There are several ways for a coach to prepare his team for a bowl game. He can play the role of warden, closely monitoring the players' movements, restricting them to the team's practice facility and hotel while treating the entire experience as a week or more to be spent at hard labor since, obviously, the objective is to win, not to have fun. The other extreme is to turn your kids loose, to let them enjoy the sights and sounds of the area and to soak up the bowl committee's hospitality as their just desserts for a successful season, which, if all goes well, ends on a high note.
Perhaps the best example of those opposite schools of thought, at least on the professional level, is Super Bowl XV in the Louisiana Superdome, which concluded the 1980 NFL season. Sequestered far from the fleshly lures of Bourbon Street were Dick Vermeil's clean-living Eagles, who practiced hard and partied hardly at all. Their opponents, Tom Flores' Oakland Raiders, ogled strippers, imbibed extensively, stayed out late and generally lived up to their outlaw image.
The result of that contest - Raiders 27, Eagles 10 - suggests that a long leash works better than a short one. But not every situation, or every team, is the same.
Penn State's Joe Paterno is the winningest bowl coach of all time (24-11-1), in no small part because he recognizes that the best way to maximize results in the postseason is to blend elements of a strict disciplinarian with those of a semi-lax chaperone who doesn't mind what his charges do, so long as they don't run afoul of the law or break team rules that have applied all along.
"I want the kids to work hard, then the bowl game becomes a reward," said Paterno, who brought the Nittany Lions from frigid State College to sunny Florida the week before Christmas to get acclimated to the weather in which they have to face the University of Florida in the Jan. 1 Outback Bowl at Tampa's Raymond James Stadium, as well as to relax and have a good time. "It's fun to play against good teams, particularly when they're intersectional games. I also want to make sure they have a good time off the field.
"I don't have a curfew. My only rule is, 'If you misbehave, are you ready to go home? Because I'll sure enough send you home early.' Otherwise, let's go have some fun. But when we practice, let's practice hard so we can play as well as we can play."
Florida, which brings the same 7-5 record into the game as does Penn State, is a seven-point favorite because the Gators are perceived - probably correctly - as having the better talent, honed to a fine edge in blood feuds with other members of the Southeastern Conference, widely regarded as college football's toughest league. Coach Urban Meyer's collection of thoroughbred All-Americas supposedly have too much overall speed to be overtaken by Paterno's Big Ten plowhorses, and the fact that Meyer will be coaching his final game with the team figures to provide added incentive to give him a proper sendoff.
"Their kids are going to want to win that football game not only for the reasons you would expect, but because they want to send Urban off on the right foot," said Paterno, who knows a thing or two about how to motivate a team.
JoePa also has a knack for taking down favored SEC opponents who supposedly are too deep, too fast and too elusive to be handled by Penn State teams that often play at a higher level once they convene at a distraction-heavy bowl site like Tampa. Although Penn State is just 14-15 against SEC teams during the Paterno era, the Lions are 8-4 vs. the SEC in bowl games. They beat Georgia, 27-23, in the Sugar Bowl that concluded the 1982 season, a victory that brought Paterno his second national championship. Penn State also beat LSU, 16-9, in the Orange Bowl that wrapped up the 1973 season as well as a 12-0 record for the winners.
"We've played some of our better games against Southeastern Conference teams," Paterno noted. "We've also had good luck with the weather. Take last year [in Orlando, Fla.]. I was scared to death of LSU with their speed. Yet when we went down there, we had one of the wettest fields that we've ever played on. It was more of a handicap to them than it was to us. We played Auburn when we had the same kind of weather, when young [Terry] Bowden was coaching there."
Gifts from the weather gods or not, Penn State edged LSU, 19-17, in the Capital One Bowl ending the 2009 season, and trounced Auburn, 43-14, in the Outback Bowl that wrapped up the 1995 campaign. *