Penn State’s Most Memorable Teams: 1986

For the second time in the 1980s, Joe Paterno ended the season by being carried off the field by his players after Penn State won the national championship. (Photo by Associated Press)

Editor’s note: Throughout the season, we’re looking at Penn State’s most memorable teams from the past 40 years. Up next is the season that cemented the Nittany Lions as one of the nation’s premier programs, 1986, the season that Penn State won its second national title. Fans can also hear from letterman Bob White, who’s appearing this week on The Football Letter Live to share insight and stories from the ’86 season. 

In terms of a centennial celebration goes, the 1987 Fiesta Bowl unfolded in cinematic fashion for Penn State. Almost as if brothers and Penn State graduates Julius and Philip Epstein wrote the script; the two brothers authored quite possibly the greatest screenplay ever, Casablanca, and as John Black noted in The Football Letter, Julius was in attendance for the game. 

Penn State alumni and fans knows the details that elevated that game beyond just college football or even sports, transcending it into a national event that captured the attention and imagination of an entire country. 

Two unbeaten teams. An iconic coach with a tradition-rich program against a brash up-and-coming squad not afraid to boast — sometimes, I wonder if a younger Joe Paterno actually had more in common with Jimmy Johnson than Penn State fans have ever realized. Army fatigues. A bombastic pre-game dinner that included players walking out. A Heisman Trophy winner. A national television audience on a night set aside entirely for the game. And most importantly, a national title at stake.

A lot has been written about the 1986 Penn State team, and we were fortunate enough earlier this year to get a bunch of the guys from that together to watch a replay of the Fiesta Bowl, and you can watch the archived video on our Facebook page. There are plenty of good stories and insight from the players who were on the field, who were so enthusiastic and articulate, that we ended up keeping the video going for four-plus hours. Leading up to the night, we thought maybe we’d go for an hour or two before things slowed down. Fortunately, that never happened, and you can tell that the guys enjoyed each other’s company immensely, in addition to having the opportunity to interact with fans who tuned in on Facebook Live. 

Leading up to the Fiesta Bowl, Penn State mostly dominated its scheduled, which with the exception of Notre Dame, was comprised entirely of opponents in the eastern time zone. Along with the Fighting Irish (24-19), only Cincinnati (23-17) and Maryland (17-15) stayed within single digits of Penn State, which outscored its regular season opponents by an average margin of 30-12 (326-123).

The list of folks who were in person that night in Tempe includes Black, who followed in the legendary footsteps of Ridge Riley to continue chronicling the Nittany Lions’ ascent atop the college football landscape. 

Similar to his letter detailing Penn State’s first national title following the 1983 Sugar Bowl, Black included references to Riley and his book, Road to No. 1, within the opening paragraphs of the letter following the ’87 Fiesta Bowl. 

The 1986 season is a fitting sequel to Riley’s history, as the national championship culminated a six-month celebration of the 100th gridiron season (in Penn State history), which began with three black-tie galas in Hershey, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia in July, honoring gridiron greats of the past, and brought Coach of the Year honors from the Football Writers of America and Sportsman of the Year honors from Sports Illustrated for Coach Joe Paterno in December. 

In terms of imagery and a backdrop, that Fiesta Bowl might never be topped. In some ways, that’s OK, or even something to be cheered. When a win that iconic comes around, it’s maybe best to not try to compare it to something else or have it topped. Rather, enjoy it for what it is and the circumstances that led it to happen. 

Looking back a few years, or even Paterno’s head coaching career up to that point, there were several near-misses and seasons when Penn State was overlooked, even with unbeaten season. The ’68 and ’69 teams were dominant, ’73 was magical with John Cappelletti winning the Heisman Trophy, and ’79 and ’85 were oh-so-close, with the Nittany Lions falling to Alabama and Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl and Orange Bowl, respectively, in national title games. 

After winning two national titles in four years, and playing for a championship in four out of nine years, the sentiment was that Penn State had fully arrived, and wasn’t just amid a nice stretch. 

Penn State football transformed during the 1980s, as did the University, and it’s fairly easy to argue that the relationship goes beyond merely correlation to causation. 

Paterno gave a series of highly charged speeches to the University’s Board of Trustees and Faculty Senate following the team’s first national title, prompting Penn State to start focusing in earnest on fundraising. In the Fiesta Bowl letter, Black noted that earlier in 1986, Paterno had a Library Endowment Fund established in his name and that he was selected as vice-chairman of the University’s largest fundraising campaign in history, a $200 million effort for academic excellence. 

Paterno’s Grand Experiment has been noted and discussed many times, to the point that it almost seems obvious now. But 30-40 years ago, it was a sweeping change, and one that Penn State gravitated toward and supported. 

Let’s put it this way: When was the last time you read a story about a historic victory in college football, and within the first handful of paragraphs, the winning coach’s strident support of academics is pointed out? 

It’s fair and worthwhile to point out that the Grand Experiment might not’ve been so successful if the football team hadn’t been so dominant, though any thorough write-up of Penn State football in the ‘80s should merge the two parallel universes, and that shines through with Black’s letters. 

The football team doesn’t exist on its own. The Nittany Lions are an extension of the University and our worldwide alumni base. Each side supports the other, and in the end, everyone is better for it. And when it ends with a national championship on a night when very few people watching will ever forget — and certainly nobody who was there in person — it’s worth remembering for all the right reasons. 

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