The Week that Restored Penn State Football

By Kevin Horne & Chris Buchignani, October 2015

“They’ll be enjoying the tailgating afterwards, with a 30-point win.”

On that note, ABC’s Brad Nessler wrapped up the national broadcast of Penn State’s October 1, 2005 win over 18th-ranked Minnesota, a 44-14 shellacking that featured two standout plays that would endure for years among the program’s most memorable – quarterback Michael Robinson’s violent collision with a Gopher safety and linebacker Paul Posluszny’s leaping, over-the-pile takedown at the goal line. Nessler was right, of course, the parking lots would be especially raucous that evening, but the celebration in Happy Valley was only just beginning.

As the Beaver Stadium shadows began to lengthen and the crowd bid the vanquished Golden Gophers farewell with strains of “Na Na, Hey Hey,” energy was already building for a weeklong party, fueled by an anxious anticipation that would electrify all of Nittany Nation. After years of losing at an unprecedented rate, the NIttany Lions were 5-0 and, dating back to the previous season, on a seven-game winning streak, the program’s longest in more than five years. The sixth-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes were coming to town the following Saturday, a perfect opportunity to show the nation that Penn State football was back. And the nation took notice.

ESPN announced that its college football programming for the week would center on Happy Valley. College GameDay, the network’s wildly popular live pregame show, would make its first visit to campus since 1999, and Cold Pizza, a more youth-oriented morning show that airing on ESPN2, would broadcast live from outside Beaver Stadium on the Friday before the game.

“We try to go to the most intriguing match-up of the week. Penn State is a big story line in college football right now,” Associate Manager for ESPN Communications Mac Nwulu told The Daily Collegian.

The increased media attention on Penn State dovetailed with the Lions’ debut at No. 16 in the polls, the team’s first in-season ranking since the ’99 campaign. But even before “the Worldwide Leader” began cranking up its hype machine, the Penn State student body would stage a compelling display of spontaneous enthusiasm.

“That Ohio State week, I was driving home – I lived in Toftrees at the time – probably 11 o’clock on Sunday night, after the Minnesota game, and I was pulling around the turn, and I saw, probably seven (or) eight tents,” former quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno recalls.

“I stopped my car. There was nobody else on the road at that hour. And I go, ‘Oh my God. They’re camping out for next Saturday.’ So before I even moved, I called Guido.”

Penn State football’s branding guru Guido D’Elia knew what needed to happen next. “I immediately called the press to get them up there and document it. I knew we had to turn this into a story to make sure nobody tried to shut it down.”

His plan worked. Beginning the next day, local news coverage (with national outlets close behind) prominently featured the emerging tent city, briefly dubbed “Camp Nittany” before “Paternoville” stuck as its permanent moniker. The campout continued growing throughout the week, with more tents appearing each day. President Graham Spanier, Joe Paterno, and dozens of players made surprise visits, to cheer on the campers and soak in the spectacle.

“It was just exciting. I would drive by or walk by Paternoville just to get that energy for the game,” remembers Derrick Williams, the freshman wide receiver and top recruiting prospect whose versatile play had sparked Penn State’s offense.

The mounting excitement did not stop at Paternoville. D’Elia next unleashed another catalyst to spark even greater fervor: The “White Out.” The 10,000-strong Beaver Stadium student section would dress all in white, creating an iconic image and inspiring ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit to famously dub it the best in the country. Students, locals, and visiting fans all got into the spirit, and the sudden demand for white Penn State apparel gave a jolt to the Downtown economy. College Avenue storefronts were emblazoned in Blue and White. Spontaneous football discussions interrupted classes. School spirit gripped State College.

College towns like State College are distinct in that they are self-contained communities, but also extend their metaphorical borders to the far corners of the world, encompassing legions of loyal and nostalgic alumni. There is nothing quite like when something briefly unites that physical and cultural community, or to be at “ground zero” of that – heading to work or class, feeling the energy and attention of a “Nittany Nation” all focused in on your place – where it touches into every aspect of your day, where it’s the hot topic of conversation, splashed across every newspaper front page and leading the nightly news, local storefronts declare their support and invite the patronage of enthusiastic customers. This was the phenomenon at work that week in the Nittany Valley, as a community came together to reclaim a shared identity that once seemed lost, perhaps forever.

Joe Paterno’s career longevity was unusual, but his staying power at a single institution was without precedent, offering fans and alumni a chance to experience something unique. The old man’s steady presence on the sidelines through the decades, graduating players, winning football games, and promising to go on for “four or five more years,” offered a “through-line” connecting generations of Penn Staters, a unifying point of common reference. From the undergraduates making their homes on the hard pavement outside Beaver Stadium to the legions of alumni

“That week, it really was like Woodstock,” reflects Jay Paterno. “It was totally organic. It wasn’t forced. It wasn’t regulated. And it really took on a life of its own.”

Reflecting back on it now, the team’s defensive coordinator, Tom Bradley, a long-time Nittany Lion who now coaches at UCLA summed it up: “Definitely magical. The White Out and all the things that went with it. The nation got to see what Penn State football and Penn State students are all about up there that night.”