STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — The first time Penn State and Michigan’s football teams met in 1993, officials had to stop the game three times. Not because of thunder, lightning, or a swarm of unruly insects, but because the crowd at Beaver Stadium was deafening.
A year later, college football fans circled the Penn State-Michigan game in Ann Arbor as one to watch. Even after a last-play Hail Mary pass by Colorado quarterback Kordell Stewart likely ended Michigan’s championship hopes, Penn State continued its march toward an undefeated season with a win against the Wolverines.
And in 2005, an official’s ruling helped the Wolverines spoil what could have been a marquee season for the Nittany Lions.
While the series has its defining moments, the two teams have met only 16 times since 1993 — a series that was created three years after Penn State joined the Big Ten in 1990.
“We kind of look at it as a rivalry, and this goes back to when I was here a long time ago [as an assistant coach],” said Michigan coach Brady Hoke, who will face Penn State for the first time as a head coach today.
“It’s two traditional football schools in this country playing each other.”
Michigan and Penn State will compete in the seven-team East Division in 2014 as part of the Big Ten Conference’s expansion and realignment, and players believe this rivalry will likely intensify.
“Only 16 times?” Michigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan asked. “I don’t really know about the tradition and history of playing against Penn State. It’ll be fun. It will add a little more to it.”
Why hadn’t two titans of college football met earlier?
Maybe it was because Penn State’s schedule as an independent football program primarily featured traditional rivalry games and a variation of national-caliber opponents, while Michigan only had leeway to play a handful of non-Big Ten games each season.
Or maybe Joe Paterno wasn’t ready to have his football team face his friend Bo Schembechler.
The lack of lengthy history between the two teams confounds Lou Prato, the author of several books about Penn State football.
Penn State had faced traditional Big Ten teams during the course of its 126-year football history, but never Michigan — a program that, Prato explained, had many ties to Ann Arbor.
“Who knows what they were thinking back then?” said Prato, who is also considered one of Penn State’s football historians. “It seemed like they should have been playing, especially when Hugo Bezdek was the athletic director at Penn State, and he came out of the Big Ten and played at Chicago under Amos Alonzo Stagg.
“It’s just fascinating that they never had met.”
More than 50 years ago, Ernie McCoy facilitated a bond between Happy Valley and Ann Arbor. The former Michigan basketball standout and former football assistant to Fritz Crisler became Penn State’s athletic director in 1952, and Prato said he applied a lot of what he’d learned at Michigan to building Penn State’s athletic department.
In 1966, McCoy promoted an Ivy League-educated Brooklyn native named Joe Paterno from assistant coach to head coach of the football team following the retirement of Paterno’s boss, Rip Engle.
Michigan football coach Chalmers “Bump” Elliott retired two years later, and UM athletic director Don Canham met with Paterno, whose team went 11-0 that season and finished second in the Associated Press top 25 poll, about replacing Elliott.
Paterno turned down Michigan, and for 22 years sat on the fact that he’d been approached by Michigan. Schembechler, instead, took over the Wolverines.
In Canham’s book From the Inside: A Half-Century of Michigan Athletics, Paterno didn’t reveal the details — with Canham’s permission — until the College Football Hall of Fame Dinner in New York City in 1990.
“I thought about it for a week,” Paterno told the York (Pa.) Daily Record in 1993. “I really thought strongly about Michigan because I’ve always been a great admirer. The people I’ve met that played football at Michigan were just outstanding people.
“It would’ve been one of the few schools that I would’ve left Penn State for.”
Paterno became one of college football’s most iconic personalities, won 409 games, two national titles, and set a standard for college football. But he was fired by Penn State’s board of trustees in November of 2011, in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.
Paterno’s team never faced his friend’s team during Schembechler’s time at Michigan. In 2005, Paterno was on the losing end of a game that Prato considers the benchmark in the short rivalry.
Chad Henne’s last-second touchdown pass to Mario Manningham — set up after former UM coach Lloyd Carr convinced officials to put two seconds back on the clock during the final drive — handed the Nittany Lions their only loss that season and spoiled their national title hopes.
Penn State’s 11 wins in 2005 were among the 14 seasons of victories vacated last year as part of NCAA sanctions that stemmed from the Sandusky case.
Three years later, Penn State ended Michigan’s nine-game winning streak with a 46-17 win at Happy Valley, another one of the notable games in the short series.
“The rivalry is there, but Penn State feels it’s more of a rivalry than Michigan does,” Prato said. “It will never equal Michigan-Ohio State or Michigan-Michigan State.
“What makes rivalries so big is that it came down to an upset here or there, or a game that may cost them a championship, or they play in the last game of the season.
“But Penn State-Michigan could develop.”
Lewan will be gone when the rivalry becomes an annual occurrence, but has an expectation for the series.
“As far as the future goes,” the redshirt senior said, “I’m sure it’s going to be a great rivalry.”