This is a mini-series that covers my personal experience with Penn State football. It is dedicated to the memory of the late Joseph Vincent Paterno (1926-2012).
Black Shoes. Basic Blues. No Names. All Game.
It was a cold, October Saturday early in 2005. You know, the kind of day where just looking outside makes you feel gloomy inside. I was in Buffalo, New York for a baseball clinic the next morning and I arrived at the Marriott with my dad and brother, Danny, a few hours before the Penn State-Michigan game was slated to start.
Probably since the moment I was born, the Nittany Lions were burned into my heart, and it has been like that ever since. My parents would always tell me stories about when I was younger and how when Penn State would score I would always start crying. No, it wasn’t because I was upset that my favorite team had scored, it was because my parents and their friends would be screaming so loud, you’d think they had just met Bruce Springsteen.
Now I bleed blue and white.
Both of my parents are Penn State alumnus and both of them wear their blue and white colors with pride. I too always wear my Penn State merchandise around. There were years when Penn State wasn’t playing well that made that rough. I took a lot of heat from Orange fans (why? I’m not so sure because we aren’t talking about basketball) but I stayed loyal to my Nittany Lions.
My parents have a Nittany Lion outside of their front porch. That’s how loyal they are. That’s how loyal we all are. Once when I was younger a few of my parents friends from here decided it would be funny to steal it. Luckily, it was returned a day later in the same condition it left in, so all was forgiven and there have been no recorded robberies since.
Up until the 2005 season, I only had fuzzy memories of the great Penn State teams of the 1990’s. I was too young to fully take in the Kerry Collins’ teams of the early-to-mid 90’s and I had only started to understand Penn State Football around the time of LaVar Arrington and company. For clarification purposes: When I say Penn State Football I’m talking about the religious-like qualities we fans have for our team.
Back to the team – I remember all the big name Penn State players of my childhood such as Arrington, Collins, Courtney Brown, Curtis Enis, Bobby Engram, Joe Jurevicius , and Ki-Jana Carter. Then there was Zach Mills and all the Johnson’s; Larry, Tony, and Bryant. Michael Haynes stands out but otherwise, I can only remember a few other select players.
I remember only a few games, mostly from the 2002 season and they were all four losses experienced during LJ’s great season. I remember one time – it must have been 1999 – I was watching a game with my mom on the tube and right when it seemed Penn State was going to lose, an 80-yard pass or something like that was completed for the game winning touchdown. Of course I joined my mother who was jumping up and down frantically like a little kid who had just seen Santa Claus.
As I grew older I wanted to become more of a student of the program, and it seemed as if Penn State Football was a never-ending class. I didn’t think I would never be able to take in all I needed to know to become a true Nittany Lion.
Soon, however, I was becoming a student of Penn State Football. My dad thought it was finally appropriate to tell me the story about the 1979 Sugar Bowl between Joe Paterno and Penn State and the legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant and the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Dad was in his early twenties for this game and he watched it at a bar with a few of his buddies. After building up the story and how great the matchup was, he would only briefly describe the end of the game, when Paterno decided to run the ball (again) on a 4th and goal at the 1-yard line. After being stuffed the first three times, Penn State attempted to run the ball with Mike Guman through the great ‘Bama defense and was stuffed again. Penn State eventually lost the Sugar Bowl and the National Championship dream. Joe, in later years, would say if he could do it over again he would do it differently and also stated that it was the offensive coaches who said, “If we can’t run the ball one yard we don’t deserve to be National Champions.” My dad still insists after all his years of being a Penn State fan that the loss to Bryant and Alabama was the most crushing one of them all.
Dad was quick to follow up that story with the more successful ones, such as the 1982 and 1986 National Championship teams. The 1986 National Championship turned out to be, and still is, the most watched College Football game ever. The underdog Nittany Lions shocked the world by defeating a powerhouse Miami Hurricane squad 14-10 that was led by Heisman trophy winner Vinny Testaverde.
Then there was 1994.
The 1994 Nittanly Lion squad was probably the best offensive team under JoePa. Penn State finished the regular season undefeated and crushed Oregon in the Rose Bowl but the National Championship was given to Nebraska.
Why you ask? Well, the only logical I have heard since then is because it was legendary head coach Tom Osborne’s second-to-last season before retiring. Since he had yet to win a National Championship, the AP and Coaches decided they should give the edge to him because Paterno had already won two. The computers had Penn State ranked number one, but this was pre-BCS and they didn’t count. Thus, the 1994 season and its’ end result was the fuel to the fire needed to create the BCS system in college football four years later.
Ironically, the 1994 National Championship was the first of back-to-back titles for Osborne and Nebraska.
Then I experienced the most bizarre and most unexpected event in the history of Penn State football; four losing seasons in five years.
