The top-ranked Penn State football team wears very black, black shoes and white stripeless trousers and jerseys that look like numbered laundry bags. You should know that the team is enormously proud of this uniform, so proud in fact that one of its most outstanding players, linebacker Shane Conlan, said it was one of two reasons he decided to attend the school. The other reason was less complicated: he likes the way Penn State plays defense.
On the whole, the Nittany Lions are not a talkative bunch; they can't say why. They prefer not to discuss their long and dubious tradition of understatement.
Their coach, Joe Paterno, is that way, too. He peers from behind a pair of thick eyeglasses that turn chocolate brown in the sun. The other day at the Orange Bowl, where his team will play Oklahoma on New Year's Day, Paterno was standing in a crowded breezeway and talking about something he said six years ago. Out of the bowels of the stadium, a man appeared driving a tractor and trailer full of peat moss and sod and drowned out the idle human chatter. Paterno's lips kept moving though not a sound was heard. When the noise finally died, this came across loud and clear: "I made one stupid remark that was not fair."
The stupid remark that was not fair simply will not go away, no matter how hard the old coach tries to kill it. It rolled off his tongue at what Paterno calls "an evening thing," and somebody happened to write it down. Asked if he planned to leave coaching anytime soon, he said no, he didn't. He didn't because he "didn't want to leave college football in the hands of the Barry Switzers and Jackie Sherrills" of the world.
It is not so difficult to understand why Paterno has taken steps to keep himself and his players clear of the media army that has descended upon Miami this week.
When the Nittany Lions landed at the airport earlier this week, Paterno maneuvered past the welcoming party and large gathering of media representatives, hurried his players onto chartered buses and headed for their extravagant hotel accommodations at Miami Beach. The next day, he ran off reporters and photographers who had arrived to observe his team workout, perhaps aware that the round of questions he would be forced to answer either already have been resolved or will be on Jan. 1.
He admits being embarrassed that his "unfortunate comment about Barry," as he puts it, ever was reported. Besides, he said, he already apologized to Switzer and routinely calls the Oklahoma coach a "good guy," although he has made no statement to or about Sherrill concerning the remark. Paterno no doubt wonders how many times he will be asked why he said what he said, exactly what it meant, does he still feel that way and so on.
Almost as difficult for him to answer is why Penn State, ranked first in the latest Associated Press and United Press International polls, has been unable to gain respect throughout this perfect, 11-0 season. Oddsmakers have made the Nittany Lions a seven-point underdog, and some of the players are not sure why.
"When I heard about it," said linebacker Trey Bauer, "I had this feeling of disbelief. You go all season not losing or tying a single game, you hold on to the No. 1 position in the polls for all this time, and they make you an underdog. I don't like it. I don't know why somebody would want to do that."
Asked if he and his teammates ever talked about it, Bauer said: "We have better things to talk about than someone in Las Vegas setting the line. We don't bet and can't bet. We have a good shot at winning the game and taking the national championship. Nobody cares about covering the spread."
Others seem less affected. Some, such as defensive end Bob White, respond in a more traditional Penn State manner: "I couldn't say if (being an underdog) means anything to me. I couldn't answer that if I tried."
Rarely at a loss for words, junior quarterback John Shaffer said, "I don't think when the ball's kicked off that there'll be seven points on their side of the scoreboard. I'm thinking it'll just be our job to light that thing up."
At heart, the Nittany Lions are a humble lot, not given to predictions or hyperbole or high drama. Compared to those members of the Oklahoma team who wear shaggy or shaved heads of hair and earrings and white shoes wrapped with white tape, the Penn State players carry on as if on some dire, portentous mission of the soul. If a pair of them were to knock on your door one weekday morning, you might be inclined to announce your religious affiliation and shoo them away with bribes of milk and cookies. But all they really want, said defensive tackle Tim Johnson, is respect.
"The public's perception of us is not what we are," he said. "But we can't do anything about it except go out and play our game against Oklahoma and show everybody. Why crash your TV set worrying about it? It does no good. If you think about it -- how a lot of people doubt how good we are -- it's kind of funny. It makes you laugh."
Ray Isom, the junior safety, said he'd rather be an underdog. "When you're expected to win and do win," he said, "people want to know why you didn't do it by more."
"I wish we were picked to lose by 14 points," guard Mitch Frerotte said. "The more they put you down, the more you have to prove. The pressure's not on us; it's on them. Most definitely."
Then there are those who could not care less about being respected. Fullback Steve Smith, for one, stomped his feet and said he "didn't care about any of that.
"As a team," he said, "we've got our own respect. That means more to me that what everybody else thinks. The truth is, some people just don't like Penn State. They never will. We're the kind of team, you either like us or you hate us. Maybe it's our uniforms. Maybe it's our black shoes.
"I like our uniforms. I like our black shoes.