The game is called "We're No. 1," and it is played with wild-eyed fervor in such football boomtowns as Tuscaloosa, Norman and Fayetteville. It is also played in the town of State College, Pa., but mostly with a grain of salt. State College is the home of Penn State, which wouldn't mind being called No. 1, but you'd probably have to say please. Its fans, who have not yet had the pleasure, got worked up a few years ago when President Richard Nixon, the famous post-game interlocutor, dropped in to the Texas Longhorns' locker room to declare them No. 1 in the country after a victory over Arkansas. At the time, Penn State was just as undefeated as Texas. State fans thought that was a little tricky. Otherwise, they have not been pushy.
Times change, however.
Here is Penn State getting ready for last week's stunning 19-0 rout of Ohio State. It is to be a victory so convincing, so gorged with promise and performance, that if you were to mention his team in the same breath with, well, Alabama and Oklahoma this week, Coach Joe Paterno probably would not make much of a fuss.
It is Tuesday and Paterno has made a 7 a.m. breakfast date at The Corner Room restaurant at the junction of Allen and College in downtown State College. He says he never has trouble eating before a game the way many coaches do, no matter the size of the contest. At least not since he was an assistant coach in the '60s and "didn't know what I was doing."
He says The Corner Room used to be a hangout for Penn State coaches, a terrific place to rub elbows with university professors who congregated daily in the ancient booths. Forking open the yolk of his eggs-over, he says he does not lose sleep or make himself sick on cigars at endless staff meetings as the big day nears, either. By and large, he says, the Penn State coaching staff has always been a soft-drinking, light-smoking, easy-riding bunch that worked hard but did not forget that there is life outside the confines of a gridiron.
Paterno says he will take work home in the evenings, however. He had done so the night before and was immediately swarmed by the five Paterno children, as is their custom. Eventually he made it into his den to "doodle" over Ohio State. There, surrounded not by trophies or portraits of himself but by volumes of Homer, Descartes and Thomas Aquinas, and accompanied in stereo by a Verdi opera ("I prefer the Italians, of course"), he went to work. And was asleep in the La-Z-Boy before 11. He says it is his regular routine.
Paterno is famous for taking the game of football rationally. His players go to class (94% of them graduate) and are encouraged to have fun playing. This approach attracts a lot of interested and interesting athletes. On this year's team, for example, is Mr. Zedrick Elam, called "Z" by his teammates. Elam is a 28-year-old ex-New York cabdriver who "walked on." He never gets to put on a uniform for a game and never makes a trip, but "Z" is an all-league storyteller and fun-developer and serves himself up for practice punishment every day. Another is 5'9", 167-pound Tom (Scrap Iron) Bradley, who has been walking on for four years and finally earned a scholarship grant. The Penn State kicking unit on which Bradley makes most of his game appearances is now called the Scrap Pack.
Unfortunately for Paterno, the team also includes gifted non-walkers-on like Quarterback Chuck Fusina, "the best pure passer Penn State ever had"; Matt Millen and Bruce Clark, "maybe the best pair of defensive tackles in the country"; All-America Tackle Keith Dorney; "ubiquitous" Linebacker Lance Mehl; "implacable" Placekicker Matt Bahr et al. "Unfortunately" because Paterno makes these evaluations himself, and his fans are not loath to listen and mark them down.
"Any pressure I have," Paterno says, dipping into the eggs with a wedge of toast, "is self-inflicted. I honestly don't feel any, but the fans think we've got a shot at No. 1 because I've been telling everybody around here that the university ought to be No. 1 in everything. The No. 1 library, the No. 1 English department. A couple years ago the secretary of the alumni association wrote a book about Penn State football and called it Road to Number One. Just before it was finished, he came to see me. He dropped dead right in my house."
Paterno shakes his head.