For Paterno, a Sugar Bowl win would be especially sweet

Writers looking for story hooks before Saturday night's Sugar Bowl game (ABC, 8 p.m., EST) haven't had to look far.

For starters, there's the historical peg. No. 1 Georgia and No. 2 Penn State will meet in only the sixth post-season contest to pit the nation's two top-ranked teams.

Then there's the battle of the running backs. Herschel Walker, Georgia's much acclaimed Heisman Trophy winner, goes head to head with Curt Warner, Penn State's brilliant but largely forgotten yardage machine.

Beyond these angles, however, lies a story line just as obvious to anyone who's touched a New Orleans newspaper this week. And rest assured, it will be etched in stone by play-by-play man Keith Jackson before the game ever begins.

The peg? That Penn State Coach Joe Paterno desperately wants to win the national championship, a reward he's found more slippery than a Mazola-coated football.

The theme, of course, has parallels. Golfer Sam Snead never won the US Open or actor Cary Grant a regular Oscar even though both men had the credentials to do so. And for a long while, North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith came up empty in the college basketball playoffs. Smith's string of near-misses, however, was snapped last spring, when his Tar Heels captured the NCAA championship.

Some sense that it's now Paterno's turn to complete his impressive portfolio.

A national championship would be the crowning achievement in a 17-year head coaching career that has seen him selected as national Coach of the Year twice, compile the second best winning percentage (.824) among active coaches (behind Oklahoma's Barry Switzer), and produce flocks of All-Americans.

That Paterno has been shut out of the ultimate winner's circle seems an injustice. Joe himself has said as much, and with good cause. Three times his teams have completed perfect seasons, then won bowl games, only to be overlooked for the No. 1 spot.

This first happened following the 1968 season, when a Kansas boner helped Penn State to an 11-0 record. Kansas stopped a two-point conversion attempt late in the Orange Bowl, but the Jayhawks were penalized for having 12 men on the field. Penn State tried again, made the conversion, and won 15-14, yet finished behind Ohio State in the polls.

Penn State went undefeated the next year, too, beating Missouri in the Orange Bowl this time. Texas wound up No. 1, however, partly because the Longhorns beat Arkansas in a much publicized game that President Nixon rashly concluded decided things. The outspoken Paterno was angered by the pronouncement, and in a commencement address delivered at Penn State several years later, asked, ''I'd like to know, how could the President know so little about Watergate in 1973 and so much about college football in 1969?''

The Brooklyn native was stung one more time in 1973, when Notre Dame and Alabama were named co-national champions despite Penn State's 12-0 record.

It was obvious that voters considered Eastern football a cut below that played in the rest of the country. Therefore, to win a championship one needed to have the best team, free and clear, as Syracuse did in 1959 or Pittsburgh did in 1976.

To date, the only opportunity Penn State had to insure itself of being No. 1 came at the conclusion of the 1978 season. The undefeated, top-ranked Nittany Lions entered the Sugar Bowl in control of their own destiny. During the fourth quarter, they had the ball inside the Alabama two yard line trailing 14-7, but were stopped on two straight plunges in a classic goal line stand.

The plays were as conservative as the Penn State's traditional plain-Jane uniforms, and typical of Paterno's grind-it-out offensive approach. Joe is hardly inflexible, though, and proved that he's not averse to change by letting quarterback Todd Blackledge go to the air with great success this season. Blackledge says the the Nittany Lions are still no aerial circus, ''but we are passing when most people expect us to run.''

Translated: Paterno has a feel for the game that allows him to play every last trump. This knack was apparent even as a college quarterback at Brown, where, in the late '40s, it was said, ''He can't pass. He can't run. He just wins.''

His penchant for winning has lured a handful of pro teams to his doorstep over the years. But even when the New England Patriots came calling with a million-dollar offer in 1973, Joe refused to leave University Park and the Pennsylvania outback known as Happy Valley.

Actually, he accepted the post, then changed his mind when he realized he had only taken the job because he ''was flattered by the dough.'' Not surprisingly, Paterno has sometimes been viewed as the conscience of big-time football, an image supported by his forthrightness in addressing football-related issues.

He has run a clean program and continued to win even while beefing up the schedule, signing schools like Alabama and Notre Dame to long-range contracts. In fact, based on opponent records Penn State had this season's toughest schedule.

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