Penn State's coach, addressing reporters for the last time before Saturday's Outback Bowl against Florida, mentioned that while growing up in Brooklyn he had seen Rocky Marciano spar, and bouts involving Sugar Ray Robinson and Archie Moore. That Paterno's dad said Moore was the best fighter, pound for pound, of his era, and when young Joe asked why Moore was a relative unknown the elder Paterno said, “You know about the Mafia, don't you?”
The whole thing was an entertaining segue, after a member of the Fourth Estate asked Paterno if he had met Phillies pitcher Roy Halladay while the Nittany Lions were working out at the Phils' spring training complex in Clearwater, as they did when they first arrived in Florida.
Paterno had. He called the 33-year-old Halladay “an impressive young man,” and like so many others marveled at the pitcher's work ethic. But legendary boxing trainer Angelo Dundee, a Clearwater resident, also stopped by one of PSU's workouts, prompting Paterno to go on a tangent.
Paterno commanded the room Friday much like one of Dundee's protégés, Muhammad Ali, used to command the ring. The 84-year-old coach was witty and charming and light on his feet, floating like a butterfly without stinging like a bee. He was the guy all of us had seen for years on end, instead of the tired, downtrodden guy he often seemed to be at times during the regular season.
“I think we'll play well tomorrow,” he said at one point, “as well as we can, I think.”
But Paterno, 3-0 in Outback Bowls and at 24-11-1 the winningest all-time bowl coach, said he is worried about the heat -- temperatures are supposed to be in the high 70s Saturday -- as well as Florida's speed. He also wonders how the Gators might respond in Urban Meyer's last game as head coach.
“I expect them tomorrow to be a team that's on a mission,” Paterno said.
But he also said motivation is a case-by-case thing. That prompted another story, this one about Lydell Mitchell and Franco Harris. As they were preparing to leave Penn State in the early '70s, pro scouts used to ask Paterno about the difference between the two.
Both were extremely talented, he said.
“But,” Paterno added, “if I told Lydell Mitchell to run through that wall, he'd run through that wall. If I told Franco Harris to run through that wall, he'd go over and feel for the soft spots.”
Paterno said he has a hard time finding soft spots in the Gators -- though you knew he'd say that, right? -- even though Florida brings a 7-5 record into the game, same as the Lions.
The Gators' speed is “going to be the biggest problem we have,” he said.
“We've tried to emphasize the fact that you've got to have good (defensive) position,” he said, “and don't underestimate their ability to run -- keep everything inside of some people. And then we've got to tackle.”
Of course, that always seems to be the storyline, whenever an SEC team plays a Big Ten team. It came up last year, when PSU faced LSU in the Capital One Bowl. And on that occasion, Paterno said, “The Good Lord took care of me.”
A steady rain turned the field into a quagmire, negating whatever quickness advantage the Tigers might have had. And the Lions won, 19-17.
Saturday's sultry weather, by contrast, figures to leave some of the bigger guys huffing and puffing.
“They sound like newspaper guys,” Paterno said with a laugh.
Defensive end Jack Crawford (foot) is expected to return to the banged-up defense, as are linebackers Mike Mauti (shoulder) and Khairi Fortt (shoulder/neck). Defensive end Eric Latimore (wrist) is not. Paterno also said it is unlikely punter Anthony Fera will be available; he underwent an appendectomy late in the season.
And in general the coach said, “This has been a little bit more of a trying year for us, because we've got so many young kids, and we've got so many injuries.”
He then mentioned how Pat Devlin's transfer to Delaware left the Lions in a position where they “had to start all over” at quarterback.
“There were a lot of things this year that were a little bit tougher for me,” Paterno said. “I wasn't quite sure I knew some kids. It takes a while to get know them a little bit. But I feel a lot more comfortable with them.”
And on Saturday, they ought to at least have a puncher's chance.