Eastern college football, long a poor relative, may challenge the 'west'

Though not often given its due, Eastern college football is earning some measure of it this year. Penn State and Pittsburgh have moved right to the top of the latest wire service polls, probably the first time two Eastern squads have accomplished this since World War II, when Army and Navy overpowered most ''civilian'' elevens.

Convincing the writers and coaches who vote on the Top 20 to think ''East'' is a bit like reselling Americans on the idea of buying Detroit automobiles. It isn't easy.

That was never more evident than this season. The No. 1 ranking changed hands week after week as such traditional non-Eastern powers as Michigan, Notre Dame, and Southern California lost. But only when the undefeated barrel was virtually empty did the honor finally fall to Penn State.

Texas even jumped ahead of the Nittany Lions in the pecking order one week, probably because Penn State refused to run up the score against Boston College on the day Texas crushed Oklahoma.

It certainly wasn't the first slight of Penn State football. In 1969, after Texas had defeated Arkansas in a game billed as ''The Great Shootout,'' President Richard Nixon congratulated the ''national champions,'' apparently forgetting or not caring that the final poll hadn't come out and Penn State also claimed a perfect record.

The East did achieve a solo spot in the national limelight five years ago when Tony Dorsett won the Heisman Trophy. But, of course, there was no disputing that Pitt, the country's only major undefeated team, deserved to be No. 1.

At this juncture, both Pitt and Penn State (set to meet Nov. 28) appear to have legitimate designs on the national championship.

Coach Joe Paterno fields perhaps his fastest team ever at State College, Pa., where flashy tailback Curt Warner belongs in the company of such other great Penn State runners as Lenny Moore, Lydell Mitchell, John Cappelletti, and Franco Harris. The junior speedster gained a school record 256 yards in last Saturday's win over Syracuse and has a shot at the national rushing crown.

Pitt seemingly was faced with a rebuilding year after losing 15 starters off last season's second-ranked team. But Coach Jackie Sherrill has obviously been able to stockpile some quality athletes in recent years, and has Pitt playing fiercesome defense despite heavy graduation losses. Offensively, the Panthers have been led by quarterback Dan Marino, the national passing leader in recent weeks.

Pennsylvania traditionally has been a strong football state, with a survey showing that it produces more major college players after California, Texas, and Ohio.

The East as a whole, however, is generally considered a backwater with only a couple scattered islands of respectable big-time football (namely Penn State and Pitt). To outsiders, most teams east of Ohio and north of the Mason-Dixon line are patsies until they can prove otherwise.

That wasn't always the case. After all, the game really began in the East, where the magic of raccoon coats, fight songs, and pregame parties was discovered. And there were plenty of great players and teams, too, from Walter Camp's early Yale teams to the nationally ranked Princeton squads of the early 1950s. Many Eastern schools basked in some national glory somewhere along the line, including Syracuse, the University of Pennsylvania, Holy Cross, and even Carnegie Tech.

So what happened? Why did Eastern football fall into the shadows?

Tim Cohane, a professor emeritus at Boston University, former sports editor of Look magazine, and an authority on the college game, believes the turning point came 25 years ago when the presidents of Yale and Harvard planted the seed for the Ivy League

''After World War II they could see there would be a rush for power with schools going all out to recruit players,'' he explains. ''They decided to draw up an agreement, which led to the formation of the Ivy League. There would be no spring practice and no post-season games and aid was based on need.''

In a nutshell, football would be kept within bounds and the ''word student would be kept to the left of the hyphen in student-athlete,'' as Cohane puts it.

This philosophy has permeated the thinking of many area colleges and perhaps explains why, to those outside the East, Eastern college football often means Ivy League football.

Many schools from this pocket of the country play the game, but they do so without the fanfare found elsewhere. And without a truly big-time conference, the East doesn't have a strong lobbying group for national laurels and attention.

The big schools have gone their own way, some more ambitiously than others. ''In the area we're in, we didn't have anybody who really had made any kind of commitment to a national, intersectional schedule, and we felt we would do it,'' Paterno has said of Penn State's decision to shoot for the stars. ''To have the East come alive again, somebody had to step forward and take the challenge.''

Actually, Penn State and Pitt were found to have the third and fifth toughest schedules in the country last year, based on the figures fed into an NCAA computer.

Now there's talk of starting an Eastern football conference, which would include Penn State, Pitt, and other independents such as Boston College, West Virginia, Rutgers, Temple, and Syracuse, plus possibly Maryland, currently a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference. Stay tuned.

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