TicketCity Bowl. January 2, 2012. Cotton Bowl, Dallas, Texas. Noon EST. Penn State Nittany Lions vs. University of Houston Cougars. Broadcast on ESPNU.
As you can tell from one my previous blog posts (https://historyeducator.wordpress.com/2011/10/22/review-the-mighty-macs/ ), I am a sports fan. As you can tell from the biographical blurb on my blog, I am a baseball fan. However, what is not as obvious is that I am also a college football fan.
I started following college football in the late 1960s. As a native Pennsylvanian (who at that time was living in Enfield, Connecticut), the team I supported was the Penn State Nittany Lions. I first saw them play on television in January 1969 in the Orange Bowl, defeating Kansas 15-14 and completing an undefeated season. The following January, I saw them beat Missouri 10-3, completing a second consecutive undefeated season. Two consecutive unbeaten seasons did not lead to a national title, however, as President Richard Nixon had previously declared the winner of the Texas-Arkansas game to be the national champion (several years later, Penn State Coach Joe Paterno remarked, “How come. . .a President who knew so much about college football in 1969 could have known so little about Watergate in 1973?”) I continued to follow Penn State football after we moved to Houston, rejoicing when John Cappelletti won the Heisman Trophy in 1973 (and watching the subsequent tear-jerker Something for Joey).
After moving to Houston in July 1970, I began to follow a local college football team—the University of Houston Cougars. I even went to a few games when they played in the Astrodome (including the 1974 Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl) and also saw them play at Kyle Field at Texas A&M (when my sister was a flag twirler in the UH Band) and at Rice Stadium. In fact, I have probably seen more UH football games live than any other college (½ of one at Beaver Stadium, ½ of one when I was at UConn, and probably about a dozen through four years at SFA).
Thus, the TicketCity Bowl on January 2 will feature two college football teams that I have followed for more than forty years—and teams representing universities where I earned graduate degrees (M.A., The Pennsylvania State University, 1983; Ph.D., University of Houston, 1994). Penn State won its first national college football championship in January 1983 when I was finishing my master’s degree (and yes, we still held classes the following Monday). The only UH football player to win the Heisman Trophy, Andre Ware, won it my first year at UH. These events don’t necessarily mean that I was a “lucky charm” for either university, although I would like to think my matriculation had something to do with it.
Both football teams faced distractions this fall, ranging from rumors about Coach Kevin Sumlin’s departure (to Texas A&M) probably contributing to the Cougars’ rather dismal performance in the C-USA championship game against Southern Mississippi to the firing of Coach Joe Paterno three days before the last home game of the season against Nebraska. The latter (occurring on the same day that Paterno announced he was retiring at the end of the season) threw the team (and the student body) into disarray; students rioted in protest, and the team clearly wasn’t focused during the first half of the Nebraska game (as it turned out, there were some issues with getting in the signals to the offensive players because of coaching changes). Penn State was 8-1 heading into the Nebraska game and finished 9-3; UH was 12-0 prior to the C-USA championship game. The TicketCity Bowl, then, was not where the players hoped to play two months ago; in fact, UH was pretty much a lock for a BCS bowl if they had defeated Southern Mississippi, and Penn State was hoping for a higher-level bowl. In fact, some Penn State football players apparently wanted the university to reject the bowl bid because they felt disrespected.
In addition, both teams have played at the Cotton Bowl, where the game will be held. Penn State has a 2-0-1 record (defeating Texas in 1972 and Baylor in 1975 and tying SMU in 1948 ), while Houston has a 2-2 record (defeating Maryland in 1977 and Nebraska in 1980, losing to Notre Dame in 1979 and to Boston College in 1985). Houston also played at SMU’s home stadium for conference away games when they were in the Southwest Conference. Incidentally, Penn State was invited to the Cotton Bowl in 1970 but declined the invitation because of concerns about segregated housing (which they had faced in 1948).
So…what does a person do when two colleges you follow/support/cheer for play each other in a bowl game? The last time the two teams met (at Beaver Stadium in September 1977, while I was a first semester freshman at SFA), Penn State won 31-14. Houston was known for its explosive offense, while Penn State was known for an outstanding defense. Fast forward to January 2012…Houston, led by record-setting quarterback Case Keenum, has an explosive offense. Penn State, led by All-American lineman Devon Still, still has a stout defense. Houston is #1 in the nation in Total Offense, Passing Yards, and Scoring per game. Penn State is #5 in Passing Defense and Scoring Defense (and #10 in Total Yards Allowed). Black Shoes Diaries has an interesting statistical analysis comparing the two teams at http://www.blackshoediaries.com/2011/12/29/2663596/stats-penn-state-houston-keenum-offense-defense. Penn State played a much stronger conference and non-conference schedule than Houston, facing nine bowl teams (and defeating six of them), while Houston faced five bowl teams (defeating four of them).
By the way, readers probably have noticed that I haven’t provided my views on the news that broke in November. First, I must say that I am appalled that such behavior occurred (referring to the alleged inappropriate behavior by Jerry Sandusky). Second, I am still stunned that the one person who followed the rules (and the law) was terminated, and I am anxiously awaiting vindication (but at the same time am not anticipating any apologies from the media who crucified Joe Paterno when the news broke).
Now readers of this blog are probably wondering which team I will be supporting on January 2. Well, to give you a clue…here’s the t-shirt I will be wearing that day (and, since it will be a bit chilly here in Mansfield, I will wear a long-sleeved mock turtleneck underneath it).
So…I hope that it’s a competitive game and none of the players get hurt. One team will be playing for the first win of their new head coach, as Tony Levine had the “interim” tag removed last week. The other team’s interim head coach, Tom Bradley, has interviewed for the permanent position (as have at least three of the assistant coaches) and already has a win under his belt. I am excited that I will get to see Case Keenum face a strong defense (C-USA defenses ranked 9th of 11 BCS conferences, and Penn State had the 10th best defense in the nation—far stronger than any UH faced during the season). I am quite interested in seeing who the Nittany Lions play at quarterback and how he will fare against Houston’s 64th ranked defense (especially since Penn State’s offense was 94th best in the nation this season). Next Monday, though, I just want to sit in the recliner and enjoy a close game, and I will be rooting for….one of these guys. This time, I’ll let the comments decide whether I wear a red or a blue turtleneck under the t-shirt.
Joe Paterno and Bernard Asbell, Paterno By the Book (New York: Random House, 1989), 165-166. I’m an historian. I cite quotes on my blog. I use Turabian.