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College Football / Richard Hoffer : It's More Than a Game on Saturday Afternoon in College Town, U.S.A.

September 18, 1987|RICHARD HOFFER

At 1:30 a.m., roughly three hours after the game concluded, Route 322 was still a 90-mile long red light. Cars and motor homes, their brake-lights lit most of the way in stop-and-go traffic, slowly snaked through the Pennsylvania mountains to Harrisburg. The first 10 miles out of State College took an hour to travel. And then it was 2:30 a.m. and still miles to go (80) before I sleep.

But this is what college football is like, some places. Places where the identity and economy are dependent on college life--places such as Notre Dame, Ann Arbor, Lincoln. Remote places where the profile of the community is so dependent on the school that the place might as well be called . . . State College.

Consider State College, a town of 30,000, whose population more than doubles when school is in session. Penn State supports this town in the usual ways. College Avenue, a main street so determinedly 1940-ish you nearly expect to bump into Andy Hardy, is a row of clothing stores and record shops that obviously caters to the college crowd. And yet it is not the college crowd that makes this economy unusual. This is a company town, but the company happens to be college football.

A Penn State University study has shown that Penn State football brings in more than $20 million to the town. With the turnover of dollars, that means more than $40 million in business, or nearly $6 million for each home game.

This has something to do with the isolation of the town. Since 54,000 of the 86,000 fans, who attend games at Beaver Stadium, must travel more than 25 miles to get to State College, they must spend money on items other than tickets and concessions. Hotels take in $2 million, restaurants $2.6 million. Those cute shops on College Avenue pull in close to $2 million on football weekends.

And to judge from the traffic on Route 322, there is money left at gas stations. Not everybody, you see, can get a room in State College.

But do they pay like the pros? Illinois Coach Mike White, who has long been dogged by rumors of cheating, let go with this recently: "We bring in junior college players where we have weaknesses. That's one of our recruiting advantages. We recruit just like they do in pro football. If we need a safety, we go out and get one."

Talk like that, and the speed in which he's turned that program around, and NCAA probation in 1984, have set him up as a suspicious character indeed, even though there's nothing else to suggest he runs anything but a clean shop. Also fueling rumors, the sudden appearance of heralded passer Jeff George, who left Purdue, alighted briefly at Miami and then transferred to Illinois.

Said Purdue Coach Fred Akers: "The last look at this has not been taken." The implication: Illinois needed a quarterback and went out and got one.

The Ironhead Diet (one yard, one pound): Craig (Ironhead) Heyward continues to mystify. Pitt's junior tailback, who has rushed for 251 yards in the Panthers' two victories, weighs in at a hefty 265 pounds, kind of a lot for a tailback. Actually, it's kind of a lot for anybody not actively involved in sumo wrestling. Yet, the Ironhead continues to gain weight at nearly the rate he gains yardage. He could be the leading rusher this year but, in doing so, could blow up like that Sta-Puft marshmallow man from the "Ghostbusters" movie.

His coach, Mike Gottfried, is concerned, even though the tailback (he definitely put the tail back in tailback) seems unhindered by the baggage. Gottfried has had an assistant chart his meals and even agreed to go on a diet with Heyward. Gottfried lost 45 pounds. Ironhead gained five. Gottfried asked Heyward to make a list of everything he ate in a day. Heyward returned with a list that "included every meat, vegetable and fruit known to man."

Heyward, who has gained 30 pounds and 1,546 yards in his two-plus seasons, is largely unperturbed. Emphasis on largely. He probably envisions a future playing defensive tackle for the Chicago Bears.

Now that Bill Curry is invoking the Bear's greatness at Alabama, and presumably stifling criticism there that a coach was chosen from outside Bryant's "family," it can be told. Curry and the late Bear Bryant actually have shared a number of peculiar moments throughout their two careers, peculiar enough that even Curry calls them eerie.

Here's one of them. It happened at a Senior Bowl, after Curry completed his career at Georgia Tech. Bryant, one of the coaches, took the young man under his wing for some reason. Among other things, he took Curry to several speaking engagements to show what fine youth the South produces.

The two even went to the track and the Bear produced a $100 bill for Curry to wager on behalf of his team's offensive linemen. Curry lost a $2 bet or two and saved the change to split with the linemen later. Years later, of course, he would be handed the Bear's legacy. It looks, coming off the team's victory at Penn State, as if he'll conserve that as well.

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