By Mike Goodson/Sports Correspondent
The sports world was saddened on Jan. 22 by the announcement of the death of former Penn State University head football coach Joe Paterno. With the passing of the legendary coach another chapter draws to a close in the history books of college football’s most colorful and innovative head coaches. Since the age of six these great individuals of the gridiron have fascinated me. Many of them won national titles. Over the years I had the privilege of meeting Paul “Bear” Bryant, Bobby Bowden, Steve Spurrier. On Oct. 13, 1984, I met Joe Paterno.
It’s amazing that Penn State and the University of Alabama never crossed paths during the 1960s. The two met briefly during the 1959 Liberty Bowl just before Paterno took the job at PSU. Bryant was winning national championships at Alabama and Paterno was pilling up win after win and winning bowl games at PSU, but it seemed parallel lines would never intersect.
The history books were rewritten on Dec. 31, 1975, with the unveiling of the Louisiana Superdome. The Sugar Bowl moved from the old Tulane Stadium to the new stadium and the bowl committee wanted a special matchup for this historic game. What better matchup than Bear Bryant versus Joe Paterno? The game was everything its early billing promised, with Alabama taking a 13-6 win. Not only was this game a classic, but a friendly rivalry was formed between Bryant and Paterno.
Chapter two of the rivalry came in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 1979. PSU was the nation’s No. 1 team and appeared headed for Paterno’s first national title. The only thing standing in the way was the once-beaten Crimson Tide and a linebacker named Barry Krauss. Alabama took a 14-7 win with a certain goal line stand. Alabama intercepted a pass in the last minute of the game and hundreds of fans stormed the field. This was my first chance to get within arms length of the two legendary coaches.
In 1981 a new chapter was written in this great rivalry, when the two football powers began a home-and-home series.
On Nov. 13, we left on the long drive north to State College, Pa. We stayed at Lewistown, Pa., because we quickly learned that reservations need to made months in advance near the campus. On the 14th, Joey Jones was unstoppable and Alabama brought home a 31-16 win.
The following year Alabama added a 42-21 win at Legion Field in Birmingham. Naturally, we were there as the two legendary coaches added another colorful chapter to one of college football’s most colorful rivalries.
In 1983 PSU finally notched a victory over Alabama, 34-28, in Ray Perkins’ first season as head coach of the Crimson Tide.
Perkins suffered through a losing season at Alabama in 1984. This was Paterno’s first visit to Tuscaloosa and one of the rivalry’s closest games. In a game that was decided by two field goals, Alabama took a hard-fought 6-0 win.
While the game was a very exciting defensive struggle, the greatest excitement followed about an hour after the final play.
Several years ago I decided to collect autographs of famous college coaches. We would always wait around the stadiums trying to get an elusive autograph. On this particular day we waited near the charter buses that shuttled the Penn State players to the airport. Perkins already signed my game program earlier and the Nittany Lions began to board the buses as we were waiting.
Paterno emerged with one of his assistant coaches. We waited patiently and Paterno finally walked over and spoke to us. We asked for his autograph, and he took our felt tip pen and signed our programs. The coach stood there talking for about 15 minutes with us, answering questions and asking about football in the south. Paterno looked at his watch and said, “We have a plane to catch.” He boarded the bus and was gone.
The prized autographs and the program were donated to the Paul “Bear” Bryant Museum years ago. A few years later I sent Paterno a note thanking him for his kindness and his autograph. Two months later a large envelope arrived from Penn State University with a letter from Paterno and an autographed photo of the coach.
Different people will no doubt remember Paterno in different ways. For this writer, he will be remembered as both one of the greatest college football coaches of all time and a gentleman.