Different Feel For Penn State

Paterno and company are enjoying themselves at the Big Ten's preseason event in Chicago this year. It stands in contrast to the chilly reception they received in 2005, when the Nittany Lions felt snubbed at media day and used it to fuel an 11-1 run.

CHICAGO — Late in his 15-minute address Tuesday afternoon at Big Ten media day, Joe Paterno noticed a couple of league officials scurrying through the crowd to deliver handheld microphones to reporters. From behind those ever-thickening bifocals, his eyes lit up.

“You guys are in better shape than my team,” he cracked.

A year ago, with Penn State coming off two consecutive losing seasons, such a remark might not have come off as a lighthearted jab. It might have had some disquieting overtones. But after an 11-1 season and an Orange Bowl victory over Florida State, the Nittany Lions have reason to smile once again.

And smile they did during the first day of their two-day junket to the steamy Midwest. Paterno joked about his team's fitness, about his “cocky” coaching attitude and, in one of the more squeamish moments in the annals of Big Ten media day, about a recent prostate exam. Said Paterno, “I feel a little better this year than I did last year.” Let the record show that the reference was to his team, not his urinary tract.

Though they weren't cited as favorites to claim the conference title, the Nittany Lions were mentioned by several coaches as likely contenders. Moreover, senior linebacker Paul Posluszny was named the league's preseason defensive player of the year, an honor he characteristically downplayed.

“I think that goes to show that people are looking for big things from us as a whole,” said Posluszny, last year's Butkus Award winner.

That those people are looking for anything at all is a refreshing change for Penn State. The Lions felt snubbed last year and used the absence of any discernable buzz as motivation throughout the season.

This year?

“There's a difference,” Posluszny said. “You can just tell. There's a different feeling about us in general.

“But when you really think about it, what we did last year isn't going to help us win a single game this fall. We have to take it as it is, and, once we get back home, work hard, get ready for camp and be ready for the fall. There's a different feeling because of the year we had last year, but it really doesn't matter. We have to take it the same way.”

Ohio State was named the preseason favorite to win the conference title. Michigan finished second in the poll of media members, while Iowa was third.

The Buckeyes return eight offensive starters including senior quarterback Troy Smith, who was named the league's preseason offensive player of the year. Smith threw for 342 yards in Ohio State's victory over Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl, 167 of them to junior receiver Ted Ginn. His presence helps explain why the Buckeyes are favored despite having lost nine starters on defense.

“You have to have a trigger,” Illinois coach Ron Zook said. “Ohio State has a guy who, every time he takes a snap, is going to make something happen. Anytime you have a quarterback like that, it gives you a chance.”

The three-hour news conference was somber at times, with a number of coaches paying homage to Randy Walker. The exuberant Northwestern coach died in June at age 52 of an apparent heart attack.

“He really was a delightful person and an excellent football coach,” Paterno said. “I knew his wife, but not well, and the whole family. Everybody always spoke well of him, and in all my experiences with him, he was a first-class guy. We were all shocked, obviously.”

In July, former Wildcats linebacker Pat Fitzgerald was chosen to succeed Walker. After his appointment, Fitzgerald sought out his players for one-on-one discussions and fielded condolences from other coaches, Paterno among them.

The youngest coach in Division I-A at age 31, Fitzgerald said he has been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support he and the school have received.

“I've got a laundry list of people I need to call back,” he said. “Thank goodness for text messaging.”

NOTES

• Asked the obligatory question about how much longer he plans to coach, Paterno offered no timetable. “I'm going to coach as long as I feel good about it and I'm excited about it,” he said.

Paterno said he has been feeling good physically except for some swelling in his right leg — a problem that bothered the 79-year-old coach when he climbed Mount Nittany during a family outing.

Paterno said that after a recent physical, his doctor told him he could coach for 10 more years.

• Penn State unveiled its 2007 schedule in its entirety. Next year's slate will begin with nonconference games against Florida International, Notre Dame and Buffalo, all at Beaver Stadium. The Lions will also play Temple in Philadelphia, and will play Big Ten rivals Iowa and Indiana for the first time since 2004. Minnesota and Northwestern will rotate off the schedule.

QUOTES

Purdue coach Joe Tiller on his team's offensive philosophy: “We will continue to throw it until we get hot. Once we get hot, we will throw it.”

• Indiana coach Terry Hoeppner, the next-to-last speaker at media day, to the reporters who stayed for his 15-minute address: “I'm surprised you're still here.”

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