The game is called "We're No. 1," and it is played with wild-eyed fervor in such football boomtowns as Tuscaloosa, Norman and Fayetteville. It is also played in the town of State College, Pa., but mostly with a grain of salt. State College is the home of Penn State, which wouldn't mind being called No. 1, but you'd probably have to say please. Its fans, who have not yet had the pleasure, got worked up a few years ago when President Richard Nixon, the famous post-game interlocutor, dropped in to the Texas Longhorns' locker room to declare them No. 1 in the country after a victory over Arkansas. At the time, Penn State was just as undefeated as Texas. State fans thought that was a little tricky. Otherwise, they have not been pushy.
Times change, however.
Here is Penn State getting ready for last week's stunning 19-0 rout of Ohio State. It is to be a victory so convincing, so gorged with promise and performance, that if you were to mention his team in the same breath with, well, Alabama and Oklahoma this week, Coach Joe Paterno probably would not make much of a fuss.
It is Tuesday and Paterno has made a 7 a.m. breakfast date at The Corner Room restaurant at the junction of Allen and College in downtown State College. He says he never has trouble eating before a game the way many coaches do, no matter the size of the contest. At least not since he was an assistant coach in the '60s and "didn't know what I was doing."
September 24, 1978
He says The Corner Room used to be a hangout for Penn State coaches, a terrific place to rub elbows with university professors who congregated daily in the ancient booths. Forking open the yolk of his eggs-over, he says he does not lose sleep or make himself sick on cigars at endless staff meetings as the big day nears, either. By and large, he says, the Penn State coaching staff has always been a soft-drinking, light-smoking, easy-riding bunch that worked hard but did not forget that there is life outside the confines of a gridiron.
Paterno says he will take work home in the evenings, however. He had done so the night before and was immediately swarmed by the five Paterno children, as is their custom. Eventually he made it into his den to "doodle" over Ohio State. There, surrounded not by trophies or portraits of himself but by volumes of Homer, Descartes and Thomas Aquinas, and accompanied in stereo by a Verdi opera ("I prefer the Italians, of course"), he went to work. And was asleep in the La-Z-Boy before 11. He says it is his regular routine.
Paterno is famous for taking the game of football rationally. His players go to class (94% of them graduate) and are encouraged to have fun playing. This approach attracts a lot of interested and interesting athletes. On this year's team, for example, is Mr. Zedrick Elam, called "Z" by his teammates. Elam is a 28-year-old ex-New York cabdriver who "walked on." He never gets to put on a uniform for a game and never makes a trip, but "Z" is an all-league storyteller and fun-developer and serves himself up for practice punishment every day. Another is 5'9", 167-pound Tom (Scrap Iron) Bradley, who has been walking on for four years and finally earned a scholarship grant. The Penn State kicking unit on which Bradley makes most of his game appearances is now called the Scrap Pack.
Unfortunately for Paterno, the team also includes gifted non-walkers-on like Quarterback Chuck Fusina, "the best pure passer Penn State ever had"; Matt Millen and Bruce Clark, "maybe the best pair of defensive tackles in the country"; All-America Tackle Keith Dorney; "ubiquitous" Linebacker Lance Mehl; "implacable" Placekicker Matt Bahr et al. "Unfortunately" because Paterno makes these evaluations himself, and his fans are not loath to listen and mark them down.
"Any pressure I have," Paterno says, dipping into the eggs with a wedge of toast, "is self-inflicted. I honestly don't feel any, but the fans think we've got a shot at No. 1 because I've been telling everybody around here that the university ought to be No. 1 in everything. The No. 1 library, the No. 1 English department. A couple years ago the secretary of the alumni association wrote a book about Penn State football and called it Road to Number One. Just before it was finished, he came to see me. He dropped dead right in my house."
Paterno shakes his head.
"I don't know what that means, if anything, but a lot of things have come together. We've been beefing up the schedule. Eastern football is better than people think, but it's also true we haven't always played enough of the best teams. We've got Alabama, Notre Dame and Nebraska, home-and-home, in 1981 and '82. This year we've got a representative schedule and more talent than we've had since I've been here. We just haven't played up to it [in plug-along victories, 10-7 over Temple and 26-10 over Rutgers]. I don't blame the fans for being frustrated. We're not a good team yet.
"Last week I yelled at them a lot, because they weren't practicing well and they weren't playing up to their capabilities. Now we've got Ohio State, and I shouldn't have to yell. This is the fun game. This is the kind of game you win if you want to be No. 1. This is 88,000 people, and Woody Hayes, and the strategy and the preparation. I love it. I'm anxious to play it. But Woody and I won't be making any tackles."
Paterno laughs. He recalls a clinic he and Hayes attended a couple years ago.
