Back in 1982, Penn State and its then-athletic director Joe Paterno (at the time a youthful 56 years old) was a driving force in the attempted creation of an Eastern all-sports athletic conference that included football, as opposed to the basketball-driven Big East. The attempt fell through; Penn State's regional brethren- including arch-rival Pitt, Syracuse, and Boston College - chose to join or stay in the Big East, whichever the case was, and Penn State was left with its independent status in football, and Atlantic Ten affiliation for its second-rate basketball program. A decade later, PSU joined the Big Ten Conference.
The Nittany Lions may be the nation's third-ranked team and a legitimate National Championship contender when they invade the Horseshoe on Saturday night, but they remain as poor a fit for the Big Ten as they were when they first kicked off league play in 1993. For reasons of geography, tradition, and scheduling convenience, Penn State simply doesn't belong. This isn't a knock- on a purely competitive basis the Nittany Lions have always been good enough to play in the Big Ten, their traditions are as rich and proud as anyone's, and their status as a large state school and research university make them an ideal fit for non-football reasons. But in terms of football, they're not quite "one of us":
Tradition: The Big Ten is the quintessential Midwestern conference. But for most of its long football history, Penn State has been a quintessentially Eastern school, playing Eastern opponents. The Nittany Lions have played Pitt 96 times; Syracuse 69 times; West Virginia 59 times. They haven't played any Big Ten opponent more than 25 times. They've played Army as many times as they've played Michigan State, their end-of-season "rival" for the Land Grand Trophy.
The Big Ten is Midwestern. Penn State is Eastern. And it has the Lambert Trophies to prove it.
Now, from Penn State's standpoint, it's easy to see why it would like to shed the Eastern label and hook up with a traditional power conference. Three times under Joe Paterno prior to joining the Big Ten, the Nittany Lions went undefeated but didn't even sniff a National Championship, mainly because of questions about their schedule. There was a stigma- true in part- that PSU piled up impressive records by pummeling paper-collar, second-rate Eastern competition. Ironically enough, the Nittany Lions went undefeated in the Big Ten in 1994 and were still denied a National Championship. But for the most part, it's easier to build a national profile against Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa than it is against the likes of Temple, Rutgers, and Syracuse.
(A note on one of Penn State's unbeaten also-rans: in 1969, the Nittany Lions received an invitation to the Cotton Bowl, where they would have played fellow unbeaten Texas. The invitation was proffered in mid-November, before top-ranked Ohio State played Michigan; since the Buckeyes were universally expected to thump the Wolverines and win the national title, a Texas-Penn State clash was seen as merely a showdown for second place. For this reason and others- mainly the unease many black players felt at the prospect of a trip to Dallas to face an all-white Southwest Conference foe- the Nittany Lion players voted to accept an invitation to the Orange Bowl and a meeting with sixth-ranked Missouri instead. A week later, Michigan upset Ohio State, lifting Texas into the number-one spot in the polls, a status they held through their "Game of the Century" defeat of Arkansas and thrilling Cotton Bowl win over Notre Dame, who accepted the bid in place of Penn State. The Nittany Lions defeated Missouri in the Orange Bowl and finished second to the Longhorns.
The bridesmaid finish in 1969 stuck in the craw of the Lions long afterward. Particularly bothersome was the actions of President Nixon, who unilaterally awarded the Longhorns the National Championship after their win over Arkansas. Years later, Joe Paterno, a rock-ribbed Republican, would wonder aloud, "How could Nixon know so much about college football in 1969, and so little about Watergate in 1973?" Yet Penn State has only itself to blame for not winning the national title that year. They had their chance to win it on the field- and understandably or not, turned it down. Texas defensive back Freddie Steinmark's assessment of Penn State's ire was blunt and pointed: "We could never figure out why they didn't choose to settle it on the grass in Dallas, rather than from a soapbox in Pennsylvania.")
Geography: Penn State is the only member of the Big Ten whose state borders only one other member's state. Geographically it's a distant, isolated enclave, a Caprivi Strip in the otherwise solidly contiguous world of the conference- well, maybe not quite a Caprivi Strip, but a little off the beaten path nonetheless. Sure, it's quite a bit closer to the coveted New York City market than any other Big Ten school, but that's largely neither here nor there, because a.) Penn State itself is still out in the middle of nowhere, and b.) Not many people in New York City care about college football anyway.
Scheduling: Perhaps the biggest problem with Penn State's football membership is the havoc it plays on conference scheduling. The fact that there are always two conference rivals that get left off the slate creates a ridiculous situation best exemplified by the 2002 season, in which Ohio State and Iowa didn't play one another and each finished the season unbeaten in the Big Ten. That should never happen. If not for the inclusion of an eleventh member, the conference could play a nine-game round-robin schedule, similar to the Pac-10, in which everyone plays everyone.
Of course, the Big Ten might not play a round-robin schedule even if it could. Unlike the Pac-10, there are Big Ten teams- namely, Ohio State and Michigan- that can draw 100,000 fans for a non-conference home game against Eastern Podunk State. Still, at least it would be possible. And the Big Ten has opted to go round-robin in the past; for a few years in the early 1980's, the conference played a complete slate (the 1983 Illinois Fighting Illini are the only Big Ten team to beat every conference member in a season, a record that will probably never be equaled).
At any rate, it's water under the bridge. Penn State has been a member of the Big Ten for fifteen years now, and will be a member into the foreseeable future. Still, it's easy to look back at 1982 and Joe Pa's aborted attempt to build an Eastern football conference, and wish he'd pulled it off. The Nittany Lions would have their ancient rivalries with Pitt, Syracuse, and West Virginia, the Big Ten would contain as many schools as its name suggests it should, and all would be right with the world. Alas, it isn't the case.
The only thing to do at this point is to whip them on Saturday.