Joe Paterno ended the '70s with one of his most trouble-filled seasons: 8-4 on the field; embarrassment off it. He said it would be fun again to coach the the pivotal players who would start the '80s, the ones who it developed would win 31 of 36 games and Penn State's first national championship.
A few hours after the 27-23 victory over Georgia and before No. 1 from the Associated Press became official today was time to reflect on the conspiracy of circumstances that brought State ultimate football glory. Game breakers; breaks of the game.
"Todd Blackledge, Curt Warner and some others also were at or close to the top of their class academically," Paterno said, "so we could challenge them, in several ways. All of them are highly motivated kids."
The schedule had some substance. Unbeaten Nittany Lion teams in the '60s and '70s lost three times at the polls, in part because most of their opponents were weaklings. One of the relative breathers this season, it turned out, was Notre Dame at South Bend. Having beaten many of the top teams already, State stopped the best player, Herschel Walker.
Paterno took flying lessons. Or at least came to the sensible conclusion that any team with a gifted drop-back quarterback (Blackledge) and a gang of swift, sure-handed receivers ought to be more liberal on offense. The play that fetched victory Saturday night was a 47-yard pass.
"Penn State is the best-balanced football team that I've seen since I've been in coaching," Georgia's Vince Dooley said.
State was plain lucky several times this season. Its loss, to Alabama, came soon enough to allow reestablishment of esteem in the minds of the voters. SMU went for a tie against Arkansas that won a battle, the Southwest Conference title, but lost the poll-bowl war.
Nebraska has a better argument than SMU for No. 1.
Had the officials a chance to review television replays, a catch they allowed Penn State's Mike McCloskey at the two-yard line very likely would not have counted, instead of setting up the touchdown that beat Nebraska in the final seconds. And just as the Cornhuskers might have won at University Park, Pitt might have beaten State had not the Panther coach's mind turned to mush on a goal-line call.
John Lastinger overthrew an uncovered receiver in the end zone from nine yards on Georgia's first Sugar Bowl possession and the Bulldogs had to settle for a field goal.
Still, State made only two glaring errors Saturday in winning an 11th game for the seventh time in Paterno's 17 seasons: Kevin Baugh fumbled a punt and some players fumbled Paterno in carrying him away in victory.
The Lions let their manes down in celebration.
"Wild, but not too wild," Warner called it.
"People I hadn't seen in years who suddenly were my friends were in the suite," Paterno said. "I left 'em about 2 a.m., got to sleep maybe a half-hour later and was up again at 5."
State struggled from behind several times this season; it struggled to stay ahead against Georgia.
"Which is tougher sometimes," Paterno said. "I think of all the challenges they had, the fact that everything they wanted was right there in front of them, and the other guy was comin' back. That they staved it off, and pulled away, was the toughest."
Paterno looks at this football team and sees more than football players.
"I was close to the '73 team," he said. "A class group of kids. Thick as thieves. You see one you see eight or nine. Very close. And great leadership, in the sense they were mature people kids looked up to. This group is like that. Maybe it has more of a dimension than that bunch."
"Tremendous amount of commitment," Blackledge said. "We got together in the summer and made up our minds that this was going to be a great year for Penn State. The key, I think, was that everyone was willing to make a commitment to each other."
Blackledge made Phi Beta Kappa last spring. He admitted it was not too bright to lose his composure the way he did in the third quarter of the game of his dreams, when Georgia pulled within 20-17. His pro stock was dropping. It picked up again with that 47-yard pitch Gregg Garrity caught parallel to the end zone.
Garrity was a walk-on who needed prodding by his father to try big-time football, having all but decided on Clarion State. Also, he was out of position in high school, a defensive back. Fortunately for Paterno, he had recruited Garrity's father to Penn State in the early '50s.
If he chooses to coach from a rocker, Paterno will get the next Blackledge prospect, too.
"What I value most is the preparation that this program has given me for a life away from college, and possibly away from the game of football," Blackledge said.
"What Coach Paterno stresses most is that you can't play football your entire life, that you have a mind and ability and should use that in every way you can."
His teams are all but instructed to call him Joe. Blackledge blushed. "I've always had respect for . . . Joe."