"Two days in a row I noticed Woody eating by himself in the restaurant. Each day I went over and sat with him, to be sociable. As soon as I sat down, he started lecturing me on what I was doing wrong."
Paterno's Dodge station wagon, modestly festooned with Penn State stickers, is the last to arrive at the Tuesday morning meeting in the Recreation Building. He takes a brief ribbing for being five minutes late. "The second time in 20 years," he protests.
Empty Coke bottles and coffee cups already clutter the tables, which are arranged in a T. Paterno occupies the top of the T, with a blackboard at his back. A matching pair of flytraps, covered with victims, hangs from the air-conditioning ducts, which leak. While the staff awaits new offices, meetings have to be held in make-do quarters at the 49-year-old Recreation Building.
Like most good football coaching staffs, Paterno's is a blend of vintages. There are cerebral young defensive coaches like John Rosenberg, a Harvard man with a Masters in psychology, and stringy 24-year veterans like J. T. White, of a type commonly known as "a field coach." While White's clattering voice covers the area, Bob Phillips' is seldom raised in coaching the quarterbacks.
As a group, they are a study in orchestrated compromise. Articulate Booker Brooks could, says Paterno, provide 60 reasons for throwing 60 passes a game to the receivers he coaches if you let him. Jerry Sandusky is an intense scholar of defenses who is so animated that Paterno says he sometimes withholds his own criticisms lest Jerry take it personally. Dick Anderson, a firebrand, agonizes over the failures of his offensive linemen but he is subjected to Paterno's sniping encouragement. When Anderson is too long in the shower, Paterno will stick his head in and shout, "What are you doing in there, Dick? Slashing your wrists?"
Unlike some staffs, this one is close socially, its members regulars at Paterno's table, and they are free and candid in debate. "Sometimes I wish I had a guy who could just go out and get things done, no questions asked," says Paterno, laughing. "Like the Mafia." They have one common enemy: time. The time they have with their players before a big game. They sort it carefully and spend it according to the exigencies like a band of misers in a common counting house—beg a minute here, borrow a minute there. Paterno, however, makes the final disbursement.
The terminology of the meeting is, in itself, a patois of compressed time-saving phrases: receivers are not tight ends, wide receivers and flankers, they are "X," "Y" and "Z." The middle guard is "Mike," the weakside linebacker "Willie." Paterno recalls spending half a day with an assistant trying to find a name for the outside linebacker. Only when interrupted by a call from a local pizza parlor did they come up with it: "Fritz," after the proprietor.
The meeting breaks into groups, the groups into strategy sessions. They sift through offenses and defenses, filing and discarding, still one more shakedown in search of the best combinations. Favorites are logged: "25 Squeeze, 89 Switch, 86 Squirrel," and "Pass 37-Z-Post, Scatter 87, 71 Prevent Screen Short."
Stratagems for Ohio State actually began to take shape last spring. "By this summer we already had our game plan," says Paterno. Against Rutgers and Temple, Paterno held back almost two-thirds of his passing attack. He was not able to shield as much of the running game because it had been so spotty.
Injuries, ever lurking, make a late but significant incursion into the game plan. Dorney, the All-America tackle, has a hip pointer and may not play. Irv Pankey, a tackle previously moved to tight end, is moved back to tackle, with John Scovill replacing him at tight end. Scovill thus becomes that rarest of animals: a walk-on preparing to start in a major-college game. "Last spring he was minding his own business, kicking and trying to play some split end, and now he may start against Ohio State," says Paterno. "It's interesting." Scovill, at 200 pounds, is small for a tight end.
Speculation surfaces once more as to the likelihood that Woody Hayes will start freshman Quarterback Art Schlichter (shlee-ster) in place of senior Rod Gerald. It had become a rumor when word got around that Hayes had locked the gates at the beginning of fall practice. The Penn State staff knows Schlichter well. He was highly sought as a record-setting 6-3, 190-pound highschooler in Bloomingburg, Ohio. He almost signed with Penn State.
"The report is that Schlichter and Gerald will be in the same backfield," says a Penn State assistant.
"That can only mean a double-quarterback sneak," says another, drawing a laugh.
"I don't think Woody is interested in becoming ringmaster for an aerial circus at this stage of his career."
Paterno says that, indeed, it did not seem consistent with Hayes, but that Schlichter was an exceptional prospect, and if Woody ever had it in mind to go with the youngster he might best do it now and get a whole season out of him. "Tell you the truth, I'd rather he did," Paterno says. "Gerald might not throw well upfield, but he has the quickest feet I've ever seen. If he's going to play, I'd rather see him at flanker. I don't think he can hurt us as much there. And the other guy, as good as he is, is still a freshman."
Sandusky is convinced that Ohio State cannot consistently block the Penn State tackles, Millen and Clark, and that the Buckeye running game, weaker at fullback and tackle than in the past, will not go. But doubts plague him as a result of watching practice films.
