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September 10, 2010

Column: Tide, Saban appreciate kindred opponent

TUSCALOOSA _ There are times when Nick Saban's voice rises out of frustration, and there are times he's simply trying to make a point.

On Wednesday when he brought up a particular subject, it was more than that, he was embarrassed. Speaking before reporters for the final time this week, Saban made it clear that if any University of Alabama fans booed Penn State and Joe Paterno this Saturday, because they consider it tradition when every opponent takes the field, he would take it as a personal insult.

"This is a class program with class people who have been there for 45 years, who have done wonderful things for college football, the game of football and a lot of people over a 45-yard period," Saban said. "I think it would be a damn crying-ass shame if we boo them when they come out into the stadium like we did last week's team.

"I just don't understand that."

For those who don't quite grasp it yet, this game isn't like playing Arkansas. Or LSU. Or even Auburn.

Penn State is different, in part because the programs are so much alike, right down to the uniforms - which many people, yours truly included, believe are the best in college football.

"For all the moms and girls watching, it's going to be a very boring game," Alabama senior tight end Preston Dial said. "It's red-and-white, blue-and-white, let's go play ball. There's not a whole lot to it."

Dial gets it. He's seen the cover of Sports Illustrated of the goal-line stand in the Sugar Bowl to win the 1978 national championship, and heard Barry Krauss talk about what that play meant. He understands why ESPN's College Gameday will be back in Tuscaloosa for this particular Saturday after bypassing so many other marquee games here.

He, and others, can't wait to be part of this rivalry's history.

"This is an historic matchup," sophomore guard Barrett Jones said. "It's an honor to be part of it.

"You know, you go into an old Alabama restaurant, and there are many of them across the state, and you see old games playing. It's cool to be a part of that rivalry. Maybe one day they'll be showing our game against Penn State on those TVs."

Even though the schools are located in completely different regions, with fans so different their accents make one wonder how they can be in the same country, yet these are kindred programs. They both play the game the same way, hard-nosed and physical. They run the ball, they play stout defense, they pound away until the opposition can't take any more. Their idea of razzle-dazzle is to run play-action.

It's really college football at its finest.

"You're going to remember this for the rest of your life," junior linebacker Jerrell Harris said. "You'll always remember when you played Penn State."

But what really sets these two programs apart are the coaching legacies. Similar to the Crimson Tide, when you think of Penn State only one name comes to mind, Paterno.

"Definitely the Paul 'Bear' Bryant of Penn State, someone to be respected," Dial said. "He kind of encompasses the whole Penn State atmosphere."

Saban first experienced it while growing up in West Virginia, then saw it at a whole other level as a peer at Michigan State. Beyond the two national championships, 31-game unbeaten streak and record-setting wins, Paterno's impact on the game, his players and the university he still represents may be unparalleled.

This is the fourth season I've covered Saban at Alabama, and I've never heard him talk about anyone like he does Paterno, although Bobby Bowden's a close second. Consider the following from earlier this week:

"I think the thing you take from guys like Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno is that they are good and have been good for a long time," Saban said. "They have also been great ambassadors for the game, and they have done what they do in a classy way. They don't talk about other people. They don't run other programs down. They just do it in a first-class way. I think that is probably the biggest thing that I have tried to emulate Joe Paterno, Bobby Bowden and those types of guys, is because of how they've done what they do, the kind of people that they are and the kind of character they have. I think that is important for college football. I think that is an important part of the integrity of the game."

That's why Saban said what he did.

I'll take it a step further: To boo Paterno would be like jeering Bryant. You just don't do it.


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