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The Lion In Winter

The young coach and the old coach shook hands at midfield. It was, if you think about it, one of the strangest handshakes in college football history. The young coach was a man in the prime of his coaching life. His teams have won two of the last four national championships. The old coach was a legend who has been at the same university for 61 years, so long that one of the school's libraries is named for his family. He won his last national championship 24 years ago, when the young coach was a graduate assistant. The young coach was the one retiring. "Congratulations," 84-year-old Joe Paterno told 46-year-old Urban Meyer, as the cameras surrounded them. "I wish you the best."

On the surface the Outback Bowl pitted Meyer's disappointing 7--5 Florida team against Paterno's raw 7--5 Penn State team on New Year's Day in Tampa, surrounded by 114 Outback Steakhouse logos. But beyond the Bloomin' Onions, there was something more profound. Meyer, after a meteoric 10-year head-coaching career, had decided to retire so he could, as coaches say, "spend more time with my family." It was the second straight year Meyer had decided to retire; his 2009 departure lasted about long enough to see all seven Harry Potter movies. This time his decision seemed more enduring.

"It's just time," he said, an odd thing to hear from a young coach who in a mere decade had turned around Bowling Green, sparked the spread-offense revolution at Utah and won two national titles in six seasons at Florida. His sudden retirement left people in Gainesville grasping for answers and making predictions. Would he change his mind again? Would he go pro? Would he go into television? Meyer said only that he wanted to watch his two teenage daughters play sports.

Meyer's planned retirement, announced early in December, played out all week against rumors that Paterno, with his record 401 wins, would also be calling it quits after the game. The rumors were unfounded, but they attacked in swarms.

The first wave suggested that Paterno's health was failing. The rumored health issues might as well have been pulled at random from WebMD. The most stubborn was that Paterno had checked into a hospital after a heart attack or a stroke or some vague but serious illness. Puzzled, Paterno's daughter Mary Kay Hort called home to hear a healthy Joe reply in his Brooklyn whine, "Whadya listen to that stuff?"

A second wave of rumors had Paterno family members flying into Tampa from all over to be there for his retirement speech—don't people know Paternos always go to Nittany Lions bowl games?—and a third had Penn State already contacting replacements. (Tony Dungy seemed to be the front runner.)

The rumors were not only unfounded, but they were also, as Joe's wife, Sue, put it, "absurd lies." They lingered only because Joe refused to quash them. "Whadya listen to that stuff?" he grumbled to Penn State public relations people. Paterno was too worried about Florida's special teams, among other things, to deny nonsense. Meyer's teams block a lot of punts, and Paterno had a bad feeling. He would say that he and his coaches prepared harder against the blocked punt than any of his Lions teams.

When Paterno finally spoke out on Dec. 28—"I honest to goodness have not thought of it," he said about retirement—the rumors dwindled but did not completely stop. Against the backdrop of Meyer's burnout, people have a hard time understanding how a man in his 80s can maintain his enthusiasm and coaching sharpness. Paterno has a hard time understanding how his team's 58--19 record with two Big 10 titles over the last six years can leave anyone thinking he suddenly can't coach. "I'm different from Urban," Paterno said of Meyer's farewell. "I've got people call up saying, 'When the hell are you getting out?'"

Not only is Paterno different from Meyer, but he is also likely the last of a breed: the coach who built a life around a single major-college football program. Yes, there is intense pressure to win at State College, as much as anywhere, but Paterno has insulated himself. Athletic director Tim Curley walked on for Paterno 38 years ago. His coaches have been with him for an average of 17 years and include his son Jay, who has been there for 16. "I'm comfortable," Paterno says. "And I still enjoy it."

The Outback Bowl itself was no thing of beauty, but it was spirited. Penn State seemed the better team except for turnovers and that moment when Florida's Solomon Patton broke through and, yep, blocked Anthony Fera's punt. Paterno shook his head—all that work for nothing. A late Florida interception sealed the 37--24 victory. Meyer's wife, Shelley, and their children rushed in to offer hugs, and players dumped blue Gatorade on Meyer's head, and everything was tears and laughter.

The clock expired, and the two coaches met at midfield like two eras passing in the late afternoon. There is the Meyer era, in which things move impossibly fast, where legends rise and fall with each news cycle. And there is the Paterno era, in which a coach simply does his job day after day. They exchanged brief words and went their separate ways—the young coach into whatever vision he has of retirement, and the old coach back to Pennsylvania to work on protecting his punter.

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Against the backdrop of Urban Meyer's burnout, people can't understand how Joe Paterno, at 84, can maintain his enthusiasm and sharpness.