"You torture yourself with these things," says Paterno. "It's the modern way and all that, but I think you get a better feel at practice by what you see first hand. You can sense things. You watch those films and you start having second thoughts. I quit watching 'em."
The business of pursuing No. 1 status is expressed in many ways at College Station. A song, Li-qui-date Ohio State, is playing regularly on local radio. It is a steal from Michigan, however. So are the rolls of toilet paper with Woody Hayes' image on every two-ply sheet. They are stacked in a pyramid at a local grocery and sell for $2 a pop.
On Monday, a columnist for The Daily Collegian, apparently miffed by Paterno's testiness after the Rutgers game, charged the coach with folding under pressure and likened him to Genghis Khan, Napoleon and Idi Amin. Not only that, he called him a "lousy interview." Those among the legions of local Paterno admirers ripped back two days later in the letters-to-the-editor column. Paterno let it all pass, except to say, "I always got along well with those fellows."
At dinner Wednesday night, Fusina and his roommate, Middle Guard Tony Petruccio, speculate how the columnist would get along with Woody Hayes if he thinks the mild-mannered Paterno is rough. Both Fusina and Petruccio were recruited by Ohio State.
"Hayes had me and a Puerto Rican guy in at the same time," says Petruccio. "I thought I was doing O.K., but when I was getting ready to leave he put his arm on my shoulder and said, 'Well, Chico, I'm glad you could make it.' I knew then I wasn't interested in Ohio State."
"Better be careful. Woody hears you say that and he'll hit you."
"He doesn't hit anybody unless he's losing."
"I hope he hits a lot of guys Saturday."
Alone in the training room, Matt Millen and Bruce Clark finish their evening weight-lifting routine and try to catch the tail end of a John Wayne movie on the television set there. They had come to Penn State two years ago as linebackers, high school rivals who "hated each other," Clark says, then had been made tackles together and their weight started to soar. They are now around 260 each and fast friends.
"Salt and pepper," says Millen. He is white, Clark is black.
"Now we compete to see who gets the most sacks, the most tackles, anything. It's great," says Clark.
"Only real difference is that I go crazy sometimes," Millen says. "Bruce keeps his cool. Sometimes when I think I've screwed up I really flip out. I did it at practice one day and Coach Sandusky told me to get off the field. I said I wouldn't go. I was steaming. Coach Paterno came over and said, 'O.K., just stay right there until you calm down. Don't move from that spot.' "
"I'm ready right now to hit somebody," says Clark. "I mean Ohio State. Rutgers and Temple is one thing, you know? I mean, it's just not the same. Ohio State! That's what it's all about."
"When I'm getting ready for a game like this, I never want to leave the practice field," says Millen. "When I get in the game, I won't want it to end."
"The national championship," says Clark.
"And we're going to win."
On Thursday, in his room deep in the bowels of the 63-year-old Phi Gamma Delta house, up the narrow stairwell and down a winding corridor, Fullback Matt Suhey says it is amazing how everybody in State College is into the game. He says a professor in one of his government courses had defined "lobbying" as "the kind of thing Woody Hayes and Joe Paterno did when they were trying to get Matt Suhey."
Suhey, the team's leading rusher, is the son of a former Penn State All-America guard and the grandson (on his mother's side) of Bob Higgins, one of its former coaches. He had been raised in State College and, therefore, is a qualified observer of the town's moods. But Suhey had been recruited by Ohio State and had almost selected the school. "When I came back home from Columbus the last time," he says, "I realized the difference. A five-minute walk."
Suhey kneads his hands nervously as he talks, leaning back on the used couch he recently purchased for $6 at an auction. It is kept level at one end by scraps of wood under the legs.
"Now I'm going back there to play," he says. "I was in that stadium. To tell you the truth, it was scary."
At midweek the temperature in central Pennsylvania drops into the 50s and practice improves dramatically. By Thursday, Paterno is convinced his team has turned around. "This is the first time I've felt this way. I can smell it," he says. "Every other Thursday I've walked off the field and thought, 'Boy, Temple better not be very good.' "
He has decided to go with Scovill at tight end and Pankey at tackle, and not risk Dorney until he has had more time to heal. "You practice as you play," he says. "I don't want these guys to work all week and then find out we don't have confidence in them. I think we'll be good enough either way. If things get tight during the game, we'll give 'em a quick course on the sideline, but I think they're going to be fine."
He cautions the staff to make the last practice day "as positive as you can. We'll make mistakes, but we don't want to get them nervous about themselves now."
He is pleased with the development of a new "scatter" formation, putting the tailback into a spread—or a slot—to take some of the pressure off Scovill at tight end and to allow for more consistent one-on-one coverage for Fusina when Ohio State does not adjust from its three-drop zone defense. "We'll throw a lot on first down," he says. "Show 'em a lot of formations, try to unsettle 'em. We're going to make them play our game."
