Lining Up for the Post-Season Bowls
...On blustery winter evenings only a week before Christmas, year in and year out, six old men sit sipping coffee around a picnic table inside a gas station located off the Bellefonte State College exit off Interstate-80. There, to their backs, stand a full barrage of vending machines along with racks of groceries. In front of them, through the breath-fogged, plate glass windows, another carload of home-bound college kids unloads, and the men stop talking, bracing themselves for the next invasion of brash, Harvard-educated Southerners, Westerners or Midwesterners.
The walls, filled with Nittany Lion stickers, Penn State schedules, art-deco posters of Paterno, autographed pictures of the local stars, speak for themselves. Soon, inevitably, the men watch as the provincial "punks" snicker, scoff and snort about whichever bowl Penn has "bullshat its way into this year," and about whichever regional favorite of theirs could "boot the Nits out of the Top Fifty." After allowing enough time for the rhetoric to billow up and fog the windows over completely, the men call, silently, for bet-backed talk or a little silence from the visitors. The bowl stakes, as well as the gas bill, are reckoned before the students hurry out into the night. The low drone of conversation starts up again, undisturbed until the next carload of collegians arrives.
Come early January, and its attendant Penn State upset or shock of a nationally-ranked team in a bowl, the kids straggle back East--and out of some sort of sense of honor, straggle back into Bellefonte, Pa. The men and the snow and the Bald Eagle Mountain are still there. Only this time, the conversation continues unperturbed by visitors, who slip in quietly and lay envelopes full of lost bets on their picnic table and leave...
If the East has any valid claim to effeteness, it surfaces during the collegiate football "bowl" season.
When the post-Christmas holidays of cheers, Veer's, parades and national titles roll by, the East Coast football afficionado slips deeper into his armchair, eggnog and enlightened cynicism over "big-time" college football out in the provinces.
Reason is, East never meets West anymore, and the twain ne'er looked farther apart. Except for one man's grid empire in the Alleghenies, all the East can boast is four of nine letters in "Southeast," indications this fall of renewed life in the Atlantic Coast Conference and a few scattered All-Americans and All-Easties playing in post-season bowls--including Harvard's Pat McInally (appearing at the Shrine East-West game in San Francisco December 28, the Hula Bowl in Honolulu January 4 and the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., January 11...and in doing so, breaking not only the Ivy League rule of one bowl apiece, but the Ivy record for rule-breaking--two post-season appearances--held by Yale's Dick Jauron '72) and also Milt Holt (named last week as first alternate in the Hula Bowl).
But if the East as a whole is consistently immune to bowl fever, its lone pigskin potentate--Joe Paterno--is a walking, talking epidemic. When the Temples and the Boston Colleges fail to translate enthusiasm into bowl bids, Paterno's Nittany Lions from Penn State (13 miles from the gas station) stalk inexorably the big-time football jungle that lesser Eastern mortals never dare to enter. Six times in seven years they've played in bowls, and they've dumped Texas (Cotton, 1972), thrashed LSU (Orange, 1974) and given Oklahoma (Sugar, 1973) the Sooners' biggest scare in years.
This time around, though, Paterno and Co. face, not the usual Top Ten power, but the Fighting Bears of Baylor University in the Cotton Bowl.
The last time Baylor won the South-west Conference--50 long years ago--was closer to Custer's last stand than to 1974. Clearly the shock team of the Year of Upsets, the Bruins upended not only Daddy Darrell Royal's seven-year hegemony in the Cotton Bowl--some thought it should be renamed the Horny Bowl, after his Texas Longhorns--but gave superpower Oklahoma its only good game of the season.
Paterno lost 13 starters from his 11-0 team of 1973, but still managed to find enough talent to fill almost half of the All-East team. Baylor coach Grant Teaff--named UPI Coach of the Year last week--came two years ago to a school that had won 14 games in seven years, and has clearly produced a miracle for the Baptists, who enter the tilt with an 8-3 record.
The bowl parade kicks off on Monday night, as Maryland and Tennessee tangle in the Liberty Bowl. This game, along with half a dozen other contests of relatively minor importance, such as the infamous Peach, Tangerine and Astro-Bluebonnet encounters to be played a week later, are but the appetizers for the main events.
The "biggies" are staged on or aout New Year's day, when Americans everywhere are recovering from their previous night's hangover. Perhaps the game of reatest interest is the Notre Dame-Alabama Orange Bowl clash. The Crimson Tide will be attempting to end their season undefeated, and avenge their Sugar Bowl defeat of a year ago to the Tom Clements-led Fighting Irish. An Albama triumph could well establish them as the number one team in the nation.
Preceding this game, the Ohio State Buckeyes will try to make their third successive Rose Bowl trip a successful one as they oppose the University of Southern California Trojans. The game will feature the premiere running backs in the country, in Ohio State's Archie Griffin (recent winner of the Heisman Trophy) and USC's Anthony Davis. Ohio State is favored, but Woody Hayes' men should face a stiff challenge--USC is coming off a 55-24 rout of Notre Dame in its season finale.
The night preceding the big day, Florida and Nebraska will meet in the Sugar Bowl in a battle of seeming also-rans. The latter finished far behind Oklahoma in the Big Eight race this fall, while the former proved its merits by losing to Georgia and Kentucky in the two weeks after it was selected to play in the Sugar Bowl.
Ah yes, Oklahoma. While the other college powers battle it out in the miscellaneous bowl games, the Sooners will sit home and watch on television, knowing that they are probably the best team around. So much for the bowl games...and the provinces