English: JoePa and the Bear

Published 10:48 pm Thursday, January 26, 2012

By Jim English

The passing of a legend. The end of an era. The death of the winningest coach in college football history…

…all phrases that will doubtless be heard numerous times as people mourn the death of legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno this week.

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…words also that may sound strangely familiar in our part of the country…..words that likely will bring to mind the passing of another coaching legend almost 30 years ago.

If anyone can truly relate to the emotions of the fans of the Penn State football program at a time like this, it is the Alabama fan. It is difficult for most football programs in the country to understand what it’s like to have only known one head coach for decades. The primary reason is that only a handful have been able to maintain the kind of success over several decades that Joe Pa and the Bear have.

It would be impossible to craft a complete documentary about either man’s life without somehow including the other. Only in America could a man born in rural Fordyce, Arkansas and one born in Brooklyn, New York wind up having their coaching careers so intertwined.

Many similarities have been pointed out in recent days regarding the events surrounding their deaths:

Both coached their final game against Illinois.

Both final games were comeback victories which set the mark for most coaching wins.

The last team that Paterno lost to before Bryant’s death was Alabama.

The last team that Paterno lost to before his own death was Alabama.

The year Bryant died, Penn State won the National Championship.

The year Paterno died, Alabama won the National Championship.

Bryant died on January 26th.

Paterno died on January 22nd.

Prior to the 2010 football season, the usual questions began regarding how much longer then 83 year old Paterno would continue to coach. A close friend of Paterno revealed, “He’s painfully aware that Bryant died a couple of weeks after he retired. I’ve heard him say that a couple of times. I think Joe’s definitely aware of that.”

Coach Bryant, when he was asked about his future plans after coaching his final game, replied, “I’ll probably croak in a week”. Like Paterno, all he had ever known for the majority of his adult life was football, and although delivered in a light-hearted tone, his words likely contained a bit of honest concern. Within a few weeks, his prophetic statement was fulfilled.

Paterno likewise had admitted that he didn’t hunt or fish or golf in his spare time, as most of his contemporaries did, and that all he would have to look forward to when he retired was “mowing the grass”. So, though his love for the game was probably the main factor that kept him from retiring, at least in the back of his mind was the fate of his old friend and gridiron nemesis.

When Alabama and Penn State met on the field, it was always something special, a game marked by tradition. Both teams in their unchanged – some would say generic – but instantly recognizable uniforms. But a big reason the game was a must-see for most football fans was the two legendary coaches across the field from each other.

Their first meeting came in the 1975 Sugar Bowl, with Alabama ranked #4 and Penn State #8. As would become typical of teams coached by these two, the defensive play was intense. The Tide won a 13-6 battle that was preserved by an Alabama interception at the 6-yard line.

Paterno and Bryant’s next matchup became one of the all-time classics in college football history. Prior to the BCS era, it was one of the rare chances for #1 to play #2 for an undisputed national championship. In yet another defensive struggle at the 1979 Sugar Bowl, the game came down to a 4th and goal at the 1-yard line following three great plays by the Bama defense. Standing over the ball after it was spotted for the final play, Alabama’s Marty Lyons told the Penn State quarterback, “You better pass”. But Paterno was reportedly talked out of passing, and chose to send Matt Suhey over the top, where he was met in mid-air by Tide linebacker Barry Krauss and knocked backward, sealing the National Championship.

Their third meeting was two years later, in what would be the first of a ten-game deal between the two schools, prompted by the two coaches and their respect for one another and the kind of programs they ran. As usual, both teams entered the game ranked in the top ten, but after a crushing 31-16 defeat at the hands of the Tide, Happy Valley was not so happy and their hopes of contending for a national title were ended.

Though the rivalry would continue, 1982 marked the final time that Joe Pa and the Bear would ever meet on the field of play, since Bear would be retiring at the end of he season. With Alabama clinging to a slim 24-21 fourth quarter lead, the turning point came when Tide DB Jeremiah Castille intercepted Penn State QB Todd Blackledge. Alabama added 18 more points, making the 42-21 score look much more lopsided than it really was.

Though Paterno eventually passed Bryant on the list of all-time wins, it bothered him that he was never quite able to beat his old friend head-to-head. “It got to me. It hammered at my ego,” Paterno once admitted. “ When I stood toe to toe with Bear Bryant, he outcoached me.”

The final similarity between the two coaching legends came on January 22nd, when, as he feared, Joe Pa passed away shortly after coaching his final game. Though the official explanation was complications from his battle with lung cancer, among other health issues, many believe his passing was just as much caused by a broken heart. Although he had weathered numerous storms of health issues and stretches of sub-par performances by his teams, the scandal surrounding former assistant Jerry Sandusky was the one that finally forced him out.

The debate will probably continue about whether or nor Paterno acted properly when it was first brought to his attention, and exactly how much he was aware of. But I think we can all agree that it is tragic that it had to end this way for Joe Pa. And it’s unfortunate that, unlike Bryant, he didn’t have the chance to leave on his own terms.