TAMPA, Fla. - There have been times during the season when Joe Paterno was not at his best behind the microphone.
Whether it was an inability to hear or interpret a question, and amid exaggerated rumors of declining health, Paterno sometimes failed to provide coherent answers while the Nittany Lions struggled to a 7-5 record.
Friday morning was not one of them.
A sharp and decisive Paterno met the media for the final time before today's 1 p.m. Outback Bowl matchup with Florida.
He opened the press conference with a definitive statement - "I have no plans to retire; can we get that one out of the way?" - and spent the rest of the forum in the Wyndham Tampa Westshore ballroom entertaining both the PSU and Gator media.
The past two weeks here seem to have energized the 84-year-old Paterno. When the Lions were training at the Philadelphia Phillies' complex in nearby Clearwater, he met Phils' ace pitcher Roy Halladay and spent time with famous boxing trainer Angelo Dundee.
"My dad used to box a little bit," Paterno said.
Asked if JoePa would spar with his brother George, he said, "George was tougher than I was. He could knock a newspaper guy out with one shot. It takes me two."
Paterno continued his banter with the media when he expressed concern about today's expected hot weather "if the forecasters down here are as honest as the ones [up north]."
"You've got 300-pounders huffing and puffing after 10 plays," he said. "They sound like newspaper guys."
That's why he was hoping for last year's rain that helped the Lions slow down LSU in the Capital One Bowl.
"The good Lord took care of me," he said. "That was like Washington trying to cross the Delaware."
Speaking of Delaware, Paterno talked about the struggles of the season and traced some of them to the fact "that we expected to have a different quarterback."
He said Pat Devlin and his family preferred the opportunity to start two full seasons, thus the late-2008 decision to transfer to Delaware. Paterno wished Devlin, who has the Blue Hens in the Division II championship game, well.
"I'm glad to see him have so much success at Delaware," he said.
Devlin wasn't the only former player Paterno mentioned. He was visited by ex-Lions such as Sean Love, who is coaching in this area, and Sean Farrell, who played for the Tampa Bay Bucs and was an anchor on the Nits' 1981 offensive line - maybe the best in Penn State history.
That led to him into a humorous story about how different players are motivated in different ways. When an NFL scout called him in the early 1970s, seeking information on Lydell Mitchell and Franco Harris, Paterno said "they're both great backs."
But when pressed by the scout to contrast the two, he said, "if I tell Lydell to run through that wall, he'll do it. If I tell Franco to run through that wall, he'll go up and feel the wall."
Paterno was more serious and expansive on what he called "a trend" of coaches being forced out. He cited several, dating back to Paul Pasqualoni at Syracuse and added Minnesota's Tim Brewster, West Virginia's accelerated transition of Bill Stewart and longtime friend Bobby Bowden, saying, "I thought he deserved a better fate."
He said athletic directors today - including "some that didn't play football" - have more pressure on them with regard to other sports and boosters.
"They have to be a lot of things to a lot of people," he said.
He said the late Ben Schwartzwalder of Syracuse had a remedy for athletic directors who fired football coaches. Schwartzwalder believed it was OK to fire one coach but when he fired his second one, then the AD was the one who needed to go.
"They ought to bring back Ben Schwartzwalder," Paterno said.
Schwartzwalder, who had a great rivalry with Paterno and prior with Rip Engle, ended his Syracuse tenure in 1973.
As another new year dawns, you wonder whether Schwartzwalder and Engle and the likes of Bear Bryant, Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler get a kick out of seeing Paterno on the ESPN clips in heaven.
JoePa is in no rush to join them or leave the game, saying, "I'll get out of it when I'm not enjoying it anymore. I still enjoy it."
That much, still, is obvious.
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.