On a cool, drizzling Thursday evening in 1941, 3,000 rowdy Nittany Lion fans congregated at the Jordan Fertility Plots on the campus of Pennsylvania State University. They gathered wearing their "Beat Pitt" tags. They arrived with hope, with optimism and with lighter fluid.
In the pep rally prior to the clashing of Penn State and Pittsburgh on the gridiron, these 3,000 loyal set ablaze a fake Panther built by the Key Hat Society, symbolic of the mascot of the Pittsburgh Panther.
The 41st meeting of the two Pennsylvania rivals was still two days away, but the Penn State students and faculty on hand were already fired up. Lion coach Bob Higgins addressed the crowd with his usual confident flare.
"It will be no surprise to me if we win," Higgins said. "We'll beat Pitt on a wet or dry field -- or in the Allegheny River if they want to play there."
The contest was not played on the bottom of a river bed, but "The Hig," as Higgins was affectionately nicknamed, was right on with his other promise.
Penn State pounded on the Panthers 31-7 two days later in front of 30,696 fans in Pitt Stadium.
The Lions managed to hold Pittsburgh star running back Edgar "Special Delivery" Jones to a single touchdown run, while their own tailback, Pepper Petrella, scored on three different occasions.
Many of the players who take the field today for the 93rd meeting between Pittsburgh and Penn State have probably never heard of Pepper Petrella or "Special Delivery."
To most, this is just another game.
Believe it or not Pittsburgh-Penn State may have lost a lot of its sparkle. But just another game? What about the history? What has happened to this rivalry since Penn State fans torched a fake Panther 56 years ago?
The names have certainly all changed -- changed and changed again. The coaches have changed: George Hoskins in 1892; Pop Golden at the turn of the century; Hugo Bedzek in the 1920s; Higgins in the '30s and '40s; Rip Engle from 1950 to 1965; and Joe Paterno ever since. In Pittsburgh, 31 different men have led Panther squads through the Pittsburgh stadium tunnel, most notably Glenn "Pop" Scobey Warner, John Michelosen, Johnny Majors and Jackie Sherrill.
Times have changed as well; Penn State suited up only 12 players for its first game in 1887 because, as Charley Hildebrand, a member of that first team, once said, "there were only 12 uniforms available." Playing both ways, or "Ironman" football was a necessary evil.
Penn State players were called Nittanymen, and Pittsburgh the Golden Panthers. Now it's the Nittany Lions and the Panthers.
The uniforms have changed. The stadiums have grown larger. The student bodies have multiplied in size. Many of those who partook in the early Pittsburgh-Penn State games are now deceased, their statuses relegated to small-print mentioning of their names in dusty media guides.
"It was a great, great series," said Jim Tarman, a former Sports Information Director at Penn State. "We had a captain in '58, Steve Garban. He used to always say, 'I don't know what hand-to-hand combat in war is like, but playing Pittsburgh has to be the closest thing to it.'"
All said, one fact still remains. These two schools have played 93 times. Ninety-three fall afternoons and evenings. Ninety-three pre-game warmups. Ninety-three kickoffs. No matter how one dissects it, the University of Pittsburgh is still Pitt, and the Pennsylvania State University is still Penn State. The 138.7 miles separating the town of State College and the city of Pittsburgh are the same 138.7 miles that separated the schools for their first meeting in 1893, which Penn State won 32-0.
The who, what, when and where may have changed, but the why is still strikingly similar. Someone has got to be the best college football team in the state of Pennsylvania.
Penn State linebacker Dennis Onkotz played his first season as a Nittany Lion 30 years ago. He was a sophomore on the 1967 Penn State squad that finished the year at 8-2-1, the tie coming in the Gator Bowl against Florida State. Penn State's 17-15 loss to UCLA on Oct. 7 that season would be his last loss as a Nittany Lion. In 1968 and 1969, Penn State was undefeated under Paterno, including wins of 65-9 and 27-7 against Pittsburgh.
"I had some pretty good games against Pitt and so I remember them. We dominated Pitt back then," said Onkotz, who now lives in Boalsburg. "The coaching staff made us turn it into a big game."
Onkotz and his teammates needed extra motivational drive, because equal competition for the Lions was tough to come by those days. Aside from Onkotz, the 1969 defense featured legends Mike Reid, Neal Smith, Steve Smear, Jack Ham and John Ebersole.
"We assumed we'd beat everybody," Onkotz said, "so we assumed we'd beat (Pitt)."
