You got some sort of hex on Joe Paterno, Bear? The question had to come eventually today, and when it did, Bear Bryant played defense and offense at the same time.
"No," he snapped, "and I don't feel Notre Dame holds a jinx over me. Joe didn't play a down out there; neither did I."
This jinx business is in the eye of the beholder. Very likely, Bryant is 4-0 against Paterno because his teams played better and his staff was more inventive those special days. Still, the bizarre is almost commonplace. Four years ago, with the national championship literally on the one-yard line, one of Paterno's most powerful teams couldn't move the ball 36 inches in two cracks; last year, State once had seven shots from inside the four -- and came away pointless.
Today? Well, some witnesses in the crowd of 76,821 insist State gave itself a big kick in the tush, that Ralph Giacomarro belted the ball off Mike Suter's rear and started the 11-second landslide that turned a close game into a rout. Suter said it hit his left elbow.
He's a classy fellow who had maybe six or seven times as many fine plays as stinkers this odd afternoon. In relief of wounded, probable all-America Mark Robinson at safety, Suter had an end-zone interception, six tackles and all manner of supporting moves on a defense that never quite stopped Tide quarterback Walter Lewis but gradually improved.
What everyone who saw the game will remember is Suter backing into the ball as Giacomarro tore into it from about the State 40; what the few of us who saw Suter after the game will remember is his not backing off from anyone or any question.
Lots of goats hide.
Some run to shower safety, or the bus, after the first wave of reporters comes at them in the dressing room.
The rare ones, the Suters, accept responsibility as gracefully as glory.
On punts, he's the up-back, the man between the line and the kicker, a dike-plugger of a blocker mandated to smack down leaks. He thought one was coming at him that fateful play with just under five minutes left and Alabama ahead by six points.
"I saw an end break free," he said, "so I started grating back. But you can't go as far as I guess I did. I felt something. Right away, I felt the football."
The ball rolled and rolled toward the State end zone, Alabama players gleefully tipping it and Suter manfully trying to get it and somehow reverse the tide -- and the Tide.
What was racing through his mind those sorrowful seconds?
Or something just a bit more graphic.
"Nothing like that's ever happened before," he said. "Even in practice. I've been doing that (up-back blocking) all year. No excuses. I can't tell you how hard we work on special teams. Maybe this was meant to be. Maybe it's what God wanted. Fate.
"I just wish it hadn't happened to me."
Alabama would have been content to bat the ball all the way to the goal line and pounce on it for an even cheaper touchdown than what resulted; Suter made the Tide earn it, recovering his blunder at the 12. Two plays later, Linnie Patrick scored from the five.
Paterno thought that extra duty in the secondary might have made Suter physically and mentally tuckered on the play. Others thought Giacomarro catches the ball dangerously close to the line.
He does--on purpose.
The fact is, he stands even closer, 11 yards from the line instead of the usual 13, when State senses an all-out rush. That way, blockers concentrate on protecting the middle. They even allow the extreme outside rushers a relatively open path to the punter, because the shorter snap distance lets Giacomarro get the ball off very quickly.
In theory and practice, that failed twice today. The Tide got two touchdowns, 15 points in all, off blocked punts.
"Don't know the last time we had a punt blocked," said Paterno, before being reminded it was two seasons ago against Pitt.
No Lion under Paterno ever blocked his own punt.
"You just don't believe anything like that can happen to you," he said.
He said there were moments of disgust, moments of pleasure and moments of bafflement.
"Somebody was going to beat us," he said. "I was realistic about our schedule, happy we came came back in the third quarter. It would have been great to beat Nebraska and Alabama back to back, on television, before such great crowds. And if they give (Kenny) Jackson the ball, or Todd (Blackledge) throws it better, who knows?"
That was in reference to a long pass Jackson thought he grabbed at the Alabama 35 before it hit the turf with more than 10 minutes left in the game and State down just 24-21. The closest official fell, then ruled Jackson trapped the ball.
"It was right in front of us," Paterno said.
Did he see Jackson make an honest catch?
Honestly, Paterno said: "I see what I want to see."
Bryant has seen nearly everything possible in football during his century or so on the sideline. Yep, one of his boys backed into a punt sometime, though he couldn't remember when.
"Don't think they hurt us too badly on the kicking game," he said drolly.
He added: "Either we're real lucky or a lot better in the fourth quarter than most (media) people in Birmingham think we are."
He was snappish only when talk turned to jinxes.
Clearly, being 0-4 against Notre Dame is as irksome to Bryant as being 0-4 against Bryant is to Paterno. Or being 0-for-his career against Paterno is to Jerry Claiborne. This is somewhat complementary, of course, since any coach who hasn't beaten everybody except a select few teams is quickly in another line of work.
It also can be carried close to absurdity. For instance, research shows that Bryant never has beaten William and Mary and Santa Clara (in one game each). Interestingly, The Man is 0-2 against Alabama. That was in a prior coaching life, though it did trigger one observation: today, Paterno had the dazed look of a man who genuinely thought his team had beaten itself.