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BILL PLASCHKE

Penn State's Joe Paterno, USC's Pete Carroll share a zest for the game

It helps to explain their success through the years.

January 01, 2009|BILL PLASCHKE

Pete Carroll is leaving the practice field wearing a gray sweatshirt, khakis, athletic shoes.

Joe Paterno is headed to the practice field wearing a gray sweatshirt, khakis, athletic shoes.

One difference. The cuffs.

True to his legend, even on a stroll through a hotel lobby when next to nobody is watching, Paterno's cuffs are rolled up above his shoes, the quintessential 1920s hipster.

Says Carroll: "I love those cuffs, I really love them. I roll my pants up sometimes for the team, we all have fun with it. It's a classic, Joe is a classic, those cuffs are the greatest."

Says Paterno: "He loves my what?"

::

Pete Carroll is talking in quick, cool bursts.

"Joe is remarkable, simply remarkable. To be that tough for so long, to endure so much, to stay in one place and keep winning, he's a once-in-a-lifetime coach."

Joe Paterno is talking in quick, antique bursts.

"Pete, boy, he's not only a great recruiter, but he knows what do with the players once he gets them. That kid is quite a coach."

That kid is, um, 57 years old.

"At this stage of my life, pretty much everyone is a kid."

--

For the guys running the show in today's Rose Bowl, it's more than a football game, it's a fable.

Call it "Coaches in Wonderland."

Or, "Pete Through the Horn-Rimmed Glasses."

On one sideline will be perhaps the best college football coach of our generation.

Looking down from the clouds -- OK, the press box -- will be perhaps the best college football coach in history.

Maybe it's more than a fable, maybe it's a movie. Call it, "Oh God, Two!!"

It's Pete Carroll of USC against Joe Paterno of Penn State and, oh yeah, about the movies . . .

During Wednesday's final news conference, Carroll was comparing the eternally young 82-year-old Paterno to the hottest film character in the country, that Brad Pitt-played character who ages in reverse.

Says Carroll: "He might be the living image of Benjamin Button."

Says Paterno: "The living example of whom?"

--

Although he may have once celebrated the emergence of talkies, Paterno today explains that he has seen only two movies in the last 40 years -- "E.T." and "Titanic."

"When I saw the Titanic, I felt like I was in the bath," he says.

Naturally, to a guy who has bobbed around for nearly half a century in the shipwreck that is college football, a natural disaster would feel like a warm soak.

Says Carroll: "The thing that gets me is, how does he do it? How has he had the energy to last all those years? How does he keep getting after it?"

Says Paterno: "Hey, that kid runs around pretty good himself."

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There is a difference in size. Carroll, a former college safety, is bigger and sturdier than you might expect. Paterno is much smaller, two giant eyes atop two giant cuffs.

There is a difference in voices. Carroll practically oozes beach speak -- everything is "cool." Paterno sounds like one of those old men sitting on a Brooklyn stoop complaining about the Yankees.

There is a difference in nicknames. Carroll doesn't have one. Paterno has one of the coolest ever.

He is JoePa. Carroll would be, er, Petco?

There is, most obviously, a difference in resumes. Paterno has coached 35 more college seasons, winning 296 more college games.

Yet both men have won two national championships, both men have run teams that have dominated eras, both men have turned down chances to go to the NFL.

If anybody could eventually become the next Paterno, it would be . . .

"No, no way, not me," Carroll says. "Never. I once couldn't imagine being in one place more than five years. For me to do it the way I do it, I have to be physical, get out there with the guys, and that gets tougher with time."

Carroll said bothering him more would be the losses, noting that, in a strange way, Paterno's 126 defeats are almost more impressive than his record 383 wins.

"Losing any game wears you down, and to be able to mentally survive losses for all those years, even one or two losses a year, that's amazing," Carroll said. "I don't know if I could eventually deal with the losing."

Paterno chuckles.

"State College is relaxed, it's a little easier to deal with everything there," he says. "Here in Los Angeles? Harder for Pete. Tough, tough town."

--

This week, Carroll and Paterno were talking about the chances of JoePa -- who is battling constant pain from recent hip replacement surgery -- coaching from the sideline.

The conversation reportedly went like this:

Paterno: "I think I'm probably going to go upstairs, but if you would agree not to throw the ball more than 15, 19 times . . . we can get that game over in less than three hours, I might be on the sidelines."

Carroll: "If I see you on the sidelines, we're going to throw 50 times."

Both men were joking. They truly like each other. You could tell by how they spoke about each other this week. They praised, they nudged, they joked, a crotchety father and his silly son, history bumping up against the future, arms thrown over shoulders, laughing at the wonder of it all.

Says Carroll: "A couple of times I have followed Joe into a living room during recruiting, and all I could say to the player's family was, 'What was he like? What did he say?' I mean, I'm really a huge fan."

Says Paterno: "That kid's got it going on, doesn't he?"

--

They first met several years ago at a reception.

Says Carroll: "Joe and his wife were the life of the party. Dancing and singing, a real kick. I had no idea."

Says Paterno: "I remember that. But it was Pete and his wife who were the fun ones."

They will meet again today, and here's hoping we see it.

Here's hoping that Paterno makes it down to the field soon after the game, and that Carroll sticks around long enough to greet him, no losers, all winners, especially those lucky enough to be watching.

It would be quite a post-game hug, no? The granddaddy of them all.

--

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

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