LSU COACH Les Miles and his legendary Penn State counterpart, Joe Paterno, are in agreement on one thing. When the Tigers and the Nittany Lions square off in the Capital One Bowl Jan. 1 in Orlando, Fla., it'll be a great opportunity for some of their young kids to just play.
"I have a 6-year-old that can't wait for us to get there," Miles said of his youngest child's eagerness to experience the world's No. 1 tourist destination.
The same can be said of Paterno's more extensive brood, whose last trip with the family patriarch to the Capital One Bowl culminated in a 13-9 loss to Auburn on Jan. 1, 2003. Not that losing is ever enjoyable, but disappointment is a little easier to swallow if it's preceded by a certain amount of fun in the sun.
"I've got 17 grandkids; the oldest is 14," Paterno said yesterday during a conference call with the media after the Penn State-LSU pairing had been formally announced. "They kept bugging me, 'Hey, we want to go back down to Orlando. We want to get in the Peabody Hotel and look at the ducks. We want to go to Disney World, to Sea World.'
"It's a fantastic place to take a football team. It'll be a fun game for us."
If Paterno is disappointed that his 11th-ranked Nits (10-2) missed out on a BCS bowl berth - the Big Ten Conference's representatives are Ohio State in the Rose Bowl against Oregon and Iowa in the Orange Bowl against Georgia Tech - he concealed it well. There had been speculation that Penn State's higher national profile, and that of its octogenarian coach (Paterno turns 83 on Dec. 21), might get it the BCS slot that went to the Hawkeyes, despite the fact Iowa won its head-to-head matchup with the Nits on Sept. 26. But JoePa seemed genuinely pleased his team would be playing No. 13 LSU (9-3).
The two traditional powers have met on the football field only once, in the 1974 Orange Bowl, when Heisman Trophy-winning tailback John Cappelletti helped the Nits complete a 12-0 season by edging the Tigers, 16-9.
Paterno is no taskmaster on bowl trips, particularly to venues where his players can feel rewarded for a good season. Paterno plans to bring his team to Florida early - he said Dec. 20 is the target date - so they can see the sights and unwind a bit before getting down to the serious business of winning what should be a very difficult football game. It's hard to argue with the modus operandi; Penn State is 23-11-1 in bowl games during the Paterno era, with four victories over Southeastern Conference opponents since 1992.
Maybe the best way to prepare for a game of this magnitude is for the Nits to hit Space Mountain and the Epcot Center before trying to figure out a way to outhit the Tigers on the field.
Steve Hogan, chief executive officer of the Capital One Bowl, which normally pairs the third-place teams from the Big Ten and SEC, is ecstatic to have this matchup.
"I can't tell you how excited we are," Hogan said. "Orlando is absolutely stoked. It's going to be one whale of a ballgame, in my opinion as good if not better than some of the BCS games."
Paterno said he has held the LSU program in high regard since the 1950s, when he was an assistant coach under Rip Engle at Penn State and Paul Dietzel was guiding the Tigers to the 1958 national championship.
"We debated a couple of times about trying to play each other," Paterno recalled. "I've spoken in [Louisiana] to high school coaches and so forth. I've always had a great deal of respect for the kind of football LSU has played through the years."
This year was no exception, and Paterno said he began to target LSU as a possible opponent late in the season as various scenarios arose or fell by the wayside.
"You always try to watch people who are successful," Paterno said. "I've seen a lot of LSU games live on TV and I've also watched tapes. We have people tape just about every game that's on television. I've looked at LSU to watch some of the things they do defensively and offensively. I know a little bit more about them than maybe I would somebody else, because they have been so successful.
"We're all copycats. Some of the things they've done, I've tried to put into what we're doing."
LSU has won two BCS national championships in the past seven seasons, capturing the crystal football under Nick Saban (now at Alabama) to cap the 2003 season and adding the 2006 title under Miles.
Miles, a former assistant at Michigan when Penn State joined the Big Ten in 1993, is no less complimentary of what Paterno has built in Happy Valley since he took over as head coach in 1966.