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Tuesday, November 23, 2010
Updated: November 24, 12:50 PM ET
Oh, happy day in Happy Valley

By Eric Angevine
Special to ESPN SportsTravel

Beaver Stadium
How many more games will Joe Paterno coach at vaunted Beaver Stadium? As many as he wants.
Photo gallery: Penn State football Pilgrimage Photo Gallery | Passport | Buy Penn State tickets

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- I used to wonder why it was called "Happy Valley."

Like many things about Penn State's beloved town, campus and football stadium, the appeal wasn't clear until I made the Pilgrimage to see for myself.

My drive through central Pennsylvania was dogged by overcast skies the entire way. Periodic droplets of rain on the windshield made me wonder if Joe Paterno would conduct his quest for a record 400th victory in a raging downpour.

If You're Going …

When at Penn State for Nittany Lions action, here's where you might consider dining:

Sub sandwiches

HUB-Robeson Center
University Park
State College, PA 16802
Yes, it's in a food court. But it's also an on-campus mainstay that pays tribute to the great JoePa (JoePa+hoagie=Joegie, get it?) and features sandwiches named after each Big Ten school. That's right: In true Spinal Tap fashion, this sandwich shop goes to 11.

Late-night eats

The Diner
126 W. College Ave.
State College, PA 16801
(814) 238-5580 | Website
Originally called the College Diner, this joint has been a State College favorite since 1929. The mile-long menu is loaded with all the diner standards: from steak and eggs to milkshakes to meatloaf with mashed potatoes and gravy. The real reason people come here is for the Mount Nittany, though. It's a grilled sticky bun served a la mode. Cheap and good.

Ice cream

The Berkey Creamery
119 Food Science Building
University Park, PA 16802
(814) 865-9513 | Website
Yet another dynamite eatery right on campus. Penn State has a world-class dairy science program, and The Berkey Creamery's yogurt, cheese and ice cream are the most enjoyable end product generated by the school's herd of dairy cows. Local place-names make it onto the menu in flavors like Arboretum Breeze, Palmer Mousseum with Almonds and, naturally, Peachy Paterno.

Beer and music

The Rathskeller
108 S. Pugh St.
State College, PA 16801
(814) 237-3858 | Website
Founded in 1933, just in time for the repeal of Prohibition, so you know it has to be good, right? Right. Check the website and see who's playing or just drop by, hang out and enjoy whatever comes your way.

Then, as I crested the final mountain and sighted State College in the flatland below, the strangest thing happened. In what looked like a scene from a movie (one you'd scoff at for being unrealistic), the sun pushed aside the thunderheads for a moment and sent dazzling beams of sunlight down on the town, illuminating a clutch of buildings that was dominated by one of the most famous venues in all of college football: Beaver Stadium.

The clouds came back as the day wore on, but, for that one moment, I felt what Nittany Lions fans must experience every time they flock to this 50-year-old monument to gridiron dominance: Somebody upstairs must really like JoePa.

The naming conventions at Pennsylvania State University are tricky, but that's part of the charm.

The first question most outsiders ask is "What the heck is a Nittany Lion?" According to the team website, the term was made up from whole cloth by '07 grad Joe Mason. That's 1907, just to clarify. Back then, wild mountain lions still roamed the area, so it made a lot of sense. Amusingly enough, one of the most recent students to wear the Nittany Lion costume (2007-8) was named James Sheep, making him the first confirmed Sheep ever to don Lion's clothing.

Fans may also be forgiven for misunderstanding the moniker "Beaver Stadium," which can conjure up images of Oregon State's rodent-in-chief, rather than a somewhat cantankerous Italian-American football coach. In truth, the name has nothing to do with animal life at all. A marker outside the southeast corner of the stadium reflects the glorious legacy of Gen. James A. Beaver, a wounded hero of the Civil War who served as Pennsylvania's governor between 1887 and 1891.

A 500-seat grandstand was erected in the center of campus in 1893, and the first Beaver Field was inaugurated on Nov. 6 of that year with a victory over Western University of Pittsburgh (later known as the University of Pittsburgh). The school's dedication to Gen. Beaver is unshakable, which may help explain why the most prominent building on campus that bears Paterno's name is a library.

That quirk of naming rights aside, the history of the contemporary Beaver Stadium and head coach Joe Paterno are so intertwined as so be nearly indistinguishable from one another. After running through 13 head coaches from 1892 to 1965, the Nittany Lions hired a loyal assistant coach from