In Paterno's 25th season, Penn State seeks identity

September 27, 1990|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Correspondent

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- At Penn State, the pomp and circumstance of a football Saturday remain timeless, from the early-morning parade of Winnebagos that creeps through the mountains of central Pennsylvania to the clockwork efficiency of the marching band, to the button-down attire of the football coach.

Despite appearances, this is an unusual year. Joe Paterno is celebrating his 25th season as head coach of the Nittany Lions. And the team, with a 1-2 record, is in transition, working its way through a cycle that may yield a run for a national championship. But not in 1990.

"I don't think we're in the loop," Paterno said. "We're a good, solid, young club that needs a couple of things to come together before we're at that echelon. We're going to be very competitive, whether it's this year or next year. We'll get there."

Paterno, 63, still is in command. He may leave the nuts-and-bolts coaching to his assistants, but he oversees the operation, providing the conservative philosophy that colors the Penn State program.

"It's hard for me to believe I'm in my 25th year as head coach," he said. "I don't think of myself as old."

The job, Paterno said, still is fun, challenging and rewarding. Besides, he still can walk home from his office, the cavernous Beaver Stadium.

"Joe's word is the law," senior defensive back Greg Fusetti said. "He is old-fashioned. He always says to be classy."

The image of Penn State football -- a school that plays hard and fair, and above all, respects the rules -- tends to overshadow the bottom-line goals that direct every major college power.

"At Penn State, they try to show you that football isn't everything," Fusetti said. "But the goal for the school is to win games and bring in money for other sports."

Money is no problem. Paterno was co-chair of a $350 million academic fund-raising effort, and the football team has a string of 73 consecutive sellouts at Beaver Stadium.

But Penn State is attempting to re-launch its climb up the national polls. Since beating the University of Miami in the Sunkist Fiesta Bowl to win the 1986 consensus national championship with a 12-0 record, Penn State has fallen, if not on hard times, then certainly into a less notable era. Its string of 49 consecutive non-losing seasons ended with a 5-6 record in 1988.

Of Penn State's 21 wins from 1987 through 1989, 13 came against Bowling Green, Cincinnati (two), Rutgers (two), Maryland (two), Temple (three) and Boston College (three), not exactly college football's murderers' row. The Nittany Lions made it into two bowl games -- and finished No. 15 in the final Associated Press poll of 1989 -- but they failed to beat one team that was in a season-ending top 10.

"We want to be recognized as one of the great teams in the country," senior fullback Sam Gash said. "We're sick of people saying that the dynasty is over, because it's not."

But clearly, this is a different era. Besides retooling the program, the Nittany Lions are preparing for their mid-decade entry into the Big Ten.

"Sometimes dynasties go into remission," senior wide receiver David Daniels said. "Teams go through down periods, and then, come back up. I know one thing: We're working hard."

Penn State opened the season with losses to Texas and Southern California. It wasn't a disaster, but clearly, the team was headed in the wrong direction.

A 28-0 victory over Rutgers on Saturday ended the slide. After an idle week, the Nittany Lions will charge into their Eastern campaign, with games against Temple, Syracuse and Boston College before traveling to Alabama. By the end of October, the team's identity will be revealed.

The team has provided some clues about what it wants to become. The offense is in the capable hands of senior quarterback Tony Sacca, whose accurate throwing arm and conservative instincts blend smoothly with Paterno's basic approach. The tailback position, traditionally the only glamour spot of the Penn State offense, is held by senior Leroy Thompson. He had four touchdowns against Rutgers, doubling his career total.

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