TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — He nimbly shuffled off the field at Bryant-Denny Stadium, a cascade of cheers following Joe Paterno into the tunnel.
Strolling past fans, with that bad gait from those bum wheels, the living legend pumped his fist in recognition. Only there’s one teensy problem with this scene:
It was halftime. And those were Alabama fans — who never really were threatened by JoePa’s rebuilding team at Penn State, yet clearly understood the enormity of the moment.
“I thought it was really cool,” said Alabama guard Barrett Jones, “That our fans cheered Coach Paterno. It’s not often you see a legend.”
Unless, that is, you’re watching one in the making.
In one steamy Southern night, the past and present of college football played out in plain uniforms and drastic detail. Top-ranked Alabama’s 24-3 victory over Penn State wasn’t so much a thing of beauty as it was an illustration of how and where the game has evolved.
We’ve gone from the loveable icon who ruled college football for nearly five decades, to Nick Saban: the insufferable, iron-fisted perfectionist who now runs the whole damn thing in the 21st century. It was Saban who earlier in the week admonished Alabama fans, demanding they be respectful to Paterno.
What Nick wants, Nick gets. But that didn’t diminish the stark differences between the two programs—and the two coaches.
“I didn’t think about being back in Alabama,” Paterno said. “I was just trying to think about whether we have a little better of a football team than we showed.”
What he saw couldn’t have been a pretty sight.
While Penn State was kicking a field goal late to avoid a shutout for the first time since 2001, Alabama was methodically winning its 26th straight regular season game. While Paterno is awkwardly breaking in a true freshman quarterback (the first ever to start a season at Penn State), Saban is running out of ways to avoid the reality that his backup tailback (Trent Richardson) is better than returning Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram.
Paterno’s time is running down, health issues this offseason keeping him from his usual booster tour and sapping him of energy. Rival coaches adore him.
Saban, meanwhile, is just getting cranked up at a behemoth of a program in a meat grinder of a conference — where rival coaches were so miffed at how Saban pushed the envelope in recruiting, the NCAA eventually passed what coaches call the Saban Rule to limit spring contact periods.
Here’s a team that still doesn’t have its best defensive player (suspended end Marcell Dareus) and offensive player (Ingram — in theory, anyway), has nine new starters on defense and a completely revamped special teams, but still is the most complete team in the nation.
Earlier this week, Saban was asked on his radio show about Boise State, and how the Broncos suddenly have become the national darling after beating Virginia Tech in the season opener. Saban noted, not so deftly, that Alabama began last season beating Virginia Tech — then beat “six other teams that were the caliber of Virginia Tech, or maybe better.”
That’s not Joe, demeaning another program. That’s what coaching — like it or not — looks like these days.
“In his 45 years at Penn State, there was not a classier program, a classier person,” Saban said. “I feel like he’s someone we as coaches should try to be more like.”
And maybe eventually replace as the face of coaching.