Some football players at Penn State would have you believe that the reason they're winning big again is because they decided they do not like to lose.
Another decision they made was never again to walk away from the field with a gnawing ache to return, feeling as if they'd left something out there and had to get it back. Last spring, preparing for a new season, and looking back on the old one, these people were fraught with decisions.
Wiped out of the bowl picture last year after losing to Notre Dame and Pitt in the final two games, and with an unexcellent 6-5 record -- wiped out for the first time since 1970 -- the old coach of the Penn State Nittany Lions called his players "babies." He called them that because they'd turned soft and played lousy in the stretch and a lot of people were saying maybe it was time the old coach took a good, hard look at himself.
Can you imagine that? People questioning the old man, saying maybe he'd lost the hard edge, the hunger? That's when he went off by himself to think things out.
When an old coach like Joe Paterno goes off by himself, his boys get together and decide a few things. They call a team meeting and some guy with three stripes on his letter sweater says, "No more. Never again." And they talk about this business of tradition and how to maintain it. Paterno is off someplace thinking about giving up the game after 20 years as head coach, and his boys are huddled together saying this is not the way it's supposed to be.
"People always expect us to be the best," quarterback John Shaffer said the other day. "And when you win, you really don't mind being recognized as a football player. You don't mind walking across campus with your teammates and people saying there they go. Football players. But you can never get too excited. Out here, winning is tempered with the fact that people expect Penn State football to be good."
All along, Paterno's boys said they knew what good lay ahead for the team. They knew this could happen: a 7-0 start, impressive victories over highly ranked Maryland and Alabama teams, a No. 3 ranking in the Associated Press college football poll, a chance to reclaim the beauty of what some said was gone forever.
They knew it because spring ball was lively, the workouts hard and long. And the glory that was 1982, when Penn State won the national championship, crowded their every waking moment. Although the Nittany Lions entered the season unranked in most polls, no one much cared.
"We were working to reestablish the Penn State tradition," said linebacker Rogers Alexander, who went to DeMatha High School in Washington. "Not live off of that tradition, but live up to it . . . We believe in ourselves again, while last year we got caught up in all the outside distractions. It was self-destructive. Whenever you allow someone from the outside to affect you in the inside, you won't win. Our values should always come from the inside."
Alexander, the defensive captain, was a spot player on the national championship team; now he leads the team in tackles. Unlike Paterno, who says this squad will not be compared to the '82 team, at least not by him, Alexander says the two "can be compared in the feelings among teammates and the attitude of the team as a whole. We're a lot alike in that respect."
He also says football is fun again, you don't recognize practice as drudgery but as preparation for a fine time come Saturday afternoon. "You not only care how your teammates perform on the field," he says, "you want to know how many credits they need to graduate, have they had any job interviews yet. You can't get enough of knowing about how their lives are getting along."
Penn State plays Boston College, 3-6, here today before more than 83,000 at Beaver Stadium, a game Paterno and his squad seem overly cautious about. One thing's for certain, no one is taking even the less-than-formidable opposition lightly, probably because the Nittany Lions have struggled to win against every team but West Virginia, which they beat last week, 27-0.
Penn State beat Maryland, Temple and Alabama by two, Syracuse by four and East Carolina and Rutgers by seven. The momentum of this run looks good, and it's the Nittany Lions' sixth 7-0 start under Paterno, who knows better than to let himself get all riled up over his position in the polls. In 1973, his team won 12 straight, including the Orange Bowl against Louisiana State, and still finished fourth in the final polls.
"The teams we've played have been good teams," running back D.J. Dozier said. "Not only that, everybody plays their very best against Penn State."
Paterno seems to think everything is finally evening out, and he turns deep crimson when asked if he's the least bit surprised with his team's remarkable success. He's happy enough to be annoyed with the obvious. The Nittany Lions "are getting this year what we didn't get last year," he says. "But I think any coach who says his team will be 7-0 before the season ought to get his head examined. I did think that by now we'd be a good football team. I knew we had some good kids and good depth and that we could win. But I actually hoped we'd be a little better a little sooner.
"But yeah, I'm surprised that we're undefeated, but I'm not surprised that we're this good."
Shaffer said you'll find no one who thinks of Temple, East Carolina and Rutgers as Division I-A powerhouses, but that shouldn't diminish the Lions' record. "Those teams were talented and played us tough," he said. "When guys go into games as underdogs, they're willing to try things they wouldn't against normal opposition. They'll blitz, throw the long ball. And they're usually so high you have to hit them quick to bring them back down."
Shaffer has served as the starting quarterback in 49 football games since his eighth grade year, and has won them all. He went 8-0 in the eighth and ninth grades, 10-0 in the 10th, 2-0 as a junior at Cincinnati's Moeller and 13-0 his senior year, when he led the team to an Ohio state championship.
Dozier , says "we're just starting to reach our potential, and that's what counts. None of us knows how good we can be. But we know what's at stake and we know what can happen. We have to win, if you want to be realistic about it. Every week, we have to win."