I matriculated at Syracuse University in 1996 and left in 2000. The Syracuse football team played the Penn State football team exactly zero times in those four seasons.
There was a time when such a thing would be considered as sacrilegious as playing Georgetown only once a year in basketball. I suppose the fact that our lack of a yearly gridiron battle with the Nittany Lions and guarantee that Syracuse and Georgetown will see each other on their own home courts every year says what it will about traditions. For their worth, they change.
Syracuse hadn't played Penn State for six years before I arrived and didn't play them again for eight more years after I left. I knew Syracuse University and Penn State University were supposed to "hate" each other the way so many schools "hate" each other around the country, but that didn't apply anymore. For so long, seeing Penn State on the football schedule was a non-event. It was assumed the same way we view West Virginia or Rutgers today. Separated by state lines, the divide once seemed even shorter.
Until the series stopped in 1990, the Orangemen and Lions met 68 times, still the most of any Syracuse opponent Penn State won forty times, Syracuse won twenty three times and the two teams tied five times. And Joe Paterno was on the sidelines for 41 of them. 43 if you count the two most-recent games, which Penn State both won handily.
Looking at the history between the two schools, you can't help but find the pattern that seems to exist between Paterno and the Orange. Syracuse dominated the series in early goings, holding a 10-3-3 advantage in the first sixteen games.Then, in the late thirties, things turned.
However, the Orangemen regained their foothold in 1950, Paterno's first year as an assistant with the Lions. In fact, SU did quite well in the fifteen years before Paterno took over, going 9-7. The Orange also took the first meeting between the two schools when Paterno became head coach in 1966.
And then Paterno took over. The Nittany Lions would lose to the Orangemen in 1970 and that would be the only loss between 1968 and 1987. A Syracuse fan born in 1971 had to wait until they were fifteen just to see their team win this game. All that while, Penn State was notching National Titles and accolade after accolade.
Joe Paterno turned Penn State into a national power and he did so while leaving Syracuse in his wake.
Paterno certainly threw his weight around on the field so it shouldn't be a surprise that he did it off the field as well. Many Syracuse fans could point directly in his direction when the Big East tried in vein to get Penn State into their ranks only to turn away at Paterno's gaudy financial commands. That he would publicly blame Syracuse brass for the ordeal only rankled folks further and probably had a lot to do with why the Orangemen and Nittany Lions stopped playing one another in 1990. Tradition is tradition until it's not.
Already in the midst of a renaissance, the Syracuse football program continued to grow and succeed in the 1990's despite the Penn State rivalry. However even then JoePa towered over us in the background as one of his former players, Paul Pasqualoni, held the orange reigns.
Even when he didn't mean to, Paterno stomped all over the Orange, specifically the 2008 game meant to be a celebration of Ernie Davis. It turned into a PR nightmare for SU, who got embarrassed on national television 55-13.
Syracuse fans despised Paterno but also admired what he built. There isn't an Orange fan today that wouldn't kill for some of those Penn State football glory days around here.
Curious even, that Paterno and Syracuse would once again be intrinsically-linked at the end. The Penn State Scandal was a monster that not only altered Paterno's legacy forever but also set in motion the events that led to the Bernie Fine scandal, something Syracuse University is still dealing with. Once again, Penn State and Syracuse doing battle, though this time with themselves.
When the Syracuse scandal broke and Jim Boeheim said "I'm no Joe Paterno" as a way to say that he was not part of any cover-up. However, he's probably the closest thing left like Paterno in the sports sense. Penn State turned itself into a temple and its fans prayed at Paterno's alter. I don't quite think Syracuse fans work the same way, but we know the value of a coach who gives his life to the program.
Paterno's death sparks a lot of different emotions for a lot of different people. For Syracuse fans, we say goodbye to a complicated competitor who usually beat us on the field but made it feel all the better when we beat him.
The Orange and Nittany Lions will re-commence their long-standing rivalry in two seasons when they begin a series that includes games in Happy Valley, the Carrier Dome and East Rutherford, NJ. The rivalry will be renewed but it won't be exactly the same. Traditions last for only so long.