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JoePa's roller coaster decade ends at Cap 1 Bowl

ORLANDO, Fla. -- A trip to the Capital One Bowl five years ago would have been considered progress in Happy Valley. Now it's what Penn State settles for when it gets shut out of the BCS.

It's been a roller coaster of a decade for coach Joe Paterno and the Nittany Lions.

So perhaps it's fitting that the decade for No. 11 Penn State ends in Orlando, the nation's amusement park capital. After a fall from college football's elite from 2000-04, Paterno has Penn State winning consistently again -- to the point where 10-2 and a New Year's Day bowl berth might be considered ho-hum.

The turnaround hasn't been lost on players such as senior Josh Hull, whose class has been involved in 39 of the program's 50 wins since 2005. That's nearly twice as many as the 26 victories Penn State had the previous five seasons.

"Coach Paterno and the rest of the staff were looking for a good group of kids that could get this Penn State program back on the right track," the linebacker said after practice Tuesday morning at an Orlando high school. "So we're very thankful that the coaches showed us enough faith, they saw enough things in the kids they recruited to turn this program around."

Friday's game against No. 13 LSU will be the last in blue and white for Hull, fellow linebacker Sean Lee, quarterback Daryll Clark and 17 other seniors, many of whom were being recruited while the program was still stuck in the doldrums.

It also could be the last game for two highly regarded juniors, linebacker Navorro Bowman and tailback Evan Royster. Both players said Tuesday they wouldn't make decisions on entering the NFL draft until after the bowl, though Bowman appears to have more to ponder since he has been mentioned as a potential first-round pick.

A third-team All-America linebacker, Bowman said there is a chance he will return to Penn State despite a second straight standout season. He already has his bachelor's degree, though the more important grades when it comes to his NFL future are those he is awaiting from the league's draft advisory board.

"Joe (Paterno) is keeping that under wraps," Bowman said. "Focus on this game and we'll talk about that afterward."

At least JoePa is sure to stay, with two years left on a three-year extension signed in December 2008. He turned 83 on Dec. 21 and shows no sign of turning in his trademark jet-black sneakers.

His age hasn't appeared to turn off top talents such as Bowman or Royster, or the highly regarded recruiting class that has verbally committed to come to Happy Valley in 2010.

Paterno gives credit to his assistant coaches.

"Well it's gratifying to me," Paterno said earlier this month. "I'm pleased about the squad but I just don't think we are giving the assistant coaches enough credit."

A goal-line stand late in a November 2004 game at Indiana seemed to be the crucible for Penn State's turnaround. Paterno's club was 2-7 going into a game they held on to win 22-18.

Since then, there have been two Big Ten championships and two lucrative Bowl Championship Series berths as part of a string of five straight bowl appearances.

"I feel really proud about that ... really getting Penn State back up to the top like they used to be," said tight end Mickey Shuler, a Pennsylvania native whose father, Mickey Sr., was a standout tight end with the Nittany Lions and in the NFL. "I'm looking forward to finishing up my career strong."

It's been an eventful decade for Paterno off the field, too.

He's had two surgeries to address major injuries, including a hip replacement last year. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2007. He endured a legal tussle waged between university administrators and the media over whether his salary should be public information, a tug-of-war that ended when a court ordered Penn State to release the records.

Documents released in May showed Paterno made more than $1.03 million base salary plus any bonuses, not including compensation from outside sources.

He's also sure to end this decade as the victor in the unofficial race with Florida State coach Bobby Bowden for the winningest coach in major college football. Paterno's 393 wins are five ahead of Bowden, who is retiring after the Gator Bowl on Jan. 1.

Yet for all the success the last five years, there is a segment of die-hard fans who want more -- this is, after all, a school that won national titles in 1982 and 1986.

Some are dissatisfied that the Nittany Lions can't consistently beat Ohio State and, most recently, Iowa; others want Penn State to get back into the perennial national title contender stratosphere that includes schools like Florida and Texas.

"I think we're ready to play with anybody," Paterno said in an interview with The Associated Press last month when asked about Penn State's national stature. "I think we're competitive."