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Eastern football? I will drink to that

by on September 09, 2009 10:12 AM

  The drive from State College to the Carrier Dome these days, according to Mapquest, takes 4 hours and 16 minutes, and covers 235.55 miles. Not a bad trip. Go to Williamsport, take a left up Route 15, hit New York 13 and then finish the journey on the multiple lanes of Interstate 81.

The drive, back in the day, was a lot further. The roads were single lane and the curves tight. Lighting was poor and a thousand towns separated the salt springs of Syracuse and the dairy farms of Central Pennsylvania.
Back then, 25 years ago, you’d put the afternoon paper to bed mid-day Friday, pack up a cooler, throw a suitcase and a portable typewriter in the trunk, then head out, driving into darkness and in this case, like many an autumn evening, through driving rain.

For small town newspaperman, the joy was in the journey, hitting the road to Morgantown and Pittsburgh and College Park and Philadelphia and New Jersey. Occasionally, there was a flight to Boston or a big game in the Meadowlands.

It was a respite from walking the frigid sidelines while covering a high school football game or taking late night scores from a cross country meet at Kish or Bald Eagle Nittany, back when there were such schools.

The joy of the small towns was the ability to refuel 72 ounces at a time. One stop to load up, another stop to unload. Times were different and, after all, this was a road trip. The journey that stands out is the one in 1985, when the car was filled with two editors for the CDT, a writer from Blue White Illustrated and a freelancer who wrote for everyone but the Bargain Sheet.

A few hours late the car rolled into town, just in time to make it to Joe Paterno’s hotel suite, for pretzels and a beer. Or, in Joe’s case, something a little stiffer. Joe would pontificate on everything from the underworld that ran Syracuse to the next day’s game.

It was the same old group, really, from town to town, from Friday night to Friday night. The drive was worth it, even before the game began.

The opponents’ cities were close, the score usually was not.

That’s my Eastern football.

Occasionally one of the little guys pulled off a miracle — Doug Flutie comes to mind — or there was a minor upset — Major Harris comes to mind — and Penn State was dethroned, albeit ever so briefly. From 1967 to 1992, the year before Penn State joined the Big Ten, th

e Nittany Lions won the Lambert Trophy (awarded to the top Eastern team) 17 times: seven times in the 1970s and five times in the 1980s.

The little guys feared and revered Joe, and probably hated him too.

In the late 1980s, I was editor of a Syracuse football magazine. The Orangemen’s head football coach at the time was Dick MacPherson, a sweetheart of a guy who on visit to the SU football offices asked if I wanted a cup of coffee.

“Yeah, thanks,” I said.

I expected MacPherson to buzz his secretary.

Instead, he said, “Follow me.” And we went through a labyrinth of hallways ’til we finally found the coffee station. He poured the coffee and the milk himself.

Knowing that I was from State College and edited a similar magazine covering Penn State, MacPherson constantly asked about “Coach Joe.”

“Does Coach Joe do it this way? What’s in the Penn State magazine? Tell Coach Joe I said hi.

Thirty years on the beat, Joe has never once offered me a beverage. But he is 22-4 against Syracuse.
His record against Temple, at 25-0, is even worse. Rutgers is 16-1 (the sole loss to current Penn State assistant coach Dick Anderson, when he was coach of the Scarlet Knights). Boston College 16-4. Pittsburgh 23-7-1. West Virginia 25-2. Maryland, a Mason-Dixon stepchild, 24-0-1.

Combined, that’s 151-18-2, a winning percentage of .888.

Oh, there were a ton of games against Alabama, Notre Dame, Nebraska, Texas, UCLA, Ohio State and the like.

But the meat of the Eastern order was really filler.

With Joe, it was different with Syracuse when he was an assistant. That’s why, when on Tuesday (and every other time) he looked back at the series, he goes back to the epic battles of 1954 and 1955 and 1959, all losses. Two were by a total of three points.

That’s why the names of Jimmy Brown, Floyd Little and Lenny Moore keep cropping up.

During the reign of Rip Engle, Joe’s predecessor, from 1950-1966, Syracuse led the series 10-7. The Orangemen also won the national championship in 1959; Penn State’s came 23 years later.

That’s Joe Paterno’s Eastern football.

Joe tried to change it in the 1980s, by imploring Syracuse, Pitt, UConn, Boston College and West Virginia to buy into his dream and abandon the Big East, which was formed in 1979.

“I wanted the thing” (all-sports conference), Paterno recalled on Tuesday. “So I kept working at it, and then of course the people that pulled the rug from us were the Pitt people. They ended up going to the Big East for the basketball. They were the ones that…because we had five, six teams. If Pitt had come in, BC would have come in and Syracuse would have come in.”

In Paterno’s retelling of the story, Big East power brokers Jake Crouthamel, the Syracuse athletic director, and Dave Gavitt, the Big East commissioner, are also painted as villains.

Now, it seems as if Paterno finally wants bygones to be bygones. Hard to believe, though.

“But hey, what do you do?” Paterno shrugged, the vitriol finally drained from him, at least on the outside. “We ended up in the Big Ten, so why should I be mad. It’s been pretty good for us.”

Still, it ain’t Eastern football.

Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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September 08, 2009 3:16 PM
Listen to Joe Paterno's press conference
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