Outback Bowl preview

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 31, 2006

Associated Press

TAMPA, Fla. — Witty one moment, fussy the next.Joe Paterno brought an entertaining act to today’s Outback Bowl, and now the real fun is about to begin.

The 80-year-old Penn State coach is determined to not let a broken leg keep him off the field when the Nittany Lions face No. 17 Tennessee, so long as he feels he can do the job without being a distraction.

“I don’t want to be on the sideline where everybody’s worried about me because they’ve got to play a game,” Paterno said. “They’ve got to concentrate on what’s got to be done on the field and not worry about whether somebody might run over me.”

Tennessee will give the game a Rowan County flavor. Former East Rowan star lineman Ben Weisensel will be on the sidelines for the Volunteers. He’ll wear No. 68 and is a reserve offensive lineman.

But the focus is on JoePa.

Paterno showed up for Monday’s Outback Bowl in a jovial mood, clearly relishing the challenge of preparing the Nittany Lions (8-4) to face Tennessee (9-3), a team that appeared in a bowl game 16 consecutive seasons before going 5-6 in 2005.

Paterno hasn’t been on the sideline for a game since Nov. 4, when two players collided with the coach during a loss at Wisconsin, breaking his shin bone and tearing two knee ligaments in his left leg.

He had surgery the following day, then missed a Penn State game for the first time since 1977, watching the team play Temple from home on Nov. 11.

A week later, he returned to Beaver Stadium and took in the season finale against Michigan State from the press box.

Paterno and Volunteers coach Phillip Fulmer shared the podium at the first press conference of the week, exchanging kind words about one another’s program and touching on subjects ranging from the teams’ previous meetings to Paterno’s longevity.

Paterno, making a record 33rd appearance in a bowl game, is in his 41st season as head coach at Penn State.

Fulmer has guided Tennessee to a postseason game for the 14th time in 15 seasons, including a loss to the Nittany Lions in the 1994 Citrus Bowl.

“His legendary record is one thing, but it’s that he’s done it the right way,” Fulmer said, adding that he can’t imagine any of today’s brightest young coaches taking a job and remaining in the same position as long as Paterno or 77-year-old Florida State coach Bobby Bowden.

“I’ve been fortunate enough that I’ve outlived most of the boosters,” he said. “I’ve buried many of the pain in the rear ends.”