Penn State, Paterno deserve a bowl revolution, not sympathy

January 01, 1995|By JOHN EISENBERG

PASADENA, Calif. -- Only in college football is perfection sometimes not enough.

Only in college football can you win every game and still watch someone else celebrate the championship you had sought.

It is a freakish circumstance that goes against the basic nature of competition. A team that wins every game isn't supposed to be able to lose. Pro football doesn't allow it. College basketball doesn't allow it. Any sport that determines a championship on the field doesn't allow it.

But it is part of college football's eccentric and imperfect world, in which champions are decided by public opinion.

The Penn State Nittany Lions stand at the threshold of such an occurrence. Even if they beat Oregon in the Rose Bowl tomorrow to finish their season with a dozen wins, no losses and no ties, they will finish second in the final polls to Nebraska if the Cornhuskers beat Miami tonight in the Orange Bowl.

Does it make sense? No. Nowhere is there a single shred of hard evidence proving that the Cornhuskers are superior in any way. Their higher standing is just a function of the whims of voters.

But can Penn State do anything about its predicament? Nope. That's just the way it goes. Polls have gauged college football's championship for 58 years. Everyone knows the rules going in.

If the breaks work in your favor, as they did for Penn State in 1982 when the 11-1 Lions were awarded a national championship ahead of an 11-0-1 team from Southern Methodist, you just smile and accept their blessings.

If the breaks work against you, well, too bad.

Not that the Nittany Lions deserve any sympathy. If they were still independents, as they were for more than a century, they would be settling the No. 1 issue on the field of the Orange Bowl tonight against Nebraska. But they chose to join the Big Ten four years ago in a move designed to enhance their overall athletic department revenues. It was their idea to join a conference not involved in the bowl coalition.

They asked for this, in other words.

Penn State coach Joe Paterno doesn't want any sympathy anyway. He is plainly delighted to be in the Rose Bowl for the first time, regardless of what happens in the polls. Even though it hasn't often been a factor in the national championship lately, the Rose remains the bowl with the largest payout, the largest crowd and often the largest TV audience. It is still the bowl with the proudest tradition, and Paterno, a traditionalist, is almost giddy about being here.

"This is quite a spectacle," he said. "There hasn't been an Eastern team playing in this game for 50 or 60 years. It's a thrill to be here."

At a news conference yesterday he admitted he didn't care whether he won a third national title ("I've had 'em") and said he wouldn't mind seeing Nebraska coach Tom Osborne, a close friend, win for the first time.

"I'm going to be happy either way," he said. "I guess for the sake of [his Penn State] squad I should root for Miami [to beat Nebraska]."

Indeed, for Paterno said that his only regret about the poll system is that it denied a championship to a group of his players that went 31 games without a loss a quarter-century ago. His 1968, 1969 and 1973 teams all finished unbeaten, untied and somewhere below No. 1. In those days, Eastern college football was thought to be inferior to that in the rest of the country.

"I still feel for them," Paterno said of the players on the '68 and '69 teams. "But the way they still feel today is that no one can take away what they did."

This year's team could wind up taking the same solace, a possibility that clearly doesn't thrill them. As much as Paterno is ambivalent about finishing No. 1, the players want it badly.

"There's so much good about being in the Rose Bowl, but part of you wonders 'What if?' " tight end Kyle Brady said. "Playing Nebraska would have been the opportunity of a lifetime. But we can't ponder it, I guess."

A championship tournament would eliminate the problem, of course, and the cry for one is always heard at this time of year. Paterno is among those in favor of a playoff. But it isn't close to becoming a reality. The NCAA school presidents are dead-set against it.

Until there is a revolution, the national championship will continue to be decided by a system that is inherently biased, regionalized and unfair, about as scientific as rolling dice, and far more lively, curious and entertaining than any playoff ever could be.

Until there is a revolution, we will continue to see teams confronting the same fate that Penn State faces now. The annals of the game are lined with them. In 1975, Arizona State went 12-0 and finished No. 2 behind an Oklahoma team with one defeat. In 1966, Alabama went 11-0, outscored its opponents 301-44, won the Sugar Bowl and finished No. 3 behind Notre Dame and Michigan State, which tied each other. In 1945, Alabama at 10-0 finished behind Army at 9-0.

So it goes.

"We're here to play in the Rose Bowl, and we're thrilled about it," Paterno said. "Whatever happens, happens. The people who vote in the polls can vote any way they want to vote."

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