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To those in the know, Penn State coach Joe Paterno remains sharp

TAMPA — So much for senility.

When 84-year-old Penn State coach Joe Paterno spotted Nittany Lions alumnus Sean Love at Tuesday afternoon's Outback Bowl practice at Jesuit High, he greeted Love — an offensive and defensive lineman in Happy Valley during the Reagan administration — by name.

Then, he asked about Love's wife, Renee', by name.

Then, he asked how Love's kids were doing.

Then, according to Love, Paterno — who allegedly can't recall what he had for breakfast, who supposedly has been admitted to every hospital from State College to St. Petersburg in recent weeks, who is rumored to be days from retirement — hopped in some linemen's faces with all the subtlety of an unmuffled El Camino.

"I mean, he's amazing," said Love, now an assistant at Plant High. "He coaches the QBs, the linemen, the DBs. He has coaching tips for every single position."

For those convinced JoePa has spent the past 15 or so years serving as nothing more than an octogenarian, golf cart-riding figure­head at Penn State practices, those who actually see him each day beg to differ.

To them, he's alert, active and in your grill. He's also bent on remaining on the job for a 46th season in 2011. In a more scrutinized setting, Paterno's sentences might arrive with more of a slur and softness, and his gait is a bit more slumped these days.

But players and assistants insist his passion and perceptibility remain as crisp as the creases in his trademark khakis.

"The guy's a freak of nature," senior defensive tackle Ollie Ogbu said.

"I didn't know what to expect going over there, but he's not on a cart," said Bucs tight end John Gilmore, who also visited his alma mater's practice Tuesday.

"Nobody's carting this guy around. He's walking around from drill to drill. He still stays 50 yards behind the defense yelling."

Meet the star attraction of an Outback Bowl steeped in irony. When Florida and Penn State conclude their New Year's Day meeting late Saturday afternoon, 46-year-old Gators coach Urban Meyer will exit his profession, in part for health reasons.

Paterno, meantime, says he fully intends to remain on the job he has held since 1966, when Lyndon B. Johnson was president, the Buccaneers were 10 years from playing their first game, and Meyer was 2.

"I'm different than Urban. I've got people calling up saying, 'When the hell are you getting out?' " joked Paterno, who expects to have at least 14 of his 17 grandkids at the game. "I don't know when I'll get out. I honestly don't know."

For every shiny, silver commemorative Outback Bowl football Paterno signed — in legible, left-handed cursive — at a Raymond James Stadium function this month, there's an explanation for his longevity.

Just how does one man stay at the same job, reside in the same single-story house a seven-minute walk from campus, and maintain the same scandal-free persona through 401 wins, nine U.S. presidents and 874 coaching changes elsewhere at the Division I-A level?

Depending on whom you speak with, it's passion, perspective, an attention to detail, an ability to delegate, or a hearty stew of such intangibles.

"It's not a job for him. He does it because he wants to," Gilmore said.

"I think he has confidence in us, and we have confidence in him," added 70-year-old offensive coordinator (and former Florida coach) Galen Hall, whose seven years on PSU's staff makes him a Happy Valley newbie compared to his fellow Lions assistants.

"On game day he sees more than anyone I've been around. He has a feel for the game, he has a feel for the players. … He does an excellent job on the sideline of guys that are coming out of games and looking at them and finding out what's going on."

Paterno, signing one silver ball after another, says it's even simpler than that.

"I've had success because I hardly ever lose a coach," said Paterno, whose staff includes six assistants who have worked at least 15 years at PSU, not including former Lions quarterbacks Hall (Class of '63) and Mike McQueary (Class of '97).

"And I hardly ever lose a coach because the university does a great job making it a great place to live and work. State College is a great place.

"I can walk to work in seven minutes. I walk a way down the block, I'm on campus. If I want to have a staff meeting, I can go back home, call up (everyone), and in 10 minutes I can have everybody in the office. They all live in the town. It's a nice place."

Yet as the birthday candles accumulate, so does talk of Paterno's exit. When you're older than the stadium in which you coach, it's only natural. Love heard it — from JoePa himself — when he was being recruited out of high school in eastern Pennsylvania.

"He said at that time I was going to be the last class he coached," Love recalled. "He was only going to coach four more years."

That was 1987.

"I think you just sort of expect it for Joe to be out there, I really do," Hall said. "And he really hasn't slowed down. I think it's phenomenal, but still with Joe Paterno you really don't think it is."

Times staff writer Stephen F. Holder contributed to this report.

outback Bowl

Florida vs. Penn State

1 p.m. Saturday, Raymond James Stadium, Tampa

TV/radio: Ch. 28; 620-AM

Line: Florida by 7

To those in the know, Penn State coach Joe Paterno remains sharp 12/29/10 [Last modified: Thursday, December 30, 2010 7:08am]
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