Series with Notre Dame stirs special memories

Well, for openers, it wouldn’t be Kent State, Saturday’s opponent.

Pitt’s been ruled out by mutual agreement, but there are still plenty of options left for me.

Two in particular stand out: Notre Dame and Alabama.

Until entering the Big Ten in 1993, the Nittany Lions played both annually beginning in 1981 for the better part of 10 years. The Notre Dame series went for 12 years while Alabama ended in 1990.

Though the Lions had played each in bowl games — Alabama in the Sugar Bowl for the national title in 1978 — they had not met in the regular season in the modern era until ’81.

The relationship with the Crimson Tide was terrific and brought Bear Bryant to State College in 1981, when The Bear tied Amos Alonzo Stagg’s record of 314 wins by defeating PSU, 31-16.

The Lions repeatedly had the ball inside Alabama’s 5, and despite having a great offense, they couldn’t score. Bryant tipped his famous houndstooth hat to his defense after its goal-line stand, and he was later carried off the field.

Bryant held an informal press conference at the team hotel in Burnham on the Friday before the game, and I will never forget that — his deep voice and his overall presence.

The Mirror was an afternoon paper then, and I was able to cover the noon event and call in a story in time for the press run at 12:40 p.m. (Though the flexibility was nice, newspapers are even better in the morning.)

Bryant coached two more seasons, broke Stagg’s record and wound up with 323 victories — a mark Joe Paterno eventually shattered.

During the series, Penn State and Alabama both won on the other’s field, and two more games were scheduled 20 years later, between Paterno and Nick Saban that the Tide won.

As much as the Alabama series was cool, though, my favorite non-conference game was Notre Dame.

The Fighting Irish obviously were a national team with a history like no other program — particularly prior to the 1980s.

Notre Dame also had a huge following in Altoona and Blair County, which made the series and rivalry all the more meaningful.

A couple of personal mentors, such as Ron Hoover and John Conlon, were diehard Irish fans, and local contingents made the trip to South Bend each time the Lions visited.

One such group of Irwins, Hites and Detwilers was hosted by the late Ed and Maureen Smithe in 1992 at a plush club in South Bend that overlooked Notre Dame Stadium. It was the last scheduled game between the teams (won by the Irish the next day, 17-16, on a touchdown pass to Jerome Bettis and subsequent 2-point conversion).

I was invited and was touched that near the end of the evening, Ed Smithe rose to offer a toast on how much he’ll miss the series because of the friendships and the tradition of attending together.

It underscored how football — like no other sport — brings people together and how it’s about more than the game.

Which is why the Notre Dame series would be at the top of my list of non-conference games.

Other than Pitt, of course.

Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or nrudel@altoonamirror.com.

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