TAMPA -- Penn State receiver Brett Brackett has a confession to make. When he was being recruited by the Nittany Lions in 2005, he was among those who thought veteran coach Joe Paterno would be retired by 2010.
Now a fifth-year senior and team co-captain who is about to play his final game against Florida in the Outback Bowl here on New Year's Day, Brackett was happy to be proved wrong.
I didn't even think he was going to be here for the five years I was going to be here, Brackett said Sunday at the Outback Bowl's Welcome Dinner. I'm lucky to be able to have learned from him my entire five years and thankful he's been here these five years. I've learned a lot from him and it's been a great experience for me.
Major college football's all-time wins leader, Paterno turned 84 Dec. 21. Yet even as he was celebrating his birthday, an anonymous e-mail was circulating that raised serious questions about his health and ability to coach in 2011. The rumors went viral when they hit the major forums following Penn State football -- including Fight On State's.
This even after Paterno previously stated he intended to return in 2011.
Though preparing for the bowl -- first in Clearwater and now in Tampa -- the PSU players have been aware of the rumors. Their response?
I didn't really pay much attention because I've heard rumors since I've been a freshman here, and they never stick, said defensive tackle and senior co-captain Ollie Ogbu. So we hear it, but they're rumors. It's not hard evidence, it's not any facts. We just kind of brush it off and continue what we're doing.
Brackett was more definitive.
There's no truth to these rumors, he said. We experience him every day. Nobody understands how hands-on he really is. We really know what Coach does. When those rumors go around, they more anger us than anything else, because we get to experience him every day.
Both players insist there has been no noticeable change in Paterno at practice beyond the fact that the coach would sometimes ride a golf cart between the separate fields for the offense and defense in Clearwater.
You can't blame him for wanting to relax a little bit for a bowl game, Ogbu said. But he's still doing the same thing, whether he's in a golf cart or walking -- he coaching us up and screaming at us and being the same old Joe.
He's on the field, Brackett added. And if you mess up and he's trying to focus on that one thing that day, he'll be in your face and pretty vocal and make sure you are not making that mistake ever again.
So has Paterno addressed the rumors with the players?
No, not at all, Brackett said. That's not Coach's style. The rumors are rumors, and no matter what you do, you just have to handle it and go about your business.
He's the same, Ogbu added. He's not gonna change. Joe is Joe. He's the same guy.