Fran Ganter, a backfield coach, is going over a final reel of practice film. "I wish I had six more days," he says. "If you had six more days, you'd want six more," Paterno says. "I wish we were playing right now."
On Friday morning, as he leaves to scout a high school game, Booker Brooks receives a call from "an alumnus in Columbus." The alum says he talked with a girl friend of an Ohio State manager. He told her Rod Gerald had taken only seven snaps since fall practice started.
"It doesn't matter," says Sandusky on the plane to Columbus. "We're prepared either way. They're not going to jam it down our throats, and I don't think he [Hayes] will be happy throwing the ball, not if we can give 'em all the looks we plan to."
"How many is that?"
"Eight, with variations."
"It came together this week," says Paterno. "It'll take a good football team to beat us now. Penn State has that kind of history, getting better as we go along. Rip [Engle] never lost a team as the season wore on. In 1964 we were one and four after five games, and then won our last five in a row."
The team checks into a motel outside Columbus. Paterno sees that they are given a nine o'clock snack and get into their rooms, then he joins a group of newsmen in a hospitality room to watch the Ali-Spinks fight.
When the fight is over, one of the newsmen asks Paterno how he scored it.
"Not until he sees the films," someone else says.
Paterno smiles a bit. "How do I know? The last fight I saw was Louis-Nova."
As he leaves, he is told, "If you think up an offense, Coach, call us." Paterno says he "enjoys being around newsmen."
Game day brings bloated skies and a steady rain and one last rumor. Over a 10 a.m. team breakfast of pancakes, steak, home fries and fruit cup comes the news that neither Gerald nor Schlichter will start. That it will be a converted linebacker. Paterno says a guy who hates Woody had called him with this information. He laughs as he retells the story on the bus to the stadium.
But it is Schlichter, the freshman, who starts at quarterback. The usual huge Ohio State crowd—this one 88,202—cheers the announcement and his entrance. The rain has stopped. Schlichter passes on the very first play of the game, and then on the third, completing both. Ohio State works down-field. Then on Schlichter's fourth pass he is suddenly nose up in the jaws of a bewildering scaffold of double coverages. Pete Harris, the deepest Lion defender, steps in front of the intended receiver and intercepts. He returns the ball to the Ohio State 46.
It is the first of a nightmare series of eight turnovers for Ohio State. Though Schlichter is clearly a talented youngster, he is given unremitting pressure by Clark, Millen and Petruccio and, in the Penn State secondary, a suffocating array of coverages confronts the 18-year-old. Linebacker Lance Mehl seems to be in six places at once, cluttering up Schlichter's view or sitting on Schlichter's shoulderblades.
Penn State gets a drive and a 30-yard Matt Bahr field goal out of the first turnover, and nurses the 3-0 lead through the half. Gerald, who replaces Schlichter at quarterback on some series and is a split end on others, fumbles the ball away after one 46-yard completion to the Penn State 20. Then Schlichter is hit and loses one himself at the 41. Petruccio intercepts still another hurried throw at the Nittany Lion 32. But Penn State's offense is not able to convert these gifts into a single point.
At halftime Paterno's staff works quickly but with remarkable calm. Offensive and defensive squads get separate, short, incisive blackboard critiques. Gradually, Paterno allows the enthusiasm to rebuild.
When it is time to go back out, he says, "It's all yours now. All you have to do is finish the job. We're not going to sit on any three-point lead. We're going to play this baby like we were behind, like we are desperate.
"Before the game I told you I thought we were better. Now we know it. Right?"
The second time they get the ball in the third quarter, the Nittany Lions drive 80 yards to the game's only touchdown, and it is no less than a finishing blow. The march consumes 13 plays—only one a pass—and almost six minutes, and is a bruising, painstaking work of art that establishes the superiority of the Penn State line and its running backs.
Suhey is the cutting edge. He gets 43 of the 80 in eight carries, including the last one for three yards into the end zone, sliding outside off a cluster of minglers and diving in from the two. After that, Bahr kicks three more field goals, giving the sweeper for the Tulsa Roughnecks of the North American Soccer League eight in two games and nine of 11 for the year. Clark and Millen and Mehl and the others finish off the first shutout of the Buckeyes in an opening game in 76 years and only the 14th in Hayes' 27-year career at Columbus.
In the Penn State dressing room, Paterno climbs to a bench and spreads his arms and smiles broadly as his players shout, "We're No. 1!" He tells them it was a great job, but "only the first of a lot more. We're going to get better. So keep your feet on the ground."
At 8 p.m., when their feet get back on the ground, the Nittany Lions are met by 5,000 fans. The fans have waited two hours for the chance to tell them once more that they are No. 1.
Well, O.K. If you insist.