If the 1968 and 1969 campaigns were the all-time highs for Penn State bragging rights against Pittsburgh, then Panther fans had a lot to shout about in 1976.
Pittsburgh went an undefeated 12-0 in 1976 behind the powerful legs of Heisman trophy winner Tony Dorsett. The tailback rushed 38 times for 224 yards in knocking off the Lions 24-7 that season.
"That was the greatest team I've had in my career," recalled Johnny Majors, the coach of the undefeated Panther squad. "We were a great football team."
Majors is currently an assistant to the Chancellor at Pittsburgh, and helps the athletic department with fund raising as well. He remembers the 24-7 victory vividly.
"They were slowing us down in the first half," Majors said of Penn State's defense, which managed to hold Dorsett to 51 first-half yards. "We had an extra week to prepare for Penn State and they changed their defense. I thought, 'Well, we need to have a little surprise.'"
Majors moved Dorsett to the upback position in the backfield and the senior proceeded to trample the Nits for 173 second-half yards en route to the victory. Majors, who would leave Pittsburgh to coach for his alma mater Tennessee the next season, still has high praise for Dorsett, who now owns a bottled water company in Dallas, Texas.
"Dorsett was a great player. His teammates loved him. His coaches respected him," Majors said. "He was as great a competitor as ever played the game. He was very considerate of the fans and for the media."
The Robert Morris College football program has only been in existence four years. But masterminding the program's growth is a pair of coaches who know all about football the way it should be played. Head coach Joe Walton was a defensive end and tight end at Pittsburgh from 1954 to 1956, and his assistant coach Dan Radakovich played for Penn State during those same three years.
Walton and Radakovich met before college, when they were both being recruited by the same groups of schools. The two then went head to head in three-straight Pittsburgh-Penn State battles, and now have reunited at Robert Morris.
"It was a great rivalry," recalled Walton, who coached the NFL's New York Jets from 1983-89 before taking over at Robert Morris four years ago. "One of the things that was always interesting was that we were playing guys that were from your area. You saw a lot of your old buddies."
Radakovich was one of those old buddies whom Walton now sees on a daily basis.
"The Pitt-Penn State game was always the last game of the year. And each team knew each other," Radakovich said. "In those days, Western Pennsylvania was the hotbed of recruiting. Almost all the players who played for each team were recruited by both schools."
Radakovich also served as Penn State's linebacker coach from 1957-69, and so he was naturally thrilled to discover Robert Morris' school colors were blue and white. Walton, on the other hand, refused to coach a team with the same colors as his alma mater's fiercest rival.
"As head coach I added a little red so we wouldn't be the same as Penn State," Walton said.
"We're red, white and blue," added Radakovich. "(Walton) doesn't want us to look exactly like Penn State. But we're close. We look like the Penn State team from '68."
Off the field, Walton and Radakovich have built a friendly working relationship, but on the field, 92 prior clashes of "The Battle of Pennsylvania" have left some scars that may never heal.
Take Beano Cook for example, a former Pittsburgh Sports Information Director. Cook, today an ESPN college football analyst, is one of the more publicly outspoken authorities on Pittsburgh football.
Cook said he still gets harassed by fans and the media for comments he has made in the past about Penn State. In particular, Cook's negative remarks about Paterno have infuriated Penn State fans past and present.
Cook swears he respected Paterno until Pittsburgh's 1976 championship season. In fact, Cook said, in 1976 he even sent Paterno a Charles Kuralt novel as a Christmas gift.
"Paterno had certain beliefs when he started," Cook said. "He changed. He couldn't handle it."
It being Penn State's 24-7 loss to the Panthers in '76. And Paterno, at least in Cook's mind, has never been the same.
"I dislike him as a person," Cook said. "But I wish he were our coach for the last 30 years."
Cook claims that in 1985 Paterno ran up the score in the Nov. 23 game against Pittsburgh. The final score was 31-0 that day, and Cook is still bitter. Cook said with the game already in hand, Penn State assistants told Penn State's first-stringers to come out of the ball game. Cook said Paterno ordered they be left in.
"He said, 'I want to bury Pitt.' And the people who carry the sticks heard him," Cook said.
Competition between the schools has always been fierce.
"If you lost the Pitt game, the season was a failure," Radakovich said.
This mentality was shared by players and students alike. Penn State would have its "Beat Pitt" week where students sported "Beat Pitt" buttons. And both schools were big into pep rallies accompanied with bonfires.
