Excitement returns to Happy Valley
UNIVERSITY PARK -- Progress in regaining pigskin paradise can be measured in many ways.
The most obvious is by wins and losses. On that front, Penn State's 8-1 record ahead of a Big Ten showdown Saturday with Wisconsin is reminiscent of the sort of success that was common here in the not-too-distant past, helping Happy Valley live up to the moniker each fall.
But there are other ways to measure the comeback of Penn State football to a role of once again being the focal point of Saturday afternoons and a great source of shared pride.
The sight of tents sprouting outside the student gates a week ahead of a game to ensure front-row seating provides one measure.
A stadium that literally shakes during games is another.
Fans bridging the generation gap by their shared interest in a team is another.
White Outs in the student section, excitement on the streets of State College, these are other elements of the swirl of enthusiasm that is the 2005 Lions season.
On Tuesday, Joe Paterno had urged reporters at his weekly news conference to go out and interview the campers in the tent city, what is known as "Paternoville."
On Wednesday, the coach stopped by and chatted.
On Thursday, he arrived in advance of a care package of pizzas for those campers, proclaiming, "I'm looking for a pizza."
As a testament to Paterno's appeal, the students who mobbed him for autographs and to have their pictures taken with him, didn't break away when delivery people arrived brandishing the pizzas.
They chanted "Joe-Pa-Ter-No." They chatted with him. They drank in the experience. This nexus between young and old, this sharing of football as it used to be at the school, is the aspect of this season that is most gratifying to Larry Wise, class of '83.
"I'm 45 years old. I've seen great years here," Wise said before beginning some shopping in State College. "But it came to me during the Ohio State game, you have a generation of students now that don't know Penn State as the powerhouse that Penn State used to be.
"We've all heard the 'Joe's got to go' chants the last couple of years. Hopefully, that's been erased. Any true Penn State fan, as disappointing as it's been, would never want JoePa to go out like a year ago. The guy, let's face it, he put this little cow town on the map."
Gerald Dawson, a 74-year-old from Bellefonte, remembers following Penn State, "Ever since I was able to listen to them on the radio.
"Up around here, you're Penn State, I'll tell you that."
The losing records in four of the past five seasons were tough. Dawson's pleasure with the success this year is as evident as the "Penn State" on his sweatshirt.
"Sometimes this team doesn't start fast, but once they get fired up, I don't think anybody can beat them," he said.
Excitement over the winning ripples through the student body, helping account for the cluster of tents outside Gate A at Beaver Stadium, whose number was put at 51 late yesterday afternoon.
Jeff Bast, a junior microbiology major from Hazleton, was camping out here before it was cool, beginning last year. When he and his friends got word Sunday that others would try to beat them to the front before the Ohio State game, they gathered their tents and beat a hasty path to the stadium. That tent turnout, which eventually reached 117, began to become chaotic about midweek, and Bast became an organizer. He was christened the mayor of Paternoville, a title he retains for this pre-Wisconsin incarnation.
"I'll be around again next year," Bast said. "If they still want me as mayor, I'll be the mayor."
Bast and others help organize the scene. Some tents have duct-tape numbers on their outside. Others have slips of paper inside to assign positions. There are other methods to keep order, including requiring the tents to be occupied at night and generally inhabited most of the time.
Jeff Woodward, a senior from Pittsburgh, was tent-sitting for some friends who had to go to class. He's not camping out himself, but does consider it a worthwhile activity.
"It absolutely is," he emphasized. "My problem is that I'm in the middle of job searching. I have four or five interviews this week. I need to be by a computer at all times."
Jason Stabley, perched on a camp chair drinking in the sunshine, was near a computer -- his laptop. Unfortunately, no wireless connectivity was available.
"No problem. I'm loving it," said the junior mechanical engineering major from Lock Haven.
To his left, Andrea Burkholder had a blanket wrapped around her despite the mid-60-degree warmth.
"It's really cold at about 5 a.m. or 6 a.m.," she said. "Our noses are freezing.
"But it's totally worth it. We get front-row seats for the game, and I got to meet Joe Paterno (Wednesday), and that was amazing."
This brings a smile to the face of Guido D'Elia, the man three seasons into trying to whip up excitement around the program. He is one of the people behind the White Outs, where students dress in white.
"We tried a Code Blue once or twice last year when it got colder, figuring people had more dark heavy clothing," he said. "But it was not as dramatic as the White Outs."
But there are limits to frenzy. The scoreboard no longer encourages fans to bounce during the game because of safety concerns. There is a fear individual rows of bench seats might not hold up, although in-game monitoring of swaying and vibration of the stadium superstructure indicates no concern of a major collapse.
"Anything involving 100,000 people, you have to look at all the angles," D'Elia said. "I don't think it will stop people from having a good time."
Not if the Lions keep winning.