It is a bit excessive to leave Wednesday night for a Saturday night game, especially when you're flying, not driving. Terry complained all day Tuesday and on Wednesday morning as we were packing for the trip.
I had to remind him that the reason we were on a tour was that it was the only way we could get tickets to the game, and that when I booked the tour, I really wanted this to be a special trip and was especially looking forward to a tour of the Alabama campus and the Bear Bryant Museum.
Terry grumbled anyhow. He is only interested in the game. The rest of the tour to him was a necessary nuisance.
We're used to traveling commercial flights for most Penn State games, but for this tour, a charter plane flew direct from Harrisburg, PA. to Birmingham, AL. on Thursday at 9 a.m.
So it was a long wait until Saturday night's game. A very long wait!
I packed my bags before classes on Wednesday so we could leave State College at 5:30 p.m. after work and drive to Harrisburg to check into a park 'n fly hotel for the night. Don't like to take chances especially with a charter flight. But this prolonged our trip even more.
To pass the time until the game, the tour group, Collegiate Athletic Travel, did an excellent job of introducing us to some unique Alabama experiences and Southern style cooking. One tour that we weren't excited about was the Barber Vintage Motorports Museum, which boasts the world's largest collection of racing motorcycles and Lotus and other race cars. It turned out to be a real treasure that both Terry and I enjoyed.
That same day, we visited the Irondale Cafe, the restaurant in the town of the same name that served as inspiration for the movie "Fried Green Tomatoes". Of course, we had to try them! Along with all sorts of other southern dishes, such as collard greens, fried okra, or peach cobbler.
Friday, we bused to Tuscaloosa and had a tour of the University of Alabama campus. Over lunch at the Capstone Hotel (Alabama's Nittany Lion Inn equivalent) there was a talk by Ken Gaddy, the Director of the Paul W. "Bear" Bryant Museum.
Gaddy's talk was particularly entertaining as he highlighted Bear Bryant's amazing career and addressed the origins of the Crimson Tide, Big Al the Elephant, and the "Bear" nickname.
But of course he had to gloat a bit in front of this Penn State audience by showing us the photo of the "goal-line stand" in the 1979 Sugar Bowl.
The Bear Bryant Museum impressed. It was essentially a walk-through of the history of Alabama football, and you couldn't help but be stunned by all the history hardware displayed in that room representing numerous SEC and national championships. To be more specific, 13 national championships, the most recent being last year!
The significance of the Penn State-Alabama rivalry, as rivalries go a short one consisting of only 10 regular season and 3 bowl games, was prominently displayed in the museum.
The 1979 goal-line stand had an original oil painting commemorating their national championship victory over Penn State, as well as the trophy depicting the score.
There was also an Alabama-Penn State game ball celebrated Bear Bryant's tying of Amos Alonzo Stagg's all time win record of 314.
During that tour, recognizing the tradition of excellence that Alabama represents, it dawned on me that any optimism I had about Saturday's game was wildly misplaced.
There was just no way that a very young Penn State team was going to go in and upset the defending national champion, especially since Alabama has so much pride and was returning so much talent.
Besides, Coach Nick Saban is a legend himself, having won two national championships at two different universities.
And, September 11 would have been Bear Bryant's 97th birthday. We were surely doomed!
My feelings of doom were confirmed when Lou Corso announced on ESPN Gameday the next day that no true freshman quarterback had ever upset a defending national champion.
It didn't help that I also learned that week that their starting quarterback, Greg McElroy, had not lost a single football game since eighth grade.
The odds were definitely against Penn State. So rather than frustrate myself with fantasies, I just accepted that we would lose. Terry had already come to that conclusion. He's too much a student of the game to think otherwise. I had held out a little longer, hoping for a great defensive battle like our 1990 win.
It was also easier to expect we would lose and then be surprised if our expectations were surpassed. We could dream of more modest goals then, like not being embarrassed. Keeping it close. Improving our game for Big Ten competition.
We could be friendly and offer deference to the Alabama fans we met, acknowledging that it would be rough for us, asking that their team not beat us up too badly because we're young.
But of course there are two major universities in Alabama, and at least half of the people we talked to were rooting for Penn State. I'm talking, of course, about any Auburn fan we met! They were upset that we could even talk of losing to Alabama. It made it fun to realize that half the state was rooting for Penn State!
So on September 11, we set out to enjoy and soak in the atmosphere of Bryant-Denny Stadium, one of the best college football game venues in the country.
It had grown by over 30,000 since our last visit in 1990. It was a sea of red and white, with black and white houndstooth motif mixed in, playing deference to the Bear.
Numerous college females were clad in red and white or black and white dresses, escorted to the game by their dates clad in red jackets or suits and ties. A throw-back to an earlier generation, this tradition seemed especially indicative of how strong Crimson Tide history is. Remember, it was about 94 degrees and humid. The female dresses looked quite cool - even scant - but the suits and ties? Wow. Such sacrifice for tradition!
The 400-strong "Million Dollar Band" impressed with its marching routine and volume in the stadium - even up in the north end zone we could hear them! The enthusiasm of the fans - including the student section which - cough! cough! did anyone at PSU notice?- was in its seats by kickoff - was even better than I had remembered in 1990.
Most Penn State fans were located in the "nosebleed" section in the corner of the North End Zone. There was an endless circular ramp to get up there, then a flight of steep stairs to climb to get to our seats. Most people were exhausted by the time they got to the top, and several were clearly struggling in the heat and humidity.
A nice feature was a public elevator that would bring you to the 7th and highest level - if you got there early enough the wait wasn't too long - and in that heat it was a smart thing to do! Then it was just a matter of climbing about 48 steep stairs to get to our seats. That's what Terry and I did, patting ourselves on the back for taking the time to notice that such a feature existed at the stadium.
And so it went. Surrounded by rabid Penn State fans who paid a small fortune to be there and were a long way from their team, we watched our sorry band of Penn State players get outplayed and outfoxed at every step of the way. We watched our defense miss tackle after tackle in the first half, and our offense make plays to move the ball, only to make costly turnovers in the red zone that cost both momentum and the game.
We were beat, pure and simple. By a much better team. It didn't disappoint, but it was sobering.
And so now the team needs to get beyond this and so do the fans. We need to appreciate what we just witnessed: a thrashing that Penn State hasn't had in a while. By perhaps the best team in college football.
It's okay. One loss does not a season make. There is still a lot to play for!
This article also appears on View from the Stands-Penn State Football.
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