I rolled into Happy Valley early in the morning in preparation for the noon start time. It was homecoming at Penn State as they were set to host the Indiana Hoosiers. The Hoosiers were 4-1 after losing a heart-breaker to Ohio State the previous week. Penn State had a week of events leading up to the big game. It all kicked off on Monday night with the Pollock Party, and included a talent show, carnival and field day and concluded with a huge parade and ice cream social on Friday night.
I had been to Penn State in June of 2012 on a vacation. I had stopped and got my picture taken next to the Joe Paterno statue. It was just a month later in July that the statue was taken down in response to the discovery of the crimes committed by Jerry Sandusky. I walked over to the east side of the stadium, where the bronze statue once stood. The whole area is now just covered in landscaped trees.
The weather was perfect as I walked toward campus and the tailgate that I was invited to attend. Penn State has a huge tailgate area set up just next to the stadium. The entire area was bustling with fans grilling, playing games and drinking their favorite beverages before game time. My tailgate hosts were awesome as I was just in time for an omelet and beverage of choice. After a quick bite to eat and a lot of introductions, it was time to settle in and meander about the tailgate area. I took many great pictures and got to know great fans, who were excited yet cautious about how the season had played out to this point. Penn State fans are deeply rooted into the history and tradition of the program. They are loyal fans who love to travel for big road games and bowl games. Last year the Lions opened in Ireland, playing in the Croke Park Classic. It was estimated that as many as 20,000 fans made the trip to Dublin.
This was one of the top tailgate scenes I have been a part of. I have been to many stadiums and tailgates in the Big 10. I met one fan that converted an old bus. He was from Kentucky and hasn’t missed a game in nine years. The bus which gets less than five miles per gallon of fuel is now parked in Happy Valley and comes out only for home games. Another set of fans bought and refurbished an old fire truck. They tricked out the truck to one of the coolest vehicles I have ever seen at a tailgate.
Penn State football began in 1887. For the first five years the team played with no head coach. They combined to go 12-8-1 during those years. In 1892 George Hoskins was named the teams first head coach. He posted a 17-4-4 record in four years. The first home game under Hoskins was played in the lawn on campus. Later they built a 500 seat stadium, calling it “Beaver Field”. Since 1918 Penn State has had just seven head coaches. That is remarkable considering Joe Bedenk coached only one season in 1949.
These fans love Paterno, he is an icon here. Every fan I talked to spoke glowingly of the man. He has poured millions of dollars back into the institution. Paterno spent 46 seasons as the Nittany Lions head football coach, the longest tenure of any FBS head coach and 16 more as an assistant, making his 62 total years coaching at Penn State the most of any coach at any school. He also served as Penn State’s athletics director from 1980–1982. His final record was 409–136–3. Paterno’s Nittany Lions won national championships in 1982 and 1986. Under Paterno, the Nittany Lions played in 37 bowl games, 24 of which were victories. The NCAA striped Penn State and Peterno of 111 wins after the as the crimes committed by Sandusky came to light. On January 16, 2015 the NCAA restored Joe Paterno’s 111 vacated wins, making him, once again, the winningest coach in FBS college football history.
SOME FUN FACTS ABOUT PENN STATE FOOTBALL
- Penn State played as an independent from 1887 until 1993, when they joined the Big 10 Conference.
- Beaver Stadium is the second largest football stadium in the country. It seats 107,282, second only to Michigan’s “Big House”. The stadium was named after James Beaver, a former governor of the state of Pennsylvania.
- The Nittany Lions have 856 career wins.
- Penn State has won 12 unclaimed national titles, two claimed national titles and three Big 10 titles.
- Penn State has had seven undefeated seasons.
- John Cappelletti is the school’s only Heisman Trophy winner. He won the award in 1973.
- Penn State boasts 22 players and coaches in the College Football Hall of Fame. Some of the notables include, Jack Ham, Shane Conlin, Lydell Mitchell and Curt Warner.
