Few coaches in the pantheon of sports will ever reach the status Joe Paterno and Bear Byrant have obtained. Their successes, so often repeated that it has become cliche to state them, almost to suggest that the numbers plastered on t-shirts and magazines are as well-known as the laws of physics. Reminding the fan base of Paterno’s four hundred and two victories or Bear Bryant’s six national titles is like mentioning that gravity keeps us planted on the ground. The expectation of success founded and created by these two great men permeates both the Penn State and Alabama programs and has bound them together in a greater story. One cannot speak of the rich history and tradition of one school without a nod to the other. It is this bond that makes the Penn State and Alabama rivalry one of the greatest in sports.
The First Chapter
The stakes were high. Bryant couldn’t deny that. Alabama was headed to its first bowl game in six years and Bryant’s first post-season appearance as head coach at Alabama. A national television audience would see a newly revived Tide program take on Rip Engle’s Wing-T offense. The large Philadelphia crowd would watch the first bowl game for the east, enduring 40 degree temperatures and high winds. On the field the stakes were high for both teams, but what has made Penn State and Alabama such legendary programs is not only their history on the field, but their actions off it.
Born in Philadelphia, Charley Janerette, Penn State’s talented 6’3 253 pound guard couldn’t have helped but been excited to play in front of his hometown. He had graduated from Germantown High just outside of Philadelphia and accepted the opportunity to play at Penn State. The only problem for Charley Janerette was other people’s view of his skin color. While playing on a much more racially tolerant team made life a little easier for Janerette, the growing prominence of Malcolm X in 1959 and the Civil Rights movement was something that occupied the minds and lives of African Americans nationwide. It was an unavoidable fact of life. Little did Charley Janerette know that he was about to be in the middle of a defining moment in race in college athletics.
"We don't have any black football players. We don't have any white football players. We have football players." A theme that Bear Bryant would later take up in 1963 took shape after receiving the invitation to play in the 1959 Liberty Bowl. At the time, South Eastern Conference schools were still segregated. Some were restricted by law to even play teams with African American players on the roster. To step on to the field against Penn State would cross many lines and break many taboos.
And Bryant did. With reluctant approval from the University of Alabama board, Penn State and Alabama would face off in Philadelphia for the first time. A game won by Penn State to the tune of 7-0, a touchdown scored on a fake field goal in the waning seconds of the first half. The on field implications opened the door for Alabama to play teams who also had African American players, teams like Nebraska and Missouri. Penn State meanwhile stood proudly with the program’s first- ever bowl victory and one of the leaders in the desegregation of sports. Neverbefore had a game with so little offense produced so many fireworks.
Planting The Seed
To truly understand the rivalry of Penn State and Alabama, you must return to the roots of the granddaddy of them all: The Rose Bowl; a traditional bowl game that unintentionally set the framework for the SEC/Big Ten rivalry. The Tournament of Roses began in 1902 in a matchup known as the East-West game, the first of which played between Stanford and Michigan. The game ended after the 3rd quarter as Michigan had run up the score 49-0. The relative flop of a post-season contest led to the Rose Bowl being shelved by organizers, revisited from 1916 - 1925, featuring schools like Brown, Harvard, Penn, Navy, and Penn State.
In 1921, after being solidly beaten by California 28-0 Ohio State led the charge to end all Big Ten involvement in post-season play. For the Rose Bowl, it was a huge loss. One of the premiere conferences in America would no longer take part in the development of their bowl game. It was time to look for a replacement.
At the time, southern football did not have the success or reputation that it has today. Schools were smaller, less powerful than the Eastern conferences, and had yet to attract the mainstream attention of the Big Ten. That all changed in 1925 when Alabama defeated Washington in a thrilling 20-19 Rose Bowl victory that supercharged southern football and the Rose Bowl’s reputation. By the mid 1930s the Rose Bowl had seen such success that several other cities started the now famous Sugar, Orange, and Cotton Bowls.
With the Rose Bowl’ssuccess at an all-time high, the Big Ten knew what it was missing out on. In 1946, Ohio State once again led the charge, only this time to form an exclusive relationship with the Rose Bowl, something Big Ten directors had turned down before.
The final agreement gave the Big Ten the rights to send a conference champion to the Rose Bowl each year, or in the case that the champion did not want to attend (Illinois, Purdue, Northwestern, and Minnesota were against post-season play) , the Big Ten could recommend a fellow eastern school to take their place (Assumed to be Notre Dame in most cases).
Effectively, the Big Ten had shut the door on Alabama and southeastern schools that had spent the better part of the last quarter century building up the Rose Bowl’s reputation. At the time, the appeal of an East-West bowl game was still too strong to put together a game between a Southern and Eastern school. Alabama had been left out in the cold by the Big Ten.