That steep, downhill slide started with a humiliating loss 33-7 on national television against the eventual National Champion Miami Hurricanes in 2001. Things never got better from that point on.
Dating back to the beginning of the Joe Paterno era (1966) Penn State’s overall record was an astounding 307 wins vs. just 83 loses going into the 2000 season. After 2000 and up until the start of 2005, Penn State’s record was a disappointing 26-33; certainly a major change in events.
Who was to blame for this sudden swing? Was it the players? Was it the coaches? Was it Paterno himself? Could it have been the fans, who over the years had seemed to take every great season for granted?
Players put the blames on themselves while the coaches insisted it was their fault.
The fans took a different approach. They took the initiative of placing the blame on JoaPa. The same guy with two National Championships and five undefeated seasons.
Could that really have been the answer? Surely not, many fans probably thought at first. But as the seasons passed and fans experienced more losing then ever, most fans, including myself, started to turn on Paterno.
My basic thinking back then was that Joe just wasn’t getting the job done anymore. It was that simple. He was being too damn stubborn, he wasn’t adapting to the changing culture in college football and he wasn’t recruiting great players like he used to. There were so many occasions as I watched games where I almost wishing he would retire and save the school from the pain of having to fire him.
One of the most inexplicable decisions Joe ever made as a head coach -to me – was never starting Larry Johnson until his fifth year “senior” season. It’s not like Penn State wasn’t known for great running backs by that point. When LJ did get his chance to play, he exploded for over 2,000 rushing yards during the 2002 season and was a Heisman finalist. Penn State won nine games that season before losing to Auburn in the Capital One Bowl.
Michael Robinson was Joe’s guinea pig for his first four seasons in Penn State. I still sometimes wonder how Robinson survived his time in State College before 2005, given the way he was treated. Only recently has Robinson spoke of this time and he praises Joe for how he handled what he called himself an “immature young boy”. It certainly didn’t seem like it back then.
Zach Mills, the starting quarterback for most of those horrendous seasons, was just someone you wish you had never seen play. Mills was like a bad odor – once he starting playing badly it just kept on getting worse.
The best part about Mills was that he was actually a good quarterback during his freshmen campaign and was the catalyist in Penn state’s come-from-behind win against Ohio State in 2001 that gave JoePa 324 career victories.
If there was ever a “good” feeling going through Nittany Lion Nation during those losing seasons, it was that game when Paterno finally passed “Bear” Bryant on the all-time wins list with 324 victories. Led by Mills, Penn State won two games in a row, one to tie Bryant, and one to pass him.
Joe, bluntly, deserved that record, but with the continued losing in the seasons ahead, Paterno was passed by another legendary coach, Bobby Bowden, of Florida State. As it stood Penn State fans couldn’t even talk of the career victories record as something to brag about.
After an ugly, ugly, ugly 6-4 (yes, the defense provided the only points) loss to Iowa in 2004, fans were prompted to start a website to get Joe Paterno out of Penn State. The site was called www.joemustgo.com. As amusing as it may sound, these fans were not joking around. JoePa was being booed repeatedly at home games during that rough stretch, and a stadium that seats well over 100,000 fans (20,000 student seats alone), was filled by only 24,000 fans for the 2004 season finale against Purdue.
The offense had become the weakest core unit to ever play under Paterno. Mills, who had numerous injuries during his last two seasons, had no targets to pass to. The team had no playmakers. Tony Hunt was not getting the job done at running back and his backup, Austin Scott, was about as big of a bust as Hillary Duff’s attempt to become a professional singer.
In retrospect, Joe really didn’t have many options. But that was the point. He couldn’t recruit, so he needed to go.
Just when Penn State fans thought it would never get better with Joe as their leader, the Nittany Lions engineered a goal-line stand of their own. It was just like 1979, but this time Penn State was on the defense and held on for the victory. Many people refer to it as the “turning point” for the program.
It happened, of all places, in Indiana against the lowly Hoosiers. Late in the game Penn State was clinging onto a slim lead, 22-18, and they desperately needed a break. Finally, they got one. From the defense. A Joe Paterno special. The Nittany Lions stopped the Hoosiers three times in a row at the goal-line and Penn State held on for their first Big Ten victory of the 2004 season.
Nobody could have predicted what was to follow. Change was in store for the 2005 season, but I’ll be the first to admit, I didn’t expect to see much of a difference in the win-loss column.
The Penn State core defensive unit, which didn’t allow more then twenty-one points in a single game in 2004, was mostly returning. Michael Robinson was finally appointed to one position – starting quarterback. There were also a couple of freshman who were ready to take on the responsibilities of bringing Penn State back to the top. Derrick Williams and Justin King came to Penn State with a lot of hype and with a promise: to lead the Nittany Lions back to national prominence.