"The pep rallies had more meaning," recalled Walton. "The students attended them. They'd get the coach up. You couldn't hear yourself think. I remember one time we had some Penn State T-shirts. The cheerleaders put them on and everyone started chasing them. They were running for their lives."
In 1952, the Interfraternity Councils from both schools combined to create the "coal-scuttle" trophy to be awarded to the winner of the annual contest. The trophy was in the shape of a bucket usually found in front of fire places, and was supposed to symbolize Pittsburgh, the soft coal school, and Penn State, the hard coal school.
In the Nov. 22, 1941 edition of The Daily Collegian, Collegian Sports Editor Pat Nagelberg wrote a letter addressed to Pitt News Sports Editor Alex Zelenski:
"Dear Alex: Sorry, but I have some bad news for
you. State is going to beat the hell out of those Panthers of yours this afternoon. You'll probably be surprised to see me use such strong language, but that isn't half as positive as our team feels."
The Pittsburgh-Penn State rivalry has served as a venue to some of the greatest names in football history throughout the years. Joe Bedenk, Rich Lucas, Bob Mitinger, Charlie Pittman, Jack Ham, Lydell Mitchell, John Cappelletti, Greg Buttle, Matt Bahr, Matt Millen, Curt Warner, Shane Conlan, D.J. Dozier, Blair Thomas, Kerry Collins and Ki-Jana Carter are just a few of Penn State's 67 All-Americans.
Marshall Goldberg, Joe Walton, Mike Ditka, Paul Martha, Tony Dorsett, Matt Cavanaugh, Mark May, Craig Heyward, Dan Marino, Mark Stepnoski and Ruben Brown head a list of 66 Pittsburgh All-Americans.
Big names spell big plays, and the rivalry has had its share of great individual performances. Take Dorsett's 224 rushing yards in 1976, or Penn State wideout Kenny Jackson's five catches for 158 yards in 1981. And then there was Pittsburgh's Jimmy Joe Robinson's 84-yard touchdown scamper in 1945 to defeat Penn State 7-0.
Former Lion Leon Gajecki has vivid memories of his biggest game as a Lion in 1939, when Penn State beat Pittsburgh 10-0 to end a 20-year string where Pittsburgh had either won or tied every game with Penn State.
"Oh God, yes, I'll never forget that," Gajecki said from his home in Pittman, N.J. "We had a good group of football players and we were so elated to get them for all of those years of beatings we took."
Gajecki, an All-American in 1940, will be 80 in December but, "when it comes to football, he remembers everything," his wife Mildred said.
Penn State fans remember the 1950 "Mud Bowl" when a botched extra point by Pittsburgh kicker Nick Bolkovac was the difference in a 21-20 Penn State triumph.
Leading 14-0 in the first half, Panther quarterback Dan Marino drove his team deep into Penn State territory.
"They were about to score again and (Penn State defensive back) Roger Jackson intercepted it on the back line of the end zone," Tarman said. "That was the last (Pitt) scored."
And who can forget the most recent clash of the rivals in 1992, when Lion fullback Brian O'Neal punched in four touchdowns en route to Penn State's 57-13 shellacking of Pittsburgh.
"Of all our opponents," Paterno once said, "we fear Pitt the most, because Pitt is our biggest rival."
Every year has a story to tell and a player to spotlight. So many years, so many one-point victories and last-minute heroics.
Rich "Riverboat" Lucas played for Penn State from 1957-59, and his brother Kenny "Tugboat" Lucas quarterbacked Pittsburgh in the mid 1960's. Rich said the fierce interstate competition will not suffer despite not having been played since 1992.
"I think the rivalry is still there," said Rich Lucas, now a Penn State assistant athletic director. "I think Joe's going to pass that on to the guys."
If Paterno is the torchbearer, he has a lot of enlightening to do.
"It was just another game until Paterno came along," Cook said. "He's the reason it became a national game. Paterno made Pitt get off their rear."
Pittsburgh and Penn State are now set to renew their rivalry which began in 1893 and has been on hiatus since 1992. The teams will play home-and-home games during the next four years, with no contest scheduled for the 2001 season.
"People will say the series will resume when Joe dies, but everybody knows Joe will be back in seven days," Cook said. "Not three days, but a week."
Paterno is alive and well now -- and at least for the next four years, so is the battle for the king of Pennsylvania.