Commentary

Matchup sparks memories of Bear

Updated: September 11, 2010, 10:52 AM ET
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

What Penn State and Alabama will renew on Saturday night in Bryant-Denny Stadium is not exactly a rivalry. The teams haven't played in 20 years. It is more like a reunion.

[+] EnlargeJoePa and Bear
AP PhotoJoe Paterno never beat Bear Bryant, but the 1979 Sugar Bowl loss stung the most.

The Nittany Lions and the Crimson Tide will always be divided by the Mason-Dixon Line. Yet they are brought together by a mutual respect for the way their iconic coaches built their programs, the fundamentals of football -- and life -- that Joe Paterno and Paul "Bear" Bryant represent.

Those fundamentals are responsible for a combined 718 victories. And, in the case of the Paterno, still counting.

"It's one of those games," said Penn State quarterback coach Jay Paterno, Joe's son, "that the rest of the country will sit down and watch. It's the two uniforms that haven't changed. You know you're watching Alabama, because of the uniforms. We're no different. The only thing I'll miss Saturday is not having Keith Jackson there. They should have called him and said, 'We need you for this, baby.'"

They have played each other only 13 times. Alabama has won eight, Penn State five. Yet each program has played a pivotal role in the other's football history. There is more than fate there. Political commentator James Carville once described the state of Pennsylvania as "Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between."

Carville referred to the values and politics of central Pennsylvania. But he may be on to something. For some 40 years, the Alabama Football Fan Club of Bridgeport, Pa., has made an annual pilgrimage to a game in Tuscaloosa, Ala. The club will be there Saturday night.

One of the Crimson Tide's most beloved players, quarterback Joe Namath, grew up in Beaver Falls, Pa.

When Paterno won his 324th game in 2001, becoming the winningest coach in major college football, he broke the record he shared with Bryant.

Paterno swatted away two questions about Bryant at his news conference this week. It borders on cliché to describe an 83-year-old man as cantankerous. Suffice it to say that the winningest coach in the history of the game is focused.

"I think it's two football teams playing," Joe Paterno said Tuesday, "and I don't think they care about Coach Paterno and a guy by the name of Bryant who used to coach their team."

Here's something that Joe once said about Bryant.

"I have talked about getting angry with myself when I lose. Nothing of the kind ever compared to this loss. … It got to me. It hammered at my ego. When I stood toe to toe with Bear Bryant, he outcoached me."

Paterno wrote that in his 1989 autobiography. Paterno went 0-4 against Bryant. The italics, which are his, refer to the 1979 Sugar Bowl. First, a little background.

Paterno, as a Penn State assistant, first coached against Bryant in 1959, when the Nittany Lions played Bryant's second Tide team in the inaugural Liberty Bowl in Philadelphia (the bowl moved to its current home in Memphis in 1965).

Penn State won, 7-0, scoring its touchdown off a fake field goal. Galen Hall, the holder who threw the 18-yard scoring pass, is now the Nittany Lions' offensive coordinator.

[+] Enlarge79 Sugar Bowl
AP PhotoPenn State's Mike Gunman (24) was stuffed by Alabama's defense on fourth down in the 1979 Sugar Bowl.

But the real news occurred because an Alabama team had never before played a team with an African-American player. Penn State had five. Alabama politicians fumed publicly, even as Gov. John Patterson told Bryant privately not to worry about it. The Tide played the game without incident, even though Penn State guard Charlie Janerette, one of the black Nittany Lions, dominated the middle of the line.

At a reception after the game, Janerette walked up to Bryant and introduced himself. Bryant recounted the exchange in his autobiography.

"Coach, that's one of the nicest bunch of sportsmen I have ever played against," Janerette said.

"Charlie, I don't know how to take that," Bryant replied. "I think I'd rather you told me they were mean and ugly. Maybe we'da won."

Penn State and Alabama didn't meet again until Paterno's 10th year as head coach, on New Year's Eve in the 1975 Sugar Bowl, the first college football game in the Superdome. Bryant handpicked the Nittany Lions to play his team.

"Coach Bryant called and said, 'Joe, I want to invite you to the Sugar Bowl,'" Jay Paterno said.

"My dad said, 'Coach, are you in any way authorized to make the invitation?'"

Paterno, who had been talking to other bowls, didn't want to take Penn State off the market on a false promise.

"Bryant said, 'Don't worry about it. If I say I'm going to play you in the Sugar Bowl, I'm going to play you in the Sugar Bowl. Why don't you trust me?'"

Aruns Callery, who ran the Sugar Bowl at the time, confirmed to Paterno that if Bryant wanted to play him, the teams would play. No bowl made a move in the 1970s until Bryant decided what Alabama would do.

Jay Paterno said his dad had one more question for Bryant. Why Penn State? No. 2 Nebraska (10-0) was about to play No. 7 Oklahoma (9-1) for the Big Eight championship and a berth in the Orange Bowl. The loser would probably still be ranked ahead of the Nittany Lions.

The answer was that Bryant had not won a bowl game in eight years. According to Jay Paterno, Bryant responded, 'Because you're not that good and we're going to kick your ass."

