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Paterno's 29th Win
Written September 29, 2009

 

Among the files from my experiences as a graduate student at Syracuse University, I've found a program from a thrilling football game I attended.

It was played on Saturday afternoon, October 18, 1969, during college football's centennial year.

Let’s open the program and look at the pictures.

The scene was Archbold Stadium, an ancient concrete bowl located where the Carrier Dome would later be built.  On that day, the 62-year-old stadium set an attendance record of 42,491.  My seat in the student section is marked on the photo below.

While walking to class earlier that week, I remember seeing the homecoming floats being prepared in front of the Greek houses on Comstock Avenue.  At the athletic department offices in the Men’s Gym (in the foreground of the photo above), I used my student ID to purchase a ticket for the big game.  I think it cost a dollar.  The program was another 50 cents.

I don’t recall all the circumstances, but a little research reveals that the visiting team, Penn State, came into the game with a 23-game undefeated streak.  The previous January, the Nittany Lions had completed a perfect 11-0 season with a 15-14 come-from-behind win over Kansas in the Orange Bowl.  The winning points came on a two-point conversion with :15 left in the game, after Kansas had been penalized on PSU’s first two-point attempt.

The Lions were led by a veteran coach who was already in his 20th season on the Penn State sideline.

According to the program, “When Joe Paterno took the commencement march at Brown in 1950, he acquired a degree in English literature.  ‘I had planned a career in law or perhaps politics,’ explains the Penn State coach.  He decided to give coaching a brief try, ‘just to broaden my experience before going to law school.’  Joe never made it to law school.”

Paterno was promoted to head coach in 1966, and so far he had recorded 28 career victories.

Our Orangemen, on the other hand, weren’t that good.  Pat Putnam wrote in Sports Illustrated:

Since last spring Syracuse has lost its first eight halfbacks. Two flunked out, one quit, one transferred and the rest were injured. “We're down to people who are so slow I think they are deformed,” observes Ben Schwartzwalder, making starting tailbacks out of third-string fullbacks.

Well, you can always throw the ball.  “Yeah,” counters the Syracuse coach with that delightful dry humor, “we've got a slick quarterback who spots the open linebacker very well.”

I'm not sure Ben's humor would be considered so “delightful” nowadays.  Be that as it may, the bottom line was that we were predicted to lose.

But it was our homecoming!  The Orange Girl was one of the finalists for homecoming queen, though someone else was chosen.  And in the first 16 minutes of the game, our football team scored two touchdowns!

We held onto that early lead, and we were still ahead 14-0 as the fourth quarter began.  Could Syracuse possibly pull off an upset over fifth-ranked Penn State?  Well, maybe not.

PSU Linebacker Jack Ham recovered a fumble at the Syracuse 32, and the Lions began to drive.

We stopped them on fourth down.  But we were called for pass interference, and on the next play they scored!

They tried a two-point conversion and we stopped them again, but we were flagged again, this time for defensive holding!

The following Monday, Schwartzwalder would complain that the officials had cost Syracuse the game.  And on game day, according to SI:

“You're lucky that somebody doesn't punch you in the nose,” said Syracuse's Don Dorr, the accused, to Field Judge Marlin Brandt, the accuser.

“I may go down in history,” said Paterno happily, “as the coach who got the most second chances on a two-point conversion.”

Given that second chance, Penn State converted, and our lead was cut to 14-8.  And when we had to punt, they took advantage of another opportunity.

Penn State had the ball on our 36.  Franco Harris carried on a counter play, found an opening, and went all the way!  “Should have called that play sooner,” Paterno joked.  The extra point made the score 15-14 Penn State.  And, just like the Orange Bowl, that’s how it ended.

If my recollection has not been unduly dimmed by the passage of four decades, Franco broke to the far sideline before cutting back.  From my angle, I thought he might have stepped out of bounds around the 30.

Admittedly, the officials and the folks in the pressbox had a far better view, but by that point our Syracuse student section was inclined to distrust the zebras.

Anyway, we lost, as predicted.  And four days later, the winter snows began.

 
2015 UPDATE:  I've recently run across footage of that game, including Franco's touchdown.  The view from the pressbox confirms that he definitely didn't step out of bounds, despite what it might have looked like from my low-level seat across the field.

Franco broke through a big hole at the 32 (below).

He headed toward the right hash marks before cutting back to his left at the 26.

When he reached the 17, he was near the left hash marks.  When he reached the 5, he had outrun the last defender.

 
2011 UPDATE:  From other sources, here are two additional images.  In the right background of each is the rear of Steele Hall (the Esther Baker Steele Hall of Physics, built in 1898).

Above:  Oil tycoon John D. Archbold and his concrete stadium, patterned after Roman amphitheatres and completed in 1908.

Below:  Coach Paterno went on to win 380 more games in the next 42 years.  Here he is leaving Archbold Stadium with Franco Harris on October 16, 1971.  Sideburns were longer than when I was there two years earlier.

 

TBT

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