I headed to State College on a beautiful Saturday in early September for the first game of 2005 Penn State football season. With the stadium almost filled to capacity, the roar of the crowd was loud enough to be heard back in New York. I was very excited for the game, and I expected a win against South Florida. Before the game I bought my new “#2” jersey, to represent Derrick Williams. It ended up being a 22-13 victory for Penn State, but the score really did show how inconsistent Michael Robinson played.
Robinson had single-handed kept South Florida in the game with two fumbles and one interception. I knew that kind of play would not translate into wins for the start of the Big Ten season. Honestly, if you really want to know, I was really pulling for red-shirt freshman Anthony Morelli to start over Robinson.
I was never a real big fan of “MRob” because he basically never showed me he could lead a winning squad. Penn State began 3-0 that season and travled to Northwestern for their first true test of the year. Early in the game I was yelling at Paterno on the tube to pull Robinson and put Morelli in the game. By that point, Robinson had continued his inconsistent play into the second quarter – three INT’s and one fumble – and Penn State found themselves down 23-14 at halftime.
Something happened during that second quarter that I didn’t realize at the time and Robinson finally clicked. He led Penn State down the field to cut the Northwestern lead before half. Maybe Robinson realized that his starting job was up in the air for the next game, or next quarter. Whatever it was, from that point on Robinson was like Superman. He led Penn State to a thrilling comeback victory 34-29 with a touchdown pass to Williams in the closing minutes.
I was jumping up so high once Williams caught that pass and scored that I could have put my head through the ceiling. There was so much adrenaline pumping through my body. It was a great feeling. I never wanted it to end. Just like a kid on a merry-go-round: I wanted one more.
That feeling and the excitement grew in the weeks to follow.
Penn State went on to crush Minnesota back home 44-14 in a game that can be summed up by “The Hit”. Michael Robinson knocked out Minnesota’s Brandon Owens while rushing for 112 yards. The defense, as I mentioned earlier, was back. It was led by Butkus winner Paul Posluszny and African decent Tamba Hali.
With that win against Minnesota Penn State FINALLY jumped back into the top twenty rankings. When I say FINALLY, I really mean it. It only took Notre Dame two wins that season to jump from un-ranked and into to the top ten, but it took the better Nittany Lions team five wins to reach #16 in the country.
It was Columbus Day weekend when Ohio State came to Happy Valley looking to rebound from their crushing defeat against Texas the week prior. The entire campus was going crazy in anticipation for the game, and it was announced that the first ever “white out” at Beaver Stadium would be held that game. College Gameday was in State College on Saturday and so was Cold Pizza the morning before. Paternoville was the highlight of the morning show on ESPN2, and students got up early for the surprise visit from the crew.
A sense of urgency was finally back in the Happy Valley.
I watched that game at my parents house with them, my brothers and my cousin Nathan. My cousin Chris was actually at the game. Since I wasn’t, I had to make it seem as if we were there. My parents living room was draped with Penn State jerseys and plenty of food was ready for the long game ahead. I even had some pump-up music on CD ready to keep the family in the game.
When the game began I seated myself on the couch directly in front of the tube and was on the edge of my seat, as I was every game, the entire game. Honestly, I’m surprised I haven’t had a heart attack yet.
When Derrick Williams scored early to give Penn State the 7-3 lead “high-fives” went out to everyone in the room. My favorite Nittany Lion, Safety, Calvin Lowry made a great interception and returned it all the way to the two-yard line before Robinson punched it in for another score. I was screaming so loud I’m sure the neighbors next door heard me.
As the game progressed I can only remember seeing punt after punt go back and forth, like one of my brother’s soccer games, only this game actually meant something to me.
It was a typical Big Ten football game. Low scoring. Lots of defense. Physically bruising.
I thought for sure Ohio State would find some crazy way to score and win the game, but as it turned out I was wrong. It was Penn State’s Tamba Hali providing the crazy hit on Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith that sealed the 17-10 victory.
Beaver Stadium erupted. So did my house. Fans stormed the field. I put my hands in the air, fell into the couch and took in every second of that moment: the post-game interview with Robinson and Paterno, and the sight of seeing a Penn State fan with a sign that read “12-0. We Believe”.
It was finally happening.
I was finally experiencing Penn State Football at the very finest.
I believed again.
That night of joy and excitement would soon be followed by a week of intense nervousness. Penn State was about to head to the “Big House” to take on Michigan, 6-0 and ranked #6 in the country.
In the moments leading up to that game I’ll admit I had all the confidence in the world that my Nittany Lions would come out of Ann Arbor and be 7-0.
They just had to, right?
Stay tuned for Part II of “We Are Penn State Football” as Athletic Jocks remembers the late Joseph Vincent Paterno.