When Penn State first signed on to join the Big 10 conference, it was late 1989 and Penn State was finishing up an unprecedented decade of success in the football program that included three national title game appearances, two of which culminated with Penn State being crowned national champions.
Penn State fans had been accustomed to success since Joe Paterno took over in 1966, and at no time in the storied history of the program had that success been more obvious than in the decade of the 1980's, which was coming to a close.
In 1990, Penn State would go 9-3 with three very close losses surrounded by lopsided victories. The Nittany Lions would pull off a stunning upset that year of top ranked Notre Dame in South Bend.
As the early 90's rolled along, Penn State would anticipate it's eventual entrance into the Big Ten with typical gridiron success. In 1991 Penn State would lose two very close games to top-flight competition, but they hammered everyone else in their way as they finished #3 ranked in the nation.
Penn State would limp home at 7-5 in 1992, but they were loaded to the gills with talent and the staff knew it. Things looked pretty good as they entered the Big Ten in 1993.
Some pundits had suggested that Penn State would run through the Big Ten winning titles with regularity. They said Penn State would dominate the Big Ten. Many Penn State fans that had grown to expect winning took it for granted that we'd waltz into the Big Ten and just keep going.
The pundits actually had good reason to make such predictions.
Michigan and Ohio State have always been very good football programs. Both have storied programs and both were considered our equals when we came into the Big Ten. But leading up to the 1993 season the Big Ten conference was known as the Big 2 and Little 8, and for good reason.
Illinois had a couple of good years sprinkled among many mediocre ones, and Iowa was fairly good for much of the 1980's. But the Hawkeye's success was offset by plenty of down years during the Pattern era.
Michigan State had a couple of nice years in the 80's as well, but mostly the Spartans were either mediocre or downright lousy. The same could rightly have been said for the rest of the Big Ten. Truth be told, the Big Ten was one big pool of mediocrity for a long time.
Before 1993, Wisconsin had suffered losing years in all but a handful of the thirty prior seasons. The Badgers had even suffered two 1-win years leading up to our entrance into the Big Ten. Minnesota never did much of anything since 1960. The Gophers went 2-9 back to back in 1991 and 1992.
Northwestern had the longest losing streak of any team in the history of college football at one point. No one was worse off than the Wildcats.
In the Paterno era at Penn State, the Nittany Lions had the 3rd best overall won loss record in the nation at 247-67-3. Michigan had the 5th best record during the 1966 - 2002 time frame at 240-65-8, and Ohio State had the 8th best record at 224-75-7.
The rest of the league was basically dismal during those years. Michigan State was the next best the league had to offer, but they could muster only the 57th best record among 1-A teams over that time frame. Purdue was 67th, Iowa 71st, and Minnesota 80th. That's bleak, and the others were even worse!
By contrast, some of our traditional eastern rivals looked pretty good.
From 1966 thru 1992, West Virginia had the 33rd best record in college football, Rutgers was 39th, Pitt 45th, Syracuse 46th, and Boston College 49th among 1-A teams. Not only that, our old eastern rivals, in total, had a better record head to head against the Big Ten.
So how come Penn State hasn't just steamrolled the Big Ten conference? What the heck happened?
Well, it's a long story. If you want to torture yourself a bit you can keep reading. You'll get one fan's take on how this has worked out, what went right, what went wrong, and what the future looks like for Penn State Football.
In our inaugural Big Ten season Penn State's staff had to know they had a lot of talent on the squad. The team started out 5-0 that year and they had four very lopsided wins in the process. After defeating Minnesota to open the year, the Lions beat USC, blanked Iowa 31-0, and then beat Rutgers by 31-7 and Maryland to the tune of 70-7.
Penn State then had two weeks to prepare for Michigan.
Michigan came into Beaver Stadium on a beautiful mid October day that year and the stadium was just rocking. The place was so loud that Penn State incurred the only noise infraction warnings in the history of the program.
Penn State would jump out in front that day. The Nits would score twice more only to see those TD's called back. The Penn State love affair, pun intended, with the refs, was in full swing in our first game against Michigan. The Wolverines would come back and take the lead on a long punt return just before the half and then with a steady second half on top of that. The key sequence of plays in this game would occur early in the fourth quarter.
Penn State drove to the Michigan one-yard line. First and goal from the one and Penn State would call four straight running plays off tackle. They'd be stopped short on all four plays. Michigan had a pair of huge 300lb. defensive tackles in the middle of their defense and Penn State simply couldn't budge them.
I believe that, right then and there, Joe Paterno felt he had to go out and get himself some big offensive linemen. I believe this set of downs would change the way we recruited offensive linemen for years, and for the worse some would say.
Two weeks later Penn State would travel to Columbus and get another dose of medicine in a 24-6 loss to the Buckeyes. Penn State moved the ball between the twenties all game long, but they killed themselves repeatedly in the red zone in some of the worst October weather Penn State had played in in years. I can vividly recall that I was in Maui when this game was played, and I was stuck driving all over the island looking for a sports bar to watch the game. I found one just in time to watch about a half of the game.
Penn State, already 0-2 against the Big 2, had little time to regroup. Indiana and Illinois came to Beaver Stadium in successive weeks and put up a good fight before going down to defeat. Penn State would then go on the road to beat Northwestern and Michigan State.
Our 1993 game with the Spartans was one of the most dramatic comeback games in Penn State history. Trailing by 37-17 with roughly a quarter to play, and playing some of the most listless football I had seen all year, Kerry Collins led Penn State on an incredible rally as Penn State scored 3 unanswered TD's in a little more than 5 minutes time to pull out a 38-37 win in East Lansing.
Penn State would finish 10-2 that year after drubbing a then 6th ranked Tennessee in the Citrus Bowl by a 31-13 count. Penn State had beaten Tennessee badly just two years earlier in another bowl game, and this one was no different. Tennessee entered the game with all American QB Heath Shuler and big time tailback Charlie Garner. They left the contest battered, bruised and beaten.
In the spring of 1994, I attended the Blue White game with the same sense of optimism that I typically have at that time of year, but there was a little something extra in the air that year. Longtime Penn State fans will recall that back then, the players were all parked in various parts of the Beaver Stadium stands, not along the sidelines as they are nowadays.
I can vividly recall my two nephews begging for help getting autographs. Having taken a quick look around I knew that Kerry Collins, Bobby Engram, Kyle Brady, and Ki Jana Carter had huge groups of fans surrounding them in the north end zone. I quickly decided to try and obtain an autograph on the back page of our program from Collins, Carter, and Brady - the three seniors. It took a very long time, but my nephews got what they had come for. Three special autographs.
I got what I came for that day as well - a sense of overwhelming optimism that was even greater than normal. Penn State had just gone through a successful first year in the Big Ten, and the anticipation for even better things to come was building in Happy Valley.
(To be continued in Part 2)