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YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollectionsJoe Paterno

Penn State Usually Gets Benefit of Doubt

November 08, 1987|KEN DENLINGER | The Washington Post

When Penn State was dreaming of national football glory, Maryland was basking in it. Before winning his second national championship last year, Joe Paterno's best short-term record was not much better than that of a Maryland coach--Jim Tatum.

Once that marinates a while in the mind, a couple of questions surface: Why did Penn State get so good? How can Penn State's stadium sprout from about the size of Maryland's to the fifth largest in the country?

Neither national excellence nor that splendid stadium it routinely stuffs came as quickly for Penn State as many believe. There are other misconceptions about the Nittany Lions, and their relationship with Maryland.

If any Penn Stater should the 29-1 imbalance in the rivalry, a Marylander can honestly say: "One reason's because you never played us when we were at our best."

It only seems as though Penn State and Maryland have gone after each other annually forever. In fact, the Terrapins have played Johns Hopkins and Western Maryland more often.

Why these neighbors only met six times before 1960 may have something to do with the perception of Penn State being an Eastern school and Maryland planted firmly in the South.

Even though Penn State rarely has been bad (its last losing season was 1938), playing Maryland in the early 1950s almost surely would have been embarrassing.

From 1950 through 1955, Tatum's teams compiled a 58-8-2 record and won a national championship. Paterno's best six-season won-lost stretch, from 1968 through 1973, was 62-6.

Paterno and others who bleed blue and white insist the Lions had the best team in the country after three of those seasons. Few others agreed.

Very likely, those three missed national titles cost Paterno the chance to climb over Knute Rockne as the greatest coach in the history of college football. If he says that's not vital to his life, believe him; if he says it's not significant, reach for some truth serum.

Paterno is the thickest, and perhaps only active, thread that connects Penn State's trying to emulate Maryland's success and actually exceeding it.

He arrived in 1950, with the only other head coach Penn State has had in the 38 seasons since. Rip Engle's goals were lofty, although never so grandiose as those of the fairly obscure assistant who succeeded him in 1966.

"People (quickly) identified with the program, with Joe," said State's athletic director, Jim Tarman. "They changed their lifestyles, bought Penn State (recreation) vehicles, saved their vacation time to go with us to bowl games.

"Before one season, some Penn Staters in Doylestown had a practice tailgate party."

So during Paterno's first dozen years, Penn State experienced what Maryland is hoping will happen with the Joe it has elevated to head coach: Demand for tickets raced away from supply.

No longer adequate was the 46,284-seat stadium that had been moved in 1960, piece by piece, from the west end of campus to the east. (If Penn State officials do not pinch pennies, they most certainly caress them.)

By 1974, the stadium was expanded by more than 11,000 seats; by 1978, it held 76,639; capacity now is 83,370, although crowds of 85,000-plus have been recorded because the NCAA allows schools to count ushers, sports writers, the school president and other freebies.167772161 Recognition usually being 15 yards behind success in sports, Penn State did not achieve full national attention until the early 1980s.

A former sports-information director, Ernie Accorsi, recalls being in the office of a Kansas newspaper editor several months after Penn State had beaten the University of Kansas in the 1969 Orange Bowl.

The editor congratulated Accorsi on Penn State's victory, got all the information he needed for the game that week against Kansas State and said: "By the way, good luck in the Ivy League this year."

Still, Tarman sees as monumentally important that 15-14 victory over Kansas, made possible by a touchdown with 15 seconds left and a second chance at the two-point conversion when the Jayhawks had 12 men on the field.

"It kinda opened the door," he said.

Once, Penn State's recruiting radius was a tank of gas; now, the Lions have a nose tackle named Aoatoa Polamalu who attended high school in Orange, Calif., and a wide receiver from Miami.

Many of Penn State's early games were played on the lawn of Old Main; early uniform colors were pink and black, making Penn State perhaps the only school whose duds have gotten duller over time.

"What (Paterno) had in mind is to do what he's done," Tarman said.

As he was talking in his office, Tarman gathered a newspaper story that offered perspective. The story cited Syracuse's 8-0 record and inability to get ranked higher than teams either with one loss or one tie.

If Penn State were in the same situation--unbeaten--it would leap ahead of Florida State, LSU, Auburn and UCLA to No. 4 in the polls, the story argued.

Tarman agreed. In the late 1980s, Penn State gets the benefit of nearly every doubt; in the late 1960s, it got almost none. The moral: Be good, and be patient.

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