History does not rank it among the worst of Richard Nixon's abuses
of the presidency, but Penn State fans might. It was the
unprecedented executive decision Nixon made in 1969 when he declared
that the winner of the Dec. 6 game between two undefeated teams, No.
1 Texas and No. 2 Arkansas, would be college football's national
champion. A presidential plaque presented by Nixon after the game
would make it official.
One problem with this proposal, as irate Pennsylvanians were quick
to point out when they flooded the White House with telegrams, was
that No. 3 Penn State was also undefeated and had in fact won 21
straight games and had not lost in 29, the longest such streaks in
Not insensitive to grumblings from the Eastern electorate, Nixon
hurriedly promised to give Penn State a plaque to commemorate its
unbeaten streak. Upon hearing this, a bristling Joe Paterno
interrupted his preparations for an Orange Bowl matchup with 9-1
Missouri to fire off a press release that read, in part, ''Before
accepting such a plaque, I'd have to confer with my squad. I'm sure
they would be disappointed at this time . . . to receive anything
other than a plaque for the No. 1 team. And the No. 1 team following
the bowl games could be Penn State or Missouri.
''It would seem a waste of (Nixon's) time to present Penn State
with a plaque for something we already have -- the nation's longest
winning and unbeaten streaks.''
| So no plaque was ever presented to Penn State. But Nixon
continued to try to patch things up with the Nittany Lion faithful.
At a Dec. 9 dinner, during which he received the National Football
Foundation and College Hall of Fame Gold Medal as ''the outstanding
American'' associated with football, Nixon said, ''I would like to
say that now I think Penn State is among those who should be
considered for the Number 1 spot.''
Unfortunately, the First Pollster had already voted. On national
TV, in the Texas locker room, he had presented his
national-championship plaque to the Longhorns, who had beaten
Arkansas 15-14. And the Nittany Lions had blown their chance at No. 1
when they decided to play in the Orange Bowl. When the bids to the
major bowls were doled out, Ohio State was No. 1. Since the bowl
lineup prevented Penn State from meeting the Buckeyes, the Lions went
to Miami for New Year's. Texas, which became No. 1 after Ohio State
lost to Michigan, beat Notre Dame 21-17 in the Cotton Bowl. The Lions
beat Missouri 10-3 in the Orange Bowl and ended up No. 2.
Paterno would wait 13 more years before winning a national title,
but he was able to make one claim much sooner: ''At least I was
fighting with Nixon before it became fashionable.'' -- K.A.
This is an article from the Jan. 18, 1995 issue