Penn State, Southern California Meet In Rose Bowl

One of college football's most celebrated bowl games gets under way Thursday in Pasadena, Calif., as Penn State and the University of Southern California meet in the Rose Bowl. Christine Brennan, sports columnist with USA Today, tells Steve Inskeep that both teams and their coaches are top notch.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The ball came down at midnight in New York City, but of course the New Year really begins in Pasadena, California. There'll be a parade and later today the Rose Bowl. It's a college football tradition that brings together the champions of two of the major football conferences, and this year it's Penn State against the University of Southern California. The many people in the crowd will include USA Today columnist Christine Brennan who's a regular guest on this program. Christine, good morning.

Ms. CHRISTINE BRENNAN (Sports Columnist, USA Today): Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: And happy New Year to you.

Ms. BRENNAN: You too.

INSKEEP: Well, this is always true to some degree, but there's as much attention to the coaches as the players in this game.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BRENNAN: That's right, our cult of personality. In sports these days there's none bigger in college football than Joe Paterno, 82 years old. He's been coaching - the head coach at Penn State since 1966, and he's had hip replacement surgery about six weeks ago. But nothing's stopping him, the winningest coach in college football. And he's got Penn State back ranked number six in the country, 11 and 1. His counterpart is Pete Carroll. Now, Joe Paterno calls him a kid.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BRENNAN: Pete Carroll is 57 years old, but he's terrific. USC has been the dominant program really in this century under Pete Carroll who came in 2001. And USC's been ranked in the top five at the end of the season six years in a row. So Pete Carroll against Joe Paterno, that is as much a story of this Rose Bowl as anything else.

INSKEEP: You know, I flipped on Penn State during the regular season, and they showed the shot of Joe Paterno who was not on the sideline. He was up in a press box, barely visible. I mean, is he really able to run the team in that circumstance?

Ms. BRENNAN: Yes. I think, you know, he's got great assistants. A lot of these head coaches, they don't call all the plays. Any head coach, you know, there's someone - a defensive specialist, an offensive specialist. So it's not always about the head coach. But I think it's just that aura of JoePa, as they call him, that brings kids to Penn State still, even though he's old enough to be their grandfather or maybe their great-grandfather. I mean, this is one of the legends. And if you're going to tune into this game, watch great defenses, whatever, that's fine. But you're really tuning in to see one of the greats of all time, Paterno, and one of the future greats of all time in Pete Carroll.

INSKEEP: So who's favored and why?

Ms. BRENNAN: Well, USC is favored and - because they're a better team. They've got the best defense in the country, ranked number one - maybe the best defense we've seen in college football in 10 years. But Penn State also has a great defense. The reason that these two teams are not in the national championship is they each have one loss. They're both 11 and 1. Penn State lost to Iowa, and USC lost at Oregon State. So if it were not for those two games, Penn State and USC could very easily be playing in the national championship game.

INSKEEP: Christine Brennan, while I've got you on the line, I want to ask about these zillion bowls that we have once again this year. And of course, we're told that college football's strange bowl system is the way it is partly because of tradition, but partly because there's a lot of money to be made. But is there still as much money to be made for all these bowls in this economy?

Ms. BRENNAN: It's a great question. The Motor City Bowl, for example, the GMAC Bowl...

INSKEEP: Troubled companies, Detroit automakers, GMAC.

Ms. BRENNAN: Yes. On and on it goes. And there are 34 bowl games this year, Steve, which is probably too many for any of us in a good economy or a bad economy. And I've got to believe next year we'll see fewer because companies that are laying people off, how in the world can they look at their shareholders or their employees and say, oh, by the way, it's still important to host a bowl game? I just don't see it.

INSKEEP: Can you have a bowl without a big corporate sponsor?

Ms. BRENNAN: Not these days, really. I mean, the Rose Bowl, as you may notice, is still called the Rose Bowl.

INSKEEP: Yes.

Ms. BRENNAN: There's no corporate name attached as there are with, say, the Allstate Sugar or the FedEx Orange or the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BRENNAN: That's my personal favorite, but I think...

INSKEEP: Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Ms. BRENNAN: No.

INSKEEP: Go Credit Union.

Ms. BRENNAN: But I think that - no. The $18 million payoff from the Rose Bowl, for the Big Ten and the Pac-10, you've got to generate that money. Americans also are not going to stop watching football. I think, therefore, you'll see these great, big bowl games - the ones that are traditional - they'll stick around for sure.

INSKEEP: Christine Brennan of USA Today, enjoy the game.

Ms. BRENNAN: Thank you very much, Steve.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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