The main campus of Pennsylvania State University is located in State College. It is 194 miles from Philadelphia and 136 miles from Pittsburgh. The nearest city of note is Harrisburg, which as every third-grader knows is the capital of Pennsylvania. Harrisburg has a population of 50,000 and is 99 miles from State College.
Bottom line: Penn State is in the middle of nowhere.
Good luck if you want to drive in from Harrisburg on the Saturday morning of a football game. You get stuck in the backup on the winding road into the valley and it can take hours to reach the parking lots at Beaver Stadium. Hours.
Also, good luck if you're taking a commuter flight into and out of University Park Airport and the fog decides to roll into the valley. When that happens, they might suggest you rent a car and drive to Altoona, and see if you can get out of there. Altoona.
Penn State has suffered a horrendous scandal, with the revelations that long-time assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was a sexual predator with young boys. He's in prison, the university administration was disgraced, and so was the now-deceased, legendary coach, Joe Paterno.
Ridiculously, NCAA president Mark Emmert saw this as his chance to make a grandstand play and forced Penn State into accepting the most severe football sanctions since the SMU death penalty.
This was a matter for the legal system, not for the NCAA, but Emmert made it such for his self-aggrandizement. His goal seemed to be to leave Penn State football in tatters.
I was never a fan of Penn State ... maybe because it was such a pain in the patoot getting there on the three occasions that I've been to State College.
The first time was in November 1992, for Penn State's last game as a football independent before it would enter the Big Ten. The opponent was Pittsburgh, the long-time rival that would be leaving the Nittany Lions' schedule.
Penn State was 6-4, at the end of blah season, and there wasn't much media around for the weekend. I had a chance to spend time with Paterno, including walking around campus -- to the library that he had largely funded and other landmarks.
Joe Pa was used to dealing with reporters from the New York Times and the networks, but he paid reasonable attention to the questions a guy from Minneapolis was asking.
Overall, I found Paterno to be a sideways egomaniac, in the manner of North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith. You know ... a coach who could make casual references to his great accomplishments while still working to sound humble.
Penn State crushed Pitt on that rainy Saturday, and then I got fogged in on Sunday morning and thought I would never get out of that danged valley, and came back the next September for the regular-season opener:
Sept. 4, 1993, the Gophers at Penn State, in the Lions' first-ever Big Ten game.
My close personal friend Jon Roe had been on the Gophers' beat through the '70s and well into the '80s, then was assigned to other tasks for a few years. That Saturday in the shadow of Mount Nittany was Jon's first game back on the Gophers' beat for the Star Tribune.
Minnesota received the opening kickoff and promptly turned it over deep in its territory. On Penn State's first play, Kerry Collins threw a receiver screen to Bobby Engram, and Engram went down the left sideline for a touchdown.
I couldn't find the scoring summary in a quick search, but the recollection is the Penn State touchdown came in the game's first minute. I do know for sure that I slapped Roe on the back and said, "Jon, my boy, it's like you never have been away.''
Penn State won that day, 38-20, wound up 6-2 in its first Big Ten season, and beat Tennesse in the Citrus Bowl to finish rated eighth in the country. It was the start of a nice revival for Paterno's program.
I found the whole "We ARE Penn State'' and Joe Pa worship off-putting on those few occasions when among the Penn State masses. I always rooted against the Nittany Lions, until Mark Emmert stuck his ego in where it didn't belong.
On Saturday night, when the baseball game was over, I did some clicking and ran across the late stages of Michigan at Penn State. It lasted through four overtimes before Penn State came away with a near-miraculous 43-40 victory.
The announced crowd was 107,884 in Beaver Stadium. Penn State had asked the fans for a whiteout, and it got one. It was a game that was endlessly amazing, in the midst of an amazing scene of fan involvement.
This time, when I heard "We ARE Penn State'' booming in the background of the telecast, I was thinking, "Man, it would be great to be there, covering a game that means so much to so many people.''
And, I also was thinking this: We will never again have this in the Twin Cities. We will never care as much, not en masse, about the result of a Gophers' football game as those 100,000 white-shirted folks in the middle of nowhere cared about Penn State on Saturday night.
And that's the way it is.
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