Fast forward to 1966, the Game of The Century. #1 Notre Dame and #2 Michigan State play to a 10-10 tie after Notre Dame coach Ara Parseghianelected not to go for the go-ahead score but preserve a tie in what he believed would make bothteams co-national champions. Alabama on the other hand never lost a game that season after starting with a #1 ranking in the polls. Both Michigan State and Notre Dame finished the season undefeated but not untied. Alabama once again was a victim of the powers that be without a shot at either Michigan State or Notre Dame . The Tide fell to the #3 spot in the AP poll.
Penn State’s role in Alabama’s redemption would not come until the infamous Sugar Bowl of 1979. Having faced off in 1975, the Nittany Lions were well versed in the talented offense and hard-hitting defense Bear Bryant brought to the table. For Alabama, this game provided them with a chance to get back at the eastern powers of college football, to amend the Rose Bowl snubs and unrecognized National Championships.
Having lost to Notre Dame 24-23 in 1973 after being named National Champions (Polls named champions before post season play until 1974) and then subsequently “losing” their title in the AP Poll, to say that the Tide were looking to prove something in 1979 would be an understatement. This game was not only for the 1979 national title, but revenge after having been snubbed in 1973. #1 against #2, a victory would give either team a legitimate right to the National Title.
And what a game it was. A pivotal goal-line stand gave Alabama a 14-7 victory over Penn state and a decisive victory over one of the greatest powers in eastern football at the time. Unlike Alabama’s animosity towards Notre Dame and the Big Ten, Penn State’s graceful loss and subsequent doff of the cap to Alabama after the game created a newfoundrespect between the two teams. Winning withclass, and losing with dignity. Where Alabama had looked for revenge they had found respect. In many ways Penn State was the antithesis of Notre Dame and the Big Ten, and in every way it made Alabama’s victory over Penn State that much sweeter.
But this was not truly the defining moment in the Penn State/Alabama relationship. In 1981 Bear Bryant was two wins shy of Amos Alonzo Stagg’s all-time win record when Alabama only had two games left. The #6 ranked Tide made surprisingly short work of the 5th ranked Nittany Lions and Penn State fell 31-6. What happened next was best described in Alan Barra's biography of Bryant, The Last Coach.
Immediately after the game, Penn State fans accorded Bryant an honor that Alabama fans who were present had never seen the likes of. Hundreds of them lined up on both sides of the grandstands and applauded Bryant as he walked off the field and into the tunnel. Bryant was so moved that in the first couple of minutes after leaving the field he could not speak.
This action, no matter how simple, changed and forever cemented Penn State’s image in the eyes of Alabama fans. An eastern powerhouse bowing and applauding their beloved coach was truly a moment that encapsulated the essence of these two programs. Tradition, honor, and success built two of the most storied programs in college football history. Programs located hundreds of miles away yet so similar that they are almost copies of each other.
It is that foundation of respect that makes the Penn State and Alabama relationship so special. Unlike the flashy, often misguided teams of modern college football, Alabama and Penn State are content on sticking to tradition. Even though this tradition can often seem to be a refusal to move forward, the foundations of these programs have gone unchanged, and have yielded unparalleled success. And while the meetings between these two teams may be separated by several years, each comes with a special feeling. A level of mutual respect not unlike the rivalry between brothers. A desire to beat you because you are the best, not to rub it in your face.
The Final Act
Sitting in his home just outside of campus, Joe Paterno has to know this is his last chance to best Alabama. To defeat a team that has been locked in battle with him since his very first coaching days. A team that stopped Penn State inches short of a National Title and kept him from finally defeating Bear Bryant.
From Paterno’s office tucked away in the back corner of his house, you can see children of all ages and races playing together at the park just beyond his lawn. It’s a quiet reminder of how much has changed since that cold day in Philadelphia, and how much Paterno has seen over the years. So much time has gone since that first meeting in 1959, but the fire is still there. Never waning, never dimming. For Paterno this is his final attempt at besting a team and a program that has taken part in some of Penn State’s greatest battles and most painful defeats. An opportunity to have the final word in a story that is decades in the making.
In the greater scheme of things Penn State and Alabama will march on. Each game will be just another mile marker in an unending journey. But the 2011 edition of Penn State-Alabama will have different meaning. Like the final scene of a great play, our hero will take the stage one last time to try and conquer a foe that has become more of an old friend than a mortal enemy. Win or lose. Paterno will go out swinging. And Alabama wouldn’t have it any other way.
*I would like to thank Kleph from Roll Bama Roll, and Vico from Our Honor Defend (OSU blog I know, but he lives in Tuscaloosa). They helped me out a lot putting this together.