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Chasing the Ghost of Bear Bryant

Coach Joe Paterno on the brink of surpassing Bear Bryant's record.

by B. Luce
October 1, 2001

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Chasing the Ghost of Bear Bryant_B. Luce-Coach Joe Paterno on the brink of surpassing Bear Bryant's record. Head to head, Joe Paterno never fulfilled his dream of beating Bear Bryant. Three times these two legendary coaches met and three times the Bear walked away with a victory. The first meeting took place in the late 70s in the Sugar Bowl, a game which decided the national championship. With his Nittany Lions trailing 14-7 late in the game, Paterno saw his team fail to score a touchdown in four chances at the Alabama goal line. In fact, most who have examined the game film have concluded that Penn State actually scored twice on that series. However, Bear Bryant prevailed, leaving Paterno to hope for another day to beat the legendary coach. That day never came. The two other meetings between the clubs were dominated by Bryant’s Crimson Tide. Indeed, even in 1982 when Joe Paterno won his first ever National Championship, Penn State still had a blemish on their record, a 42-21 drubbing at the hands of Alabama. Of all the incredible things Joe Paterno has been able to accomplish, he never was able to beat the coach he so admired. As Paterno stands one win away from finally tying and two wins away from surpassing Bryant’s NCAA Division 1-A record for career wins as a head coach, he again finds himself in the shadow of a giant, still unable to beat The Bear.

With three games left in 1999, Penn State was closing in on a perfect regular season and a chance to play for the National Championship. They were hosting the Minnesota Golden Gophers and while Penn State had played poorly, they had the lead late in the fourth quarter and had forced a fourth down and forever for Minnesota. It appeared at that point, with his star defense on the field, the game was over and coach Joe Paterno would move within 6 games of tying Bear Bryant’s record and more importantly, stay a top the national rankings on their quest to play in the title game. As Minnesota floated a last ditch Hail Mary pass toward three Nittany Lion defenders waiting at the 20 yard line, the end seemed certain. In fact, Penn State’s defensive backs got their hands on the football and as taught, tried to knock it down. But suddenly, as the ball ricocheted toward the ground, a Minnesota receiver trailing the play leaped and cradled the ball right before it hit the turf. I sat in disbelief as did many Penn State fans and players that day. Minnesota went on to kick the winning field goal as time expired. Gone were the dreams of another national title. However, it was not clear how profound an impact that play would have on Joe Paterno and his program. Penn State, seemingly deflated by their loss of a chance at history, lost the last two games of the regular season that year. Although deflated, Paterno inched closer to Bear Bryant’s record that year with a bowl win over Texas. However, as the 1999 season ended, Paterno stood only 6 wins from tying Bear Bryant’s record. Undoubtedly, everyone thought that would happen in the year 2000. But as ESPN’s Lee Corso always says “Not so fast, my friend.”

The year 2000 was indescribably disappointing for Paterno and the Nittany Lions. Starting the year in the top 20, an unthinkable 5-7 win-loss record left Coach Paterno with only his 2nd losing season in his coaching career. Penn State lost to teams like Toledo, Pitt, and Iowa, while beating the eventual Big Ten Champion Purdue. It was an odd season to say the least. At the end, Joe Paterno was still one win short of Bear Bryant. Most thought last season was a fluke. A proud program like Penn State does not have losing seasons like that. A proud man like Joe Paterno would certainly have his 2001 Nittany Lions ready to play and to rebound from such disappointment.

Now, three games into the 2001 season, Joe Paterno finds his Nittany Lions 0-3 and himself still one win short of Bear Bryant. With Michigan, Northwestern, and Ohio State as their next three opponents, Penn State is poised to be 0-6 just three weeks from now. Paterno seems mystified as to why his team cannot seem to compete with teams and programs that he has dominated throughout the years. Yet, somewhere in the back of his mind, Paterno must know, he must acknowledge that the true opponent is not the team he sees across the sidelines. He is not facing just a collection of athletes from another school. He is not lining up against the Toldeos and Michigans and Iowas of the NCAA, but rather, he is facing the ghost of a legend. Bear Bryant is clinging to his record and still to this day, Papa Joe cannot beat him. Sure enough, Paterno will pass the great BEAR, but not without a fight. As these two legends battle it out one last time, you have to believe that Joe Paterno will win once -- just once against the great Bear Bryant. Overcoming that final obstacle and fulfilling that final unrealized dream would be a fitting conclusion to Paterno’s outstanding legacy. He will win….. eventually…..or will he?

Comments (1)

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Marc from tampa writes:
July 4, 2010
Bear beat Papa Joe 4 times not 3 times.

Bear retired after the 82 season.

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