The first time Alabama and Penn State met on the football field, Paul W. Bryant had been in charge of the Crimson Tide program for just two years and Joe Paterno was still an assistant on the Nittany Lions staff. The 1959 Liberty Bowl was the first post season contest for Coach Bryant at The Capstone and it pitted him against Penn State's Rip Engle whose Wing T and Multiple T offenses brought program to prominence in the 1950s.
And while no championship was on the line, the outcome of the game held much more importance for the future of the Alabama program than anyone realized at the time.
By the 1959 season, Coach Bryant had already revitalized the moribund Alabama program. The Crimson Tide had rolled up a 7-1-2 record and were riding a five-game win streak to finish the season. The AP ranked them No. 10 and the defense was considered the fourth-best in the country.
The team had already turned down a chance to play in the Bluegrass Bowl but Coach Bryant and his players changed their mind when offered the chance to play the 12th ranked Nittany Lions in the inaugural Liberty Bowl (a promised $150,000 payout from the organizers probably didn’t hurt either).
It was the first post-season game for Alabama in six years – the longest drought the program had endured since playing their first bowl game, the 1926 Rose Bowl. The game was broadcast nationally on ABC - the first televised game for the Crimson Tide with Bryant as head coach.
"This team has an excellent chance to regain much of the prestige that was lost in recent years by showing the East what kind of football is played in the South – and by this Alabama team in particular," opined the Tuscaloosa News upon the announcement of the contest.
The game was billed as the first bowl game for the East and when more than 36,000 fans (about 20,000 less than estimated) gathered on Dec. 19, 1959 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the flaw in the plan became quite evident. A winter storm brought 20-mile-per-hour winds to Philadelphia Stadium dropped temperatures into the low 40s at gametime.
The weather confounded both teams’ passing attacks. Penn State could only manage 41 yards in the air and Alabama’s only mustered a meager 27 (on just two passes). The running games were more productive but won no beauty prizes. The Nittany Lions rushed for a total of 278 yards to Alabama’s 104 but both teams coughed up four fumbles on the way.
The Nittany Lions offensive situation was futher complicated when triple-threat quarterback Richie Lucas was sidelined with a shoulder injury and was replaced by backup Galen Hall (who would go on to become head coach of Florida during the 1980s).
The wind also stymied the punting teams but also provided Penn State with the opportunity for victory. Just prior to halftime, Alabama’s Tommy White’s punt was hung up by the wind and went a whopping total of three yards giving the Nittany lions the ball on the Alabama 22.
With almost no time on the clock but good field position, Penn State’s Engle called for a trick play he had installed just two day prior. On second down with time running out on the second period the Nittany Lions lined up to kick a field goal without going to the huddle.
Hall knelt to receive the ball for kicker Sam Stellatella but, when the ball was snapped, he leapt up and rolled right. The backup QB completed an 18-yard pass to receiver Roger Kochman who barreled toward the end zone, tripped just short but fumbled the ball in for the score. The extra point by Stellatella was good.
That would be the difference in the game as both teams were unable to score in the second half. Coach Bryant said they were lucky to get away with just that.
"We were fortunate not to be beaten by four or five touchdowns," he said after the game. "We just got a good sound thrashing."
Despite the loss, the game was a landmark one for Alabama in that Coach Bryant took his team north of the Mason Dixon line for the first time to play an integrated squad. At the time of the contest, Penn State had a black player on its roster, the standout guard Charley Janerette.
At the time, not only were SEC teams segregated due to a "gentlemen's agreement" between the schools forbidding the recruitment of black athletes but many were also prohibited from playing integrated teams -- often by state law. By taking the Crimson Tide to the Liberty Bowl, Coach Bryant was deliberately crossing that unspoken line.
It was not without controversy. The University of Alabama board of trustees unanimously voted to allow the team to play the game but at least one boycotted the contest when he knew he was unable to block it. The chairman of the Tuscaloosa citizen's council wrote the university president opposing the game insisting "The Tide belongs to all Alabama and Alabamians favor continued segregation."
That might have been overstating the case as the Tuscaloosa News was more sensible on the matter in an editorial penned days after the game was announced.
It is a fact of life that the young men who play on Alabama's football team -- or in any other sport -- will meet players of other races if they enter a professional career. In sports centers of the East, Midwest and Far West sports attractions and teams are not segregated. This year's Alabama team can help the cause of the Tide and the University if it goes to Philadelphia, plays a hard, clean game of which it is capable, and demonstrates sportsmanship at its highest level.
Despite the loss, the 1959 Liberty Bowl was a success in that it paved the way for Alabama to match up against integrated programs such as Nebraska, Oklahoma and Missouri in ensuing years. Even as Alabama was roiled by the Civil Rights movement during the 1960s the opposition to the football team facing an integrated team had already been surmounted.
Eventually, the prohibition against integrated teams playing in Alabama was lifted and a decade later USC's Sam Cunningham arrived at Legion Field in Birmingham to sweep away the last sentiment against a integrated Crimson Tide football team.
Alabama vs Penn State Historical Record
‡ National Champion, † SEC Champion
Source: The University of Alabama 2010 Football Media Guide
Penn State & The Alabama Record Book
Source: The University of Alabama Football Record Book
Penn State & The Alabama Bowl Record Book
Source: The University of Alabama Football Record Book