Tudor: Remembering Joe Paterno and a 1973 Wolfpack visit

ctudor@newsobserver.comJanuary 22, 2012 

Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, right, poses with John Cappelletti, running back for the Nittany Lions, at the Downtown Athletic Club in New York City, Dec. 4, 1973 as Cappelletti was named Heisman Trophy winner as the outstanding college football player of the year.

1973 AP FILE PHOTO

A few days before N.C. State’s first preseason practice in 1973, then-Wolfpack football coach Lou Holtz was discussing the nasty non-ACC schedule his team would face.

After an opening game in Carter Stadium (as it was known then) against ECU, Holtz’ second State team would go to Nebraska in the third game and then to Georgia, which was coached at the time by Vince Dooley.

November would start with a trip to South Carolina, coached by Paul Dietzel, and then to Penn State and Joe Paterno.

“I guess the good news is at least Bob Devaney won’t be coaching Nebraska,” Holtz, ever the quipster, said.

Devaney had retired after 1972, and the Cornhuskers had promoted relative whippersnapper Tom Osborne.

After beating the Pirates (57-8) and Gamecocks (56-35) but losing at Nebraska (31-14) and Georgia (31-12), the Wolfpack took a 6-3 record to Penn State, which was undefeated and ranked sixth nationally.

That Saturday, Nov. 10, 1973, turned out to be one of the most important days in Joe Paterno’s record-setting career.

When Paterno died Sunday, I couldn’t help but think back to that cold, raw afternoon in State College, Pa.

Although outplayed by the Wolfpack much of the way, Penn State escaped 35-29 thanks to a performance by tailback John Cappelletti that won him the Heisman Trophy.

Cappelletti rushed 41 times for 220 yards and three touchdowns, setting the stage for a 12-0 finish and an Orange Bowl win over LSU.

“We were lucky, there’s no other way to put it,” Paterno said. “North Carolina State is good. They’re well coached. We didn’t come close to stopping them very many times.”

A few weeks later, Paterno was hardly so gracious after the Associated Press panel voted Notre Dame (11-0) its national champion after a 24-23 win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.

Paterno wasn’t so much upset that Notre Dame was voted No. 1, but he definitely didn’t like the fact that his team remained at No. 5, one notch below Alabama.

It was the third time Paterno and the Lions had been jilted after perfect seasons. The 1968 and ‘69 teams (each 11-0) were skipped in favor of Ohio State (10-0 in ’68) and Texas (11-0 in ’69).

It was after that ’73 season that Paterno vowed to beef up Penn State’s schedule. Then an independent, the school had difficulty finding mid-season opponents from name conferences.

“Not enough people respect us,” Paterno said after the bowl win over LSU. “They think we’re softer than some of the teams ranked in front of us year after year.”

By 1976, when Paterno got his 100th win with a 41-20 romp over a Bo Rein-coached Wolfpack team, the Lions’ schedule was tougher but recruiting more challenging.

At rival Pitt, Johnny Majors in 1976 won a national title after only four years at the school – a development that bewildered Paterno and Penn State fans.

That frustration only mounted when the ’77 and ’78 Lions went 11-1 but had to wait until 1982 before the elusive title was finally bagged.

Paterno finally felt his program was respected as much for winning games as graduating players and developing solid citizens.

The respect Paterno earned on and off the field won’t be erased.

Allegations of sexual abuse by longtime former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky obviously did much damage to Paterno’s image and possibly his health. But until the Sandusky situation arose, Paterno earned so much respect and admiration that a good deal of it will survive.

Tudor: 919-829-8946

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