The ’82 team’s 24-14 win at South Bend — the Nittany Lions’ first trip (of the modern era) to the shadow of Touchdown Jesus — served as a springboard to their first national title game, won in the Sugar Bowl against Georgia.
There have been other Penn State teams, such as 1968, ’69, ’73 and ’94, that didn’t take or get the opportunity to play for No. 1. The ’69 team voted to play in the Orange Bowl and in doing so bypassed a possible matchup with Texas in the ’70 Cotton Bowl. The ’94 team was denied by the system.
In 1981, the Lions finished with two losses, at Miami despite being No. 1, and at home against Alabama, when Bear Bryant tied Amos Alonzo Stagg’s all-time victory record with 314, but there are those who believe that team was better than its ’82 counterparts.
So says Bill Contz, a starter both years at offensive tackle.
“I think the ’81 team may have had better talent — certainly guys who went on to play in the NFL,” Contz, a salesman based in Pittsburgh and one of about 70 on hand for tonight’s reunion, said. “We may not have had the best team talent-wise, but our heart and focus was on par with any of the great Penn State teams.”
That is indisputable.
The ’82 team was actually the culmination of a new era of Penn State football. Joe Paterno had grown tired of his program not being viewed as an equal to the Notre Dames, Nebraskas and Alabamas.
So he went out and played them all. And at a time when Eastern football was never better — when Pitt had Dan Marino and West Virginia had Jeff Hostetler and Boston College had Doug Flutie and Syracuse was still very competitive — the schedule was at its peak.
‘‘We had excellent chemistry and leadership,’’ quarterback Todd Blackledge, who will call tonight’s game for ESPN, said. ‘‘We were a very explosive offensive team, and our defense rose to the occasion when we needed them. It’s hard to compare teams: I don’t know if our offense was better than the ’94 offense.’’
By ’94, though, Penn State was no longer wearing the burden of not having reached the top of the mountain. That’s why the likes of Blackledge and Contz, Curt Warner and Gregg Garrity, Jon Williams and Kenny Jackson, Mike McCloskey and Walker Lee Ashley, Mark Robinson and Scott Radecic hold a special place in PSU lore.
‘‘I’m good friends with John Skorupan and Franco Harris [both members of ’69 team], and those guys were on teams that went undefeated and didn’t get recognized,’’ Contz said. ‘‘I know the landscape changed, but I think that’s why Joe went to the other end of the spectrum and scheduled a who’s who of top 10 teams and really defined the program.’’
Whether the ’82 was the best is open to debate. What isn’t is the fact that it was Penn State’s first national champion, and 25 years later, the moment hasn’t dimmed.
“I remember how important it was to the people of Penn State and the fans,” Blackledge said. “I still remember flying home to Harrisburg and driving to State College, all the people you saw along the road with signs cheering.”
The ’82 team also was honored five years ago, prior to the blowout of Nebraska in ’02, another night game. That factored into the planning for the 25th reunion.
“We said, ’Do we want to do it on a weekend with Buffalo or Notre Dame at night?” Contz said.
The answer was easy: The 1982 team deserves prime time.
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.