Before Joe Paterno at Penn State, before teams that would win more than 80 percent of their games and graduate more than 90 percent of thei players, there was George Linsz, squads of 12 and a 106-0 loss.

Linsz was the first captain, and rightly so because he owned the only available football. His team wore tasseled ski caps instead of helmets and might have included a 13th player if the budget had not run dry after a dozen uniforms. The colors were pink and black, leading to the memorable cheer: Yah! Yah! (Pause) Yah! Yah! Yah!

Wish, Wack - Pink, Black!

P! S! C!

Pennsylvania State College wish-wacked its only two opponents in 1887, but the pink and black was not so lucky two years later. Lehigh is less powerful these days, but had the game that Nov. 11 not been shortened by five minutes, State might well have lost by more than 106 points.

Second-guessers around the livery stable realized State had played Lafayette two days earlier and played two men short the first (58-0) half at Lehigh. But Charlie Aull had the best reason - and there never has been a better one: "We couldn't get at the . . . with the ball."

Lately, as the late Ridge Riley also recounted in his history of Penn State football, "Road to Number One," opponents have felt similar frustration against the Lions. The title is most apt, because State has run that road as well as anyone but without reaching that glorious number.

For 40 straight years, State has not had a losing season. It had the first black players in the Cotton Bowl in 1948, the first black to play in Fort Worth. Lenny Moore in 1954, and the first black to play in the Gator Bowl. Dave Robinson in 1961.

But before Paterno became coach, after the 1965 season. State nearly always played in the eastern shadow of Pitt or Syracuse or the service academies, Army and navy. Under Paterno, no college in the country can match State's numbers of 83, 94 and 100.

What this means is that in the last 13 years State has won 83 percent of its games, graduated 94 percent of its players and played to 100 percent of capacity in a stadium that has grown by 30,000 seats.

There are two primary reasons. The first is Paterno, who if not coaxed into the National Football League, might well be regarded in future years as the greatest collegiate coach since Rockne.

The second reason is that at almost exactly the time Paterno became head coach all the Eastern competition went sour. Pitt. Syracuse and Maryland were dreadful. The Vietnam War soured prospects on Army and Navy.

Paterno and State would have gotten more than their share of excellent players in the talent-rich areas of Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey and New York. Because everyone else was in disarray, State harvested nearly the entire crop.

The '69 team, for instance, included Mike Reid (Bengals), Bob Parsons (Bears). John Ebersole (Jets), Lydell Mitchell (Chargers), Franco Harris and Jack Ham (Steelers).

If there is a system at State, it is to recruit the best high school athletes, usually quarterbacks and fullbacks, and find a position for them later. Paterno once introduced a Rockville freshman fullback named Paul Gabel to the team.

"Not fullback," said upperclassman Reid. "Guard."

Flustered. Gabel said. "No. I'm a fullback."

"You'll be a guard." Reid predicted.

Gabel became a guard.

Paterno recruited splendidly from the start. In his first 11 games, however, he was 5-6. Then his special sophomores, his first recruting class began to play more and more. They formed the cornerstone of teams that went 31-1-1 - and attracted even better players.

Still, all this success did was lay the framework for Johnny Majors to win the national championship at Pitt with Tony Dorsett. That frustrated State more than it ever will admit publicly.

State forced everyone else in the East to improve. With the exception of Syracuse, everyone else has. Army is competitive. Navy bumped Pitt from the top 20 last week and moved to the rarified air of No. 11.

And No. 5 Maryland hopes to deny No. 2 State a chance at the national championship Saturday. All those 63-27s, 57-13s and 48-0s forced Maryland to hire a Paterno-like coach in every way except personality, Jerry Claiborne.

That Paterno personality and State being tucked a 90-minute drive from the outside world tends to allow the Lions' internal strife to remain internal. And 51 percent of the 7,000 fans who contribute at least $50 a year to Penn State football are not Penn State graduates.

Paterno is fond of calling his philosophy "The Grand Experiment." In an age of athlete-students, he wanted to win student-athletes. For the most part, he has, although there have been a few Ted Kwalicks, of whom Paterno said: "What God had in mind there was a football player."

The one sizable crack in State's above-it-all air toward the race to No. 1 came last year when it lost an apparent power play with the Orange Bowl and a realistic chance at the national title.

But what seemed large only to those who were comparing Paterno to St. Francis of Assisi instead of Woody Hayes. As Paterno might phrase it, what God had in mind there was a football coach. And educator, although his notions about a playoff system for collegiate football seem contrary to that ideal.

"But who else has a graduation percentage higher than his winning percentage, at least at that level" asked Penn State's academic advisor. Dr. Frank Downing, "Because we recruit intelligent players with character, what we get is psychic income.

It comes about when you're walking through campus and a professor says, 'I have one of your players in class. He's a good kid.' Well, you can't buy a steak with that sort of income, but it's a joy to hear."