CLEARWATER, Fla. - Penn State coach Joe Paterno is looking at the Outback Bowl as a combination of this season's final game and the opener of the 2011 campaign.
The Nittany Lions continued their preparation on Wednesday for the New Year's Day game against Florida with a practice session at the Phillies' spring training complex.
"We've got a very young team," a spry-looking Paterno said. "We've got about 60 kids here that are freshmen and sophomores. Some of them are pretty good athletes that need some work. So I think in that sense you're hoping that you can get some things developed that are going to carry over to next year. But no matter what, you've got to play a team like Florida, you ought to try and win."
Florida's Urban Meyer will be coaching his last game with the Gators on Jan. 1. He announced his resignation earlier this month to spend more time with his family and because of health concerns.
"It ought to be an interesting game because of that," Paterno said. "I hate to see Urban get out of it because he's been a good coach and he's been a good person. You hate to see college [football] lose guys like that. I feel fortunate that we're here and particularly playing against a team with the tradition of Florida."
Paterno, major- college football's winningest coach, is wrapping up his record 45th season on the sideline and shows no signs of stepping down anytime soon. He's also the all-time leader with 24 bowl wins. Paterno is under contract through the 2011 season.
Both teams have 7-5 records.
Later Wednesday, NCAA president Mark Emmert named Paterno the 2011 recipient of the organization's Gerald R. Ford Award, which lauds leading advocates of intercollegiate athletics.
"For me, Coach Paterno is the definitive role model of what it means to be a college coach," Emmert said in a statement. Paterno is scheduled to receive the award at the NCAA convention Jan. 13 in San Antonio.
While JoePa keeps looking ahead, it hasn't prevented some fans from speculating - yet again - about his future. The latest round of Internet rumors has Paterno calling it quits after the Outback Bowl, even though he said last month that he hadn't given thought to not returning next year.
"None of this has any factual basis," Penn State vice president Bill Mahon, a spokesman for president Graham Spanier, said Wednesday in State College. "There have been no discussions whatsoever."
Paterno turned 84 on Tuesday and ate birthday cake during the team dinner after putting his players through a pair of practices. He plans to bring his extended family, which will include most of his 17 grandchildren, down for Christmas Eve.
"I hope Santa shows up, but not on Christmas Eve. I hope he shows up on Jan. 1," Paterno said with a smile.