So Michigan and Penn State knock helmets this coming weekend for the 15h time, with Michigan holding a 10-4 edge in victories. The two teams did not meet until Penn State's inaugural Big-10 campaign in 1993. An important off-field meeting occurred, however, in 1968 between officials of the two programs that would set the course of history for the Michigan program.
As is well known, following the retirement of Bump Elliot at the conclusion of the 1968 season, Atheltic Director Don Canham sought a bright young coach from outside the program that could change the stale culture of Michigan and help fill the half-empty Michigan Stadium. He offfered the job to Joe Paterno. Paterno was finishing his 14th year at Penn State and third as head coach. According to Penn State lore, Paterno turned down Canham. According to Don Canham, Paterno asked if he could think about it until after the bowl season. Canham replied that he needed a coach right away, thanked Joe, and hired Bo Schembechler. The rest, as they say, is history.
But what would have happened at Michigan if JoePa had taken the job? How different would the next 40 years of Michigan football have been? Would Paterno still be coaching Michigan today?
First, I think that under Paterno the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry would never have reached the fervor and intensity that it did under Bo. Paterno was an East Coast guy, playing and coaching at Brown before arriving at Penn State. He was used to rivalries with Boston College, Pittsburgh, and Syracuse. Certainly the Michigan-OSU rivalry predated Schembechler, but the fact that Bo was Woody's disciple and his chosen successor for the head coaching job at Ohio State moved the rivalry to a higher and much more personal level. It's hard to imagine that same degree of personal rivalry/hatred would have occurred between Woody and JoePa.
Second, I wonder if Michigan would have had as much success under Paterno. This is hard to evaluate, because they coached different players and played different teams. Penn State and Paterno made a living off of beating the likes of Boston College, Syracuse, Pitt, West Virginia, and Maryland. Penn State played few Big-10 teams prior to joining the league in 1993. They got pummeled by MSU in 1966, but that was a national championship team. They beat Iowa five straight times in the 1970's, but also lost to Iowa in 1976, 1978, and 1983; the 1970's era Hawkeyes were not very good football teams that Michigan beat rather handily. PSU also lost to Wisconsin in 1970, and OSU in 1976 and 1978.
Finally, had JoePa experienced the same down period that he did at PSU in 2000-2004 (overall record 26-33) would he had survived at Michigan? Interesting questions, none of which really matter today but all of which may have been important had Joe given Canham a different answer in 1968. As a Michigan fan, I can say that, while I am sure JoePa would have been very successful at Michigan, it would be hard to top the last 40 years of the Bo/Mo/Carr/and now Rodriguez eras. And I am very happy that RR is our coach now and hopefully for a long time to come.
Go Blue! Beat Penn State and JoePa!