JoePa @ Michigan: what would have been?

Submitted by physics guy on October 18th, 2009 at 9:52 PM

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!



October 20th, 2009 at 2:32 PM ^

thing I dislike about it.

He actually says: "Look, our helmets got wings!" I believe the fact that he doesn't say, "Look, our helmets HAVE wings!" probably bothers the Michigan Old guard more than anything. The grammar dialect from his time in WV I think rubs the stuffed shirts the wrong way.

I dislike it because I have a Bachelors in English and it was drilled into my head since I was a small child to NEVER use the word "got".


October 18th, 2009 at 10:09 PM ^

I've always liked JoePa, but I'll also add that I'm glad we have the head coach that's probably up working right now and not 2-3 hours into a 12 hour nap.


October 18th, 2009 at 10:11 PM ^

Do they have a dental school at MSU? I don't think they do, but even if they don't I believe Mark Dantonio is making enough money nowadays to get some of those ugly ass teeth straightened.


October 18th, 2009 at 11:05 PM ^

Interesting. I haven't heard that story before. It's hard to tell. As you said, JoePa primarily made his living off of beating East Coast schools and surviving as an independent, with all of its advantages. It's hard to know, but he probably wouldn't have made it 40 years in the Big Ten.


October 18th, 2009 at 11:15 PM ^

Paterno arguably made Penn State a national power. When he arrived Penn State was lightly regarded in for most of the sixties and seventies, in part because of their weak schedules. Early in his career Penn State had three undefeated and untied teams (in 1968, 1969 and 1973) which weren't seriously considered for the national title. While Paterno was at Penn State, they began to schedule more national powers such as Ohio State, Nebraska, Alabama and Notre Dame, and Paterno's teams beat many of them. I don't think Paterno would have had any trouble recruiting or coaching at Michigan.

FYI, Penn State and Iowa didn't play each other in 1978, and Penn State shut out Ohio State that year 19-0. That was arguably Paterno's first legitimate national title contender. They lost a close game to Alabama in the Sugar Bowl after an undefeated regular season.


October 19th, 2009 at 2:04 AM ^

But when Joe Pa was coaching in the 60s and 70s, the only real consistent national contender in that part of the country, aside from PSU was Pitt. Syracuse fell on hard times after the 60s prior to Dom MacPherson coming there. BC, WV and Miami all emerged as powers in the 80s when new coaches and star players started coming to those schools. I think the thing was Joe Pa had built up such an established empire at the time and Pitt was on probation starting in 1982 or 83, so they started to get more blue chip recruits.

In any case Joe Pa still got his share of blue chippers even with that happening, same thing with Bo in the 1980s with the end of the "Big 2 Little 8" era. It's a moot point.


October 19th, 2009 at 8:32 PM ^

They were terrible for most of the sixties, aside from 1963 (9-1). They were only a real power in the period between 1976 (Tony Dorsett's senior year) and 1982 (Dan Marino's senior year). That's the only time when Pitt was able to seriously compete for a national title.

If I remember correctly, Pittsburgh was terrible when Johnny Majors took over (and sure enough they were 1-10 in 1972). For his first class in 1973, Majors brought in a huge number of recruits and basically replaced the whole football team. They went to low-tier bowls for the next few years but went undefeated in 1976 when that first class was in its fourth year. From 1979 to 1981 they had three straight 11-1 years under Jackie Sherrill when Marino was there, and they haven't done much since then.


October 19th, 2009 at 2:32 PM ^

one other consideration is that Paterno was a driving force in Penn State's joining the Big Ten. Under another coach, they might have joined the ACC or Big East. Penn State has a huge alumni base and adds the east coast market to the Big Ten's midwest base. IMO, Penn State make the Big Ten better, and I have to give Joe some credit for that.


October 19th, 2009 at 7:19 PM ^

I found this interesting as well. Living in Pittsburgh, there's another aspect to this story about PSU joining the Big Ten. IIRC, Paterno tried to create an East Cost football conference in the 1980s (before the Big East added the football schools, it was basketball only, and they actually turned down PSU in the early 80s). Among other schools, Pitt turned them down, and to this day Paterno holds it against Pitt, to the point that they haven't played a football game since 2000, and will likely not play again until Paterno retires. When the Big East expanded to football (removing a number of independents that PSU could schedule), they ended up taking the opportunity to join the Big Ten.


October 19th, 2009 at 6:51 PM ^

Paterno turned us down. He cited his young family as a reason to stay, saying he didn't want to uproot them. Canham then asked him if he knew of any other good candidates and Paterno named Bo.

Anyway, I'm sure Paterno would have done really well here. He's one of the greatest coaches of all time. He made PSU what they are today.


October 20th, 2009 at 1:58 PM ^

Good diary. While I agree that JoePa probably wouldn't have brought the same intensity to OSU-Michigan, I think it's worth clarifying that there was no "hatred" between Bo and Woody (I realize that this is a minor part of what you wrote).

Woody and Bo were friends throughout the 10-year war. Woody wrote to Bo when he was in the hospital after his 1969 heart attack, and Bo immediately went to see Woody when he got fired.

The rivalry became more intense because both teams were good, both coaches understood it, and both realized how seriously the other one took it.


October 20th, 2009 at 3:42 PM ^

but Bo versus Joe Pa in the OSU rivalry. Bo would probably be one of the most hated people in the Michigan family if Joe Pa had come to Michigan.

Then again, would Bo have been hired by Penn State? Oh the possibilities.