“Nittanyville”, originally known as Paternoville, is the name attributed to the student tradition of camping out in front of Beaver Stadium prior to a home football game. Each week before a home game, students camp out in front of the stadium in order to hold their positions in line for front-row seats. I was amazed at just how big the student section is. It is the largest I have seen and literally goes from 10 yard line, to 10 yard line, circling the end zone. Football players, the blue band and local food vendors and even the coaching staff frequently visit Nittanyville. The tradition was established during the 2005 football season, when students began setting up tents and “camping” in front of Beaver Stadium one week before the game with rival Ohio State.
Success with honor was created by Joe Paterno. It was widely known as a “grand experiment” in which he challenged his players to be successful both on the field and in the classroom. In 2011, the Nittany Lion football team posted an 87 percent graduation rate, tied with Stanford for No. 10 overall among the nation’s 120 Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) institutions, and well above the national average of 67 percent. In 2012, a group of alumni and supporters established a non-profit organization to help carry on this program.
THE LOOK – The uniforms are one of my favorite things about Penn State football. They only wear white pants, and the jerseys are simple blue for home games, and white for away games. The helmet is white with a blue stripe down the center, and a blue on white “Penn State” sticker covers up the forehead helmet logo. No team logos, conference logos, numbers, or other stickers are permitted on the helmet. In 2012, Penn State started wearing names on their uniforms for the first time as a way to note the players who stuck with the school as sanctions were imposed, and a blue ribbon in support the victims of child abuse.
Much of Penn State’s incredible tradition, has come from one position on the football field. The Nittany Lions have. Long been known as Linebacker U. Fifteen different linebackers have gone through the program, winning some kind of honors. There have been three Chuck Bednarik award winners, and two Dick Butkis award winners. Dennis Onkotz and Shane Conlan are both two-time All-Americans. Jack Ham is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The Nittany Lion shrine is a large mountain lion statue, located on the main campus at Penn State. The statue was dedicated in October of 1942, before a homecoming game. Heinz Warneke and Joseph Garatti created it from a 13 ton block of Indiana limestone. The shrine is a gift of the class of 1940 and rests in a natural setting of trees near Recreation Building. The shrine is the second most photographed landmark in Pennsylvania, behind only the Liberty Bell.
I heard plenty of funny stories regarding the statue, most of which I will not share in this article. My favorite G-rated story involved Sue Paterno, wife of football coach Joe Paterno. In 1966 she secretly secretly splashed water-soluble orange paint on the Nittany Lion statue the week of the Syracuse game. Later that week Syracuse fans covered the statue in oil-based paint, which was tougher to remove. Since then, students guard the Lion Shrine every homecoming.
The Penn State versus Pittsburgh rivalry is currently dormant, but it will return next season. Once considered the fiercest and most important college football rivalry north of the Mason–Dixon line, this rivalry was first played in 1893 when Penn State won 32–0. The most recent game in the series was played in 2000 with Pitt winning 12–0 over Penn State, and the Nittany Lions hold a 50-42-4 record against the Panthers.
Ohio State was a rival, long before the Lions joined the Big 10. The first four meetings in the series were stretched out over the course of 53 seasons between 1912 and 1964, all of which Penn State won. Ohio State won games in 1975 and 1976. The teams would meet again in 1980 in the Fiesta Bowl, which Penn State won. The two teams did not meet again until Penn State joined the Big Ten in 1993. Since then, the Nittany Lions and Buckeyes have played each other annually. The official record of the series is 16–13, with Ohio State leading the series.
Since 1993 Penn State has played Michigan State for what’s known as the Land Grant Trophy. The series is currently tied at 14-14-1.
The Lions played their best game of the season. Both teams had entered the game with identical 4-1 marks. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg had his best game of the season leading the Lions to a 29-7 win. Hackenberg found Brandon Polk and DaeSean Hamilton with 39 yard scoring strikes, then added a one yard bootleg for a score, putting the Lions up 19-7 at the half. A fantastic halftime show featuring the Penn State Blue Band got even better when they were joined on the field, by the alumni band! The Penn State defense left little doubt that the game was out of reach in the second half. They knocked out quarterback Zander Diamont, who was already filling in for injured starter Nate Sudfield. The Lion defense sacked Hoosier quarterbacks four times, forced seven tackles for loss and limited the Hoosiers to just 155 passing yards.