“I just don’t think there’s anybody in the land who can outcoach Joe Paterno.” –Lou Holtz
“Let’s be practical here and think about what we’re talking about. [Coach Paterno] takes over a job in 1966. We’re talking from the Vietnam War until now. For anyone to be able to go through all those cultural changes, and still deal with 18- to 23-year-old young men has to be a special person.” –Charlie Weis
“They have a recruiting show on every Saturday built in money. Some day people are going to wake up and say to Notre Dame, ‘We’re not going to play you,’ then they are in trouble.” –Joe Paterno
Aside from a couple teams here and there, Notre Dame’s opponents through the 1980s and early 90s were pretty much the same teams the Irish continue to face today. There was, to be sure, a difference in the quality of our opposition. Teams like Purdue and Navy were little more than placeholders. At one point Lou Holtz went 14 games and nearly five years without losing to a Big Ten squad, including a 12-0 record vs. Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue from ’87 through ’90. And though it might be hard to comprehend, the years ’83 and ‘93 would also bookend an 11-game winning streak versus the USC Trojans.
But the one team during that period that had ND’s number was Penn State.
Back then the Pennsylvania State University football team was a far cry from what we’ve grown accustom to in the last decade or so. Joe Paterno had yet to administer fellatio at the Big Ten altar, and so, like ND, the boys from State College maintained a fierce pride in their status as one of college football’s great remaining independent programs. And Penn State showed up big for their rivalry games, compiling an 8-3-1 record vs. Pitt from ’81 through ’92 and a nearly identical 8-4 mark vs the Irish. (Speaking of independence and Pitt, apparently there’s a long backstory here about PSU getting turned down for membership by the Big East many years ago only to have the Big East turn around and admit Pitt, which is the lame-ass excuse Paterno floats for ending their 96-game rivalry, but that’s a discussion for a Pitt or PSU blog.)
The similarities between ND and PSU went beyond just their shared independence. They both had diminutive living legends for head coaches. They both had the no-nonsense uniforms, the nameless jerseys, the rabid fanbase. They even shared a seething mutual hatred for the Miami Hurricanes.
It was this hatred of Miami that first drew me to Penn State back in 1986.
PSU fans remember ’86 as their last national championship run, while ND fans remember that year as Lou Holtz’s inaugural season as head coach of Our Lady’s university. PSU fans remember an undefeated season, while ND fans remember a 5-6 season in which the average margin of defeat was five points against a schedule that included four Top 10 teams. PSU fans remember the Canes showing up in military fatigues to the Fiesta Bowl only to get punched in the face on the national stage, while ND fans…well, to be honest we remember (and relish) this moment as well. But what we also remember are the Penn State players during post-Fiesta Bowl interviews claiming their fiercest opponent all season was not Miami, but rather the .500 Irish team they faced back in November.
I attended every single Penn State game in Notre Dame Stadium beginning in 1982 and continuing through 1992. Two things were almost always guaranteed: 1) given that the game anually fell on the second or third week of November, it would be ball-shrinking cold; and 2) regardless of the rankings, it would be competitive. I was there in ’86 when Beuerlein & Co. had four shots to punch the ball into the endzone from the six yard-line for the win in the closing minutes against #1 PSU, and were stuffed on four consecutive plays. I was there when the ’88 Irish drilled the Nittany Lions 21-3. I was there in ’90 when the #1 ranked Irish blew a 21-pt lead at home. And I was there in ’92 when Mirer converted that two-point conversion to Reggie Brooks in the near-mythical Snow Bowl.
1992 of course marked the end of the ND-PSU series, and in many ways was an early precursor to the downslide of both programs. In ’93 Penn State would enter the Big Ten, a relationship that would soon “reward” the Nittany Lions by hamstringing them into a crappy Rose Bowl matchup against the Oregon Ducks and barring them from even contesting for the ’94 national championship. Thereafter Penn State would average at least 5 losses per season up through 2004. Notre Dame meanwhile would soon begin its own woeful “road to gory,” hiring and firing two pathetic excuses for head coaches and embarking on a bowl losing streak that currently stands at eight games.
But now here we are in 2006. Both ND and PSU are coming off their best seasons in a decade. Optimism is running high. And aside from the near-constant hypocritical, selling-your-soul-to-the-Big-Ten whining coming out of the mouths of JoePa and the Happy Valley faithful, I can almost pretend its 1992 again.
I know Paterno doesn’t particularly care for Notre Dame and that the respect shown to him by the ND coaching fraternity most certainly hasn’t been returned, but that doesn’t mean the glory years of this series never happened. There used to be two teams I cheered for when I was a kid: 1) Notre Dame; and 2) Penn State as long as they weren’t playing Notre Dame. I look at an ND-PSU series dating back to 1913 that stands dead even at 8-8-1. I look at a series in which eight of the 17 games have been decided by less than 7 points. I look at a series in which at least one team has been ranked 11 of the 17 games. I look at a series, counting next Saturday, in which both teams will be ranked the last five times they’ve faced one another.
A lot has changed since ’92 of course. The once proudly independent Penn State has sadly bought into the propaganda that “Big Ten Champion” is something more than just a consolation prize. They’ve even shamelessly dropped from their schedule in-state rival Pitt—for what it’s worth, a rivalry that continued uninterrupted for 96 seasons from 1905 to 2000, which is exactly 19 games longer than the ND-USC rivalry. And last but not least, JoePa has become one of the more vocal leaders of the we-don’t-need-ND chorus. Has a Notre Dame coach ever taken it upon himself to tell a reporter, “We don’t need Michigan” or “We don’t need Penn State”? Hell no. It’s called being respectful of your opponent and the history of a rivalry, and not being a fossilized, ND-hating, Bo Schembechler-channeling douche bag.
Looking forward to Saturday…
Three wideouts left. One out to the right. Back to throw Mirer. Looks…looks…looks…Rolls to the right. Pump fakes…throws the ball…
IT IS CAUGHT! REGGIE BROOKS! Reggie Brooks got it for a two-pointer! And Notre Dame is out in front 17-16 with twenty seconds left!