Penn State quarterback Daryll Clark throws a pass during a practice in Daytona Beach, Fla., Tuesday. Penn State is preparing for the Capital One Bowl against LSU on Jan. 1, 2010.AP PHOTO
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Joe Paterno left the flip flops and swimsuit back home.
Just because his No. 11 Penn State Nittany Lions are practicing this week on a field lined with palm trees across the street from the beach, he wants everybody to know it doesn’t mean they’re on vacation.
Paterno was so eager to start preparation for the Capital One Bowl against No. 13 LSU he arrived with his Nittany Lions nearly two weeks before the New Year’s Day game. Even at 83, college football’s winningest coach likes to have a little fun.
He plans to let players spend time in Daytona Beach, about an hour from the Citrus Bowl stadium, before they head to Orlando on Christmas Eve to practice and enjoy theme parks while they prepare. Many players’ families are coming and so are most of his 17 grandchildren.
“I don’t get out much,” he joked.
Paterno went for a light walk on the beach early Tuesday morning, a day after the coach turned 83. He did little to celebrate his birthday.
“I prayed,” he said.
With unseasonably chilly temperatures dipping into the low 40s early in the morning, the Nittany Lions took to the practice field with a full squad for the first time in about 10 days in the afternoon. Some players were delayed a day because of the winter storm up north, but Paterno said everybody had arrived.
Much of the game plan still has to be installed for their meeting with the Tigers, the kind of Southeastern Conference program with speed and quickness that has ripped apart Big Ten defenses in recent bowl games.
Coach Les Miles is 4-0 in bowl games with LSU, including two BCS bowls, and the Tigers have outscored their opponents 157-44 in those games.
“We want to get familiar with what we’re going to do against LSU,” Paterno said. “LSU does a lot of different things than we’re used to, and they do it a lot faster.”
All the more reason Paterno wanted to get a head start. Maybe have a little fun, too.
Even with all the distractions at the beach and later when they arrive in the theme-park capital of the world, Paterno doesn’t plan to give players a curfew now.
It’s not the first time, either.
On years his team isn’t in a BCS bowl, Paterno often brings players down early to a “secondary” site first. For instance, Penn State has stayed at St. Pete Beach south of Tampa before playing in the Outback Bowl in years prior.
The last thing on his mind is players finding trouble.
“You just talk to them. If all the sudden I see we’re not having a good practice and we don’t have a lot of bounce, then I’ll say, ’OK. We’re going to bed,”’ he said.
These days, Paterno wants to appreciate the bowl experience even more.
Paterno’s 393 wins over his 44 seasons as Penn State head coach are five ahead of outgoing Florida State coach Bobby Bowden. But even Paterno can admit his career at State College is in its twilight years.
Every bowl trip might be his last at that site.
This will be Penn State’s fifth trip for a bowl game in Orlando and its first since 2003. The Nittany Lions’ lone win in four tries was a 31-13 victory over Tennessee in 1994.
Paterno would like to leave with a better mark this time. He also wants to have more fun now, too, or at least have his players enjoy the experience.
Players will have Christmas off, then they’ll gather for dinner and a player will play Santa Claus for the children. A trip to a theme park is already in order.
“We try to make it a family thing,” he said. “Being away for Christmas is not always easy.”
Penn State vs. LSU
1 p.m., Jan. 1, ABC