
"It's no fun if you're not competitive," JoePa said before a throng of photographers converged to take his picture. "If you've got leadership, it's easy. My job [today] isn't a tough job. The hard part is when you get home and getting the young guys ready to come to another bowl game."
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or email@example.com.