Penn State Football: For Paterno, Alabama Is a Bear of a Rival
Alabama football has a special place in the hearts – and in the pit of the stomachs – of Penn Staters.
Especially Joe Paterno.
And especially when it comes to Paul “Bear” Bryant.
But Penn State offensive coordinator Galen Hall? Not so much – at least the aching tummy part.
(More on that in a bit, including how Hall once turned the Tide while sharing snaps as a Penn State quarterback. Sharing? Novel idea...)
For now, don’t expect Paterno to talk about Bryant this Tuesday at his weekly press conference. Or next Saturday around 7 p.m., just after the Crimson Tide and the Nittany Lions complete their nationally-televised game in Beaver Stadium. The two teams will have played 15 times by then, 14 with Paterno as head coach.
Joe certainly didn’t do much talking in 2010, when the long-time intersectional rivals played in Tuscaloosa. It was their first meeting in two decades – dating back to 1990, when Penn State won 9-0, also in Tuscaloosa.
Before the game last year, won handily by the defending national champion Crimson Tide, 24-3, Paterno waved off questions about his friendship with Bryant.
“I'll talk about my relationship with Paul Bryant sometime this spring, OK?” Paterno said at the time. “Right now it's Penn State vs. Alabama. … I think it's two football teams playing, and I don't think they care about Coach Paterno, and a guy by the name of Bryant who used to coach their team.”
After that game, the Nittany Lions coach rebuffed a question about returning to Alabama. Understandable. The Nittany Lions, and Paterno, are 2-4 in games played in Birmingham and Tuscaloosa. Overall, Paterno is 4-9 against the Tide – 2-3 inside Beaver Stadium and 0-2 in bowl games.
JOE AND THE BEAR
Paterno looked at Bear Bryant in many different ways over the years, and as a hero of sorts early in his career. As time went on, they became good friends.
Bryant was 13 years older than Paterno, and had already been a head football coach on his second of four stops – Kentucky, after a year at Maryland – by the time Paterno arrived in Happy Valley as an assistant coach in 1950. Paterno knew Bear from coaches clinics and conventions, and would often pick his brain.
By the time Joe became head coach at Penn State in 1966, Bear had three national championships and 144 victories. That's quite a head start.
Bryant wasn’t afraid to give Paterno advice about the financial aspects of coaching. He told the young head coach that the No. 1 thing he should ask for from the Penn State is game tickets. They were the coin of the realm. A shrewd businessman, with endorsements ranging from Coca-Cola to pick-up trucks and phone companies, Bryant urged Paterno to get a contract from PSU.
On the field, the relationship was lopsided. Against Bryant, Paterno was 0-4. That would stick with him forever -- even decades after Bryant passed away.
Over a decade ago, after an offseason interview with Paterno, I told the coach which game I had estimated he would pass the major college career record of 323 victories set Bryant, by then deceased.
“I don’t know about that” – Joe was right; my prediction turned out to be 15 games off – “but that damn Bear,” said Paterno, pausing, as we walked down a hallway, “I could never beat him.”
When Paterno and Bryant first met on the field, it was at the 1959 Liberty Bowl. Bryant was in his second season as head coach at Alabama and Paterno was an assistant coach, in his 10th season under Rip Engle.
The Nittany Lions beat Alabama, 7-0, as each team earned $100,000 in bowl appearance money. Two Penn State quarterbacks played that day -- remember, Joe was the QB coach then.
It took two Penn State quarterbacks to get it done that day.
Heisman runner-up Richie Lucas started, but completed only one pass in four attempts for 23 yards. A young Galen Hall played in that game, rushing nine times for 24 yards and completing one of six pass attempts – a game-winning 18-yard touchdown pass to Roger Kochman in the final seconds of the first half.
SUGAR WASN’T SWEET
It was 16 years later when the two coaches met again, in the 1975 Sugar Bowl. And Paterno was finally a head coach. In that meeting, Paterno’s eighth-ranked Lions fell 13-6 to Bryant and fourth-ranked Alabama, which finished the year 11-1.
Penn State entered the next match-up against Alabama, in the 1979 Sugar Bowl, ranked No. 1. But it lost again, 14-7, and Bryant and Alabama won the national title. Three words: Goal line stand.
It’s no new news that the loss was heart-breaking for Paterno and that it stuck in his crawl for a long time. “It haunted my ego,” Paterno said in his autobiography, By The Book. “When I stood toe to toe with Bear Bryant, he outcoached me.”
I learned over the summer, while viewing an old Paterno speech, that the coach himself said that in the weeks following the ’79 Sugar Bowl loss he went home to Brooklyn for several days to contemplate his future.
Joe bounced back, of course, and when he met Bryant on the field again, it was Nov. 14, 1981, in Beaver Stadium. Penn State was ranked fifth and had a 7-1 record, two weeks after falling from No. 1 after losing to Miami (Fla.) in a tropical rainstorm. The Crimson Tide were 7-1-1 and ranked eighth.
More important, Bryant – making his first trip to State College – entered the game a victory behind Amos Alonzo Stagg as the winningest coach in major college football history at the time, with 313 victories. ’Bama beat Penn State, 31-16, and Bear tied the record. The next week against Auburn, the Tide won 28-17 and Bear got the record-breaking win No. 315.
The post-game press conference was held in a dusty old tile shower room in the bowels of Beaver Stadium. Between Bear's nearly-inaudible gravely-voiced mumblings and the poor acoustics, I had no idea what he was saying. So I kept on sneaking glances at the reporter's notebook of the guy next to me -- the great New York Times columnist, Dave Anderson. (If I had to copy, at least it was from the best.)
The two teams met again on Oct. 9, 1982, in Birmingham, and Bryant won again, 42-21. The Nittany Lions’ blocking back on punts, Mike Suter, backed up into the kick of Ralph Giacamarro, and the miscue led to an Alabama touchdown. The Tide also scored a TD on a punt block of their own making.
In an eight-game period, Bryant had beaten Paterno twice. But this time around, Paterno weathered the psychological blow of the blocked-punts-turned-touchdowns, and the Nittany Lions recovered from the debacle to win the 1982 national championship.
Bryant coached only seven more games after that ’82 meeting, accumulating a very uncharacteristic 3-4 record. He announced his retirement just two weeks after the regular season ended.
In Bryant’s final game as a coach, Alabama recorded a 21-15 victory over Illinois in the Liberty Bowl on Dec. 29, 1982. Twenty-eight days later, on Jan. 26, 1983, Bryant passed away. He was 69.
His passing so quickly after his retirement sticks with Paterno today.
"It's not a question of walking away too soon or" too late, Paterno told USA Today columnist and Penn State graduate Jon Saraceno in 2006. "Bryant was not a guy who fished, hunted or played golf. He was a football guy. When he walked away from the game, I just think he probably got up (not feeling well) on a couple of days and, well, why fight it?”
For the past half-decade, Paterno's fought off a variety of struggles. But he's used that as motivation to get better -- perhaps, in some way, the same way he's used his friendly yet deep-seated rivalry with the Bear.