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This fall has been a season some would like to forget

| Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2003

Do you have family or friends who haven't seemed like themselves lately?

Have they been experiencing cold sweats• Hyperventilating• Demonstrating signs of confusion?

Perhaps they've even suffered severe nausea and vomiting in recent weeks.

Please remain calm. I urge you not to panic.

There may be a perfectly reasonable explanation for their behavior, and it has nothing to do with Mexican food or flagrant health-code violations.

There's a good possibility your loved one is simply a Penn State football fan.

Ask yourself: Has your loved one been more irritable the past couple of months• Does this person become violently ill, particularly on Saturdays• Do the colors blue and gold trigger convulsions?

It all makes sense now, doesn't it?

Of course, what's ailing Penn State fans is more than our team's recent ineptitude.

Compounding our suffering is the fact that we don't even have Pitt to kick around anymore.

While our program has been in steady decline during recent seasons, Pitt's has been a program on the rise.

And the situation has reached crisis proportions this season, with the Panthers in line for a prestigious bowl game and Penn State mired in a losing streak of historic proportions. The last time we won a game, in fact, I believe I listened to it on the radio while washing my car in a pair of shorts and a tank top.

Ah, yes. Sept. 20. I remember it like it was ... almost two months ago.

Back then, there were leaves on the trees. It didn't get dark until 7. The Cubs were using the players they'd stolen from the Pirates in a march toward the playoffs. And Joey Porter had made a full recovery after being shot in the butt.

To further underscore the magnitude of the situation, consider:

This year, Pitt has a bona fide Heisman Trophy candidate who's making headlines. Sadly, we have only candidates for the state's Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition program in the headlines.

After stinking for approximately the past 20 years, we should have known that Pitt would wait until Paterno got old to make its move.

Things went from bleak to downright unbearable just this past Saturday, when Penn State lost to Northwestern -- a school known more for it journalism program than its athletic tradition -- while Pitt pulled off a dramatic last-minute victory over highly ranked Virginia Tech in front of a delirious sellout crowd at Heinz Field.

We lose to a team dressed in purple.

Pitt comes through in the clutch on national television.

Such has been life for Penn State fans in 2003.

Actually, there were indications back in the summer that Pitt was on the verge of becoming a major annoyance. In an effort to remedy a somewhat embarrassing attendance problem at its home games, the university launched an extensive marketing campaign to spread the word about reduced prices for season tickets. Radio and television commercials polluted the airwaves, and billboards popped up all over the landscape.

What an eyesore.

What's more, you can't step foot in a sporting-goods store these days without being reminded of the divergent paths the teams are on. Penn State fans have to wade through racks of blue and gold merchandise at the front of the store just to get to the paltry selection of Penn State stuff at the back, where it's sold at steep discounts right next to the Kordell Stewart jerseys.

It sure wasn't like that a few years ago, when Paterno was 70 and in his prime.

Matters have gotten so bad that some Penn State fans have decided to focus their energy not on rooting for the Lions, but against Pitt -- a truly pathetic, desperate course of action, which, coincidentally, we learned from Pitt fans.

Nevertheless, there have been a few bright spots for Penn State fans this season. There was that one time Zach Mills threw the ball to Tony Johnson and he caught it. And our freshman punter has been kicking pretty well, too, especially since the disorderly-conduct charge was dropped.

But perhaps the most gratifying moment of the season came not on the field -- of course it didn't come on the field -- but off. While listening to a sports-talk program on the radio a couple of weeks ago, I heard an articulate, well-reasoned Pitt fan make a bold admission: The main reason he hates Penn State is jealousy.

What the caller said was no revelation. The Pitt tradition of chanting "P-E-N-N-S-T sucks" during the fight song -- even if they're playing Robert Morris in women's volleyball -- can only be interpreted as evidence of a severe inferiority complex. But actually hearing a Pitt fan confess to such small-mindedness was a small victory for Penn State fans.

And this season, we'll take it.

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