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Games That Sparked A Special Season: 1986 at Alabama

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University of Pittsburgh v Penn State Photo by Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images

Joe Paterno worked diligently to craft an image for his Penn State Nittany Lions squads. Modeled on his beloved pre-war New York Yankees, Joe’s teams always presented a uniform look, treated referees with deference, and largely abstained from any and all acts of individualism. The subjugation of self in service to a greater, team-based good was drilled with military consistency. Consequently, year after year, to us fans as well as a far less cynical media, these were the good guys. Everyone knew that making spectacular plays or crushing hits was but a side note to a PSU football player’s principle mission of helping old ladies cross a busy street.

With a ton of assistance from the media, the 1986 squad carried this narrative to completion in the first ever National Championship game, at the Fiesta Bowl on January 2nd, 1987. In what remains the most-watched college football game of all time, Penn State (“good”) vanquished Miami (“evil”), prevailing on a closing seconds, defensive goal line stand.

You know this tale because it is perhaps the single oldest tale in human history. The hero, possessing virtues, endures trials whilst on a journey to battle and defeat [fill in the blank; dragon, troll, Babylonians, Saducees, Nazis; in short, the personification of evil]. The tale highlights the utility of the noted virtues, and provides a model for you the reader/listener to shape and/or amend your life.

The 1986 squad, though, in contrast to just about every other Penn State team in memory, and in contrast to the common hero portrayal - well, there’s no other way to put it, than to note that these weren’t nice guys. That is to say, between the white lines, this was, far and away, the meanest and orneriest group of Nittany Lions Joe Paterno ever put on the field. These guys got off the bus fully pissed, and itching for a fight.

If you’re old enough, and experienced enough, you may recognize this type. If not, here comes a description. The vast majority of animals will provide some kind of signal before engaging or initiating combat. Snakes coil, dogs snarl, cats swish their tail. Humans, of course, take an erect stance, speak loudly/angrily, and, usually, gesticulate wildly with their hands.

Not 1986 Penn State. These psychos just started throwing haymakers. No posturing, no discussion - just fight, all the time, for any reason, or no reason at all. And if you recovered from the initial blow, and possessed enough gumption to throw a haymaker of your own, you only made 1986 Penn State happy. These were not paper bullies. These nut jobs genuinely relished the battle.

Enter Alabama. The Crimson Tide enjoy their own decades of conquering hero history. Circa 1986, they, too, wore plain uniforms (and still do), eschewed individualism, treated referees with deference, as they had been formed by their own, even older program patriarch, Bear Bryant. The Bear having recently passed, Bryant disciple Ray Perkins abandoned the NFL NY Giants to come home when Mama called just a few seasons prior. Although Perkins occasionally wore a headset, this remained a Bryant team, performing for a Bryant fanbase, inside Bryant-Denny Stadium.

Thus, there could be no question of whether Bama would fight. Of course they’d fight. This was Ala-freaking-bama. The #2-ranked Tide were just as eager to throw down as #6 PSU.

The fighting began as the teams exited their respective tunnels. Or, rather, it began as Penn State refused to exit. The two sides couldn’t even agree on how to enter the stadium. Joe Paterno held his charges back until Ray Perkins, tired of waiting on his visitors to enter first, brought his squad onto the field.

The referees, perhaps sensing the severity of this clash of meat heads, attempted (in vain) to keep a semblance of order. No fewer than five personal foul penalties accrued in the first 30 minutes. None was particularly dirty - the psychos from both sides having been drilled, repeatedly, on proper manners whilst beating your opponent’s head in. But it was immediately physical, and, rather than abating, the violence built throughout the first half.

Bama struck first on the scoreboard. A fine punt return, followed by a silky smooth Bobby Humphrey gallop ended in a Van Tiffin field goal for a 3-0 lead near the end of the first quarter. The Tide wouldn’t score another point.

John Shaffer connected with Eric Hamilton to convert a crucial 3rd down on the following series. Tailback DJ Dozier found daylight up the middle shortly after, and his TD run put Penn State ahead for good, at 7-3.

Tide QB Mike Shula threw a head scratcher into Ray Isom’s waiting arms on the next series, foreshadowing his tenure as head coach. Penn State then unleashed its secret offensive weapon, freshman tailback Blair Thomas. Thomas, and fullback Tim Manoa, produced nearly all of the 60+ yards in the drive, with Thomas taking a reverse toss from DJ Dozier in the red zone, in for the capstone six.

Penn State led 14-3 at the half, and added another field goal in the 3rd quarter. But as PSU pulled away on the scoreboard, the personal fouls and violent beatings continued without relent, from either side. No fewer than four area dentists were able to retire in the months following this contest as a result of the huge demand for dental prosthetics. Teeth rained down like chicklets.

The final score almost doesn’t matter, though it was 23-3 Penn State. If you miss old timey, give this Tube of 1986 Penn State at Alabama a try.