Published: Sunday, September 12, 2010, 8:25 AM Updated: Sunday, September 12, 2010, 8:26 AM
Kevin Scarbinsky, Birmingham News Kevin Scarbinsky, Birmingham News
joepa-saban-bowden.jpgA meeting of the elite: Joe Paterno, Nick Saban, Bobby Bowden. (The Birmingham News / Mark Almond)
It was a nice trip down memory lane while it lasted. There they were, Joe Paterno and Bobby Bowden in the flesh, visiting on the field in Bryant-Denny Stadium on what would've been the 97th birthday of Paul Bryant.
It was as close as college football has come to Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin at Yalta.
You decide which championship coach resembles which long-gone world leader. I don't plan to start World War III.
When the legends stopped reminiscing and the teams started playing, one thing became painfully clear. It's been a long time since this sport belonged to three very different men who combined for 1,095 victories and 10 national championships.
For the foreseeable future, it belongs to the coach who got the job Bowden always wanted at the place Bryant once seemed destined to overshadow forever.
The Saban Nation is no country for old men.
It's been three decades since Alabama beat Penn State in the 1979 Sugar Bowl for the national championship, and Alabama 24, Penn State 3 on Saturday highlighted the distance. Consider the fourth-down plays that provided the greatest drama in each game.
A fourth-and-inches Alabama stop in that Sugar Bowl put the final brush stroke on "The Goal-line Stand." A fourth-and-inches Penn State sneak at midfield this time got the crowd fired up. Not because it decided anything, but the pre-snap build-up did provide a poor man's flashback.
Penn State never got close enough to the end zone early enough to create any real drama.
Bowden, still crafty after all these years, saw it coming. He broke it down before the game and concluded, "I think Alabama's a little bit better veteran football team."
That about sums it up. Except "little bit better" was a massive understatement. Penn State had as much chance of beating Alabama in this setting as Paterno does of besting Nick Saban in a foot race.
The video boards in the four corners of Bryant's house focused on Joe Pa as he left the field at halftime. By then, Alabama led 17-0. With no worries on the scoreboard, the Alabama fans saw those images of a lion in winter and roared their respect.
It was a class move by a fan base that Saban himself scolded for booing San Jose State, but it was also just a little bit sad if you admire what Paterno has done on and off the field. He wants lifetime achievement applause as much as Bowden wanted to stay one more year at Florida State as ambassador-coach.
Bowden may have expected Alabama to beat Penn State, but he expressed surprise that Saban's program has been able to take down all comers so soon.
"I knew he had the stuff, but I thought it would take longer," Bowden said. "But I tell ya; Alabama is a golden name. It's a golden name. He knew how to take advantage of it. He's put Alabama back where they belong, in my opinion.
"That's in the elite."
Bowden and Paterno have been there, but now one of them is tailgating for the first time - "it was wall-to-wall food," Bowden marveled - while the other is more of a living legend than the living, fire-breathing, title-winning dynamo he used to be.
After the game, when they huddled at midfield, Paterno grabbed Saban by the neck, pulled him close and told him he has a good football team. Saban returned that compliment and added one more: "You're the best. The best."
Paterno and Bowden were. Saban is. This was a summit meeting of history made and in the making.