Alabama won, 13-6.

Three seasons later, Penn State and Alabama met again in the Superdome. The 1979 Sugar Bowl is the game that hammered at Paterno's ego. The No. 1 Nittany Lions fell to the No. 2 Crimson Tide 14-7.

The game pivoted on a goal-line stand by Alabama in the fourth quarter. On fourth-and-goal with less than a foot to go, Alabama linebacker Barry Krauss collided with Penn State fullback Mike Guman in midair. Guman fell backward.

"Marty Lyons, our big tackle, went down inside and took their two blockers down," said Clem Gryska, a longtime assistant coach to Bryant. Gryska is retired and living near the Alabama campus. "That let Barry Krauss make that goal-line stand. Every time they come back together, Marty reminds Barry, 'You couldn't have made that play if I wouldn't have taken their two linemen."

Paterno wanted to fake the dive and have quarterback Chuck Fusina throw to the tight end. He let his assistant coaches overrule his instinct, the instinct that had guided his Penn State teams to 123 victories in 13 seasons.

We remember now that Bryant won six national championships at Alabama. But the 1979 Sugar Bowl represented the first time in 13 years that the Crimson Tide had finished No. 1 by winning a bowl game. The victory cleansed Bryant of the sins of falling just short of the national title in six of the previous seven seasons.

Paterno had screamed for justice when Penn State went undefeated in 1968, 1969 and 1973 and didn't get the opportunity to play for the national championship. Finally, his team got the chance. And he felt he had flinched.

"Writers and fans said, for all to hear, that Paterno couldn't win the big one at the critical moment," Paterno wrote in "Paterno By the Book." He lashed out at his coaches and players, carrying the loss well into the 1979 season, which the Nittany Lions began 1-2. Finally, Sue Paterno confronted her husband.

"Joe! The Alabama game is over!" Sue said. "It's just another game you lost."

It was around that time -- Jay Paterno isn't sure exactly when -- that he picked up the phone at home and heard Bryant on the end. "I knew exactly who it was," Jay said. "I said to my dad, 'I think it's Coach Bryant but I can't understand a word he is saying."

[+] EnlargeJoe Paterno
AP PhotoJoe Paterno has a chance to move closer to No. 400.

Bryant and Paterno were trying to firm up a 10-year series between the schools.

"It was in 1977, 1979," Jay said. "My dad had a hernia operation in the morning. He was supposed to meet Bryant in New York to hammer out the series. He didn't want to miss the meeting. He wasn't supposed to do any driving. He drove from State College to New York about three or four hours after he had the hernia done."

The first game of the series, in 1981, took on added significance because Bryant arrived in State College with 313 career victories, one short of tying Amos Alonzo Stagg for first place on the all-time career list.

"I tell you what," Gryska said. "We flew up there [on Friday] and came to the stadium. They wouldn't let us in the place. We had to go across the street. Coach didn't like that much. The guys working there said that Coach Paterno didn't let anybody get on that field until the game."

On the day of the game, Gryska said, the Crimson Tide filed out of their dressing room under the bleachers and emerged onto the field somewhere around the 50-yard-line.

"We're coming out to warm up," Gryska said. "That whole section stood up and gave Coach Bryant a standing ovation. Joe walked over and stood there and greeted him real casual."

No. 6 Alabama defeated No. 5 Penn State, 31-16.

The following winter, Jay Paterno, a seventh grader, got an assignment during National Library Week. He had to write to someone famous and ask about libraries.

"I picked the best head coach that I did not live with," Jay said. "I wrote him a letter. The reply came back in three days. That's when I was convinced, God, this guy is magic. We walked into my dad's office and it was in his pile of mail. He said, 'This is for you.'"

The letter is framed and hanging in Jay's office.

February 22, 1982

Dear Jay,

Unfortunately when I was in school I did not do much reading in the Library. This may be the reason I have such a difficult time now in more ways than one.
I do highly recommend that students go to the Library and fully cooperate with the Librarians. Wish I had not just sat there looking at a book and thinking about football.
Give my best to your father. Hope he is having a very pleasant spring.

Sincerely,

Paul W. Bryant

The next season, the No. 4 Crimson Tide routed the No. 3 Nittany Lions, 42-21. Bryant's last team would be the only team to beat Penn State in what became Paterno's first national championship season. Paterno went 0-4 against Bryant on the field but he surpassed him in the record book.

Paterno began the 2001 season needing only one victory to tie Bryant at 323 victories. It took him five games to do it. Those Nittany Lions rallied from that 0-4 start to finish 5-6. It wouldn't be until 2005 that Paterno rediscovered his ability to win big. Since the beginning of the 2005 season, he is 52-13 (.800).

Paterno is five victories short of 400. Penn State is a decided underdog on Saturday night. Tide coach Nick Saban implored Tide fans to applaud Paterno and the Nittany Lions when they run onto the field. Alabama fans have no interest in seeing Paterno obtain No. 396 in person. When he does get there, almost surely later this season, Alabama fans will applaud. Paterno reminds them of someone special.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com