What happened to Penn State after it rallied five times to defeat Northwestern 38-35 last Saturday in Evanston was a microcosm of what happened before the Nittany Lions got their first victory of the season.
While the team's charter plane was taxiing at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport in preparation to return the party of 110 to State College, Pa., after the game, it got stuck in the mud and couldn't be extricated. That necessitated an overnight stay in Chicago.
The team returned home Sunday morning, but then faced a 21/2-hour power outage in the football facilities to further set back preparations for Ohio State Saturday in Beaver Stadium.
All of the delays were sort of a parody in regard to coach Joe Paterno's record watch and his team's first-victory anxiety, neither of which earned clearance for takeoff until Saturday.
Now Paterno, 74, has finally tied the late Paul “Bear” Bryant's record for most victories by a Division I-A coach at 323 and the Nittany Lions' worst start in 115 years of Penn State football has come to an end.
It's not exactly the situation Ohio State coach Jim Tressel had hoped for as he prepares to take his sometimes-equally inept offense into Happier Valley.
“I really haven't given much thought as to what the scenario was going to be,” he said. “We've been working hard and fighting for our lives within our own ball game. As I sat and watched the end of the Penn State-Northwestern game I thought to myself, `Now as this is going back and forth, which is the best way for this to end?' By the last three touchdowns and field goals that went back and forth I was thoroughly confused as to what would be the best scenario.”
Since the Buckeyes already have beaten Northwestern handily, let's hope Tressel's uncertainty was short term. A Wildcat victory would have made a very disbelieving Penn State team even more unsure of itself going in against the Buckeyes.
Now, the Big Ten's last-place team with the worst overall record (1-5) and rushing statistics (40.8 yards per game) in Division 1-A as of last week has something to build on.
Paterno, like Tressel, like most other college football coaches can be very coy. With the record for most victories now just one win away when it appeared it might have to be put on hold until next season, JoPa has stopped dodging that discussion, at least for the short term.
The media is well aware that the best way to end a press conference with JoePa (was it JoGrandpa last week?) is to broach the record question.
But Paterno's paranoia faded a little yesterday and he discussed the record and its ramifications.
“A lot of the kids came over and congratulated me (after the Northwestern victory),” he said. “I was pleased about that. I don't talk too much. In fact, I hadn't said a word to them about it. I did say something to them yesterday, to be frank with you.
“I said there's going to be a lot of talk about this and I said there's only one thing we want to do and that is focus on a good Ohio State team and see if we can get a little momentum going. I told them, `Don't get distracted talking about a lot of things besides the fact Ohio State is the game and we're going to try to get a win. That's the only time I've talked to them all year about the record.
“I'm always lost as to how to express my feelings because they always sound so contrived after I say them. If I say to you, `I don't care about the record,' you are going to say, `He is full of horse manure.' It is also disrespectful for all of the things that have happened here at Penn State since I have been here, the kids who have made it possible for me to win a game, whether it is this week, next week or three years from now.
“I think it's a little disrespectful to the kids to say, `I think to win the game whenever it happens is great for Penn State.' It is great for Penn State football. That is fine. As far as any kind of ego trip, if tomorrow the doctor says, `You have to give up football,' I give it up. It really wouldn't bother me.
“I can only say it so many times and try to say it as sincerely as I can - that it is the last thing I want to be thinking about this week. We have to work to get our backsides better. These are two good, tough football teams and let's get it done and forget about all of the other stuff that goes with it.”
Asked how he would compare himself with other great coaches, Paterno said, “I looked in the mirror one day and I asked my wife, how many great coaches do you think there are? She said, `One less than you think.'
“I put myself in that one-less-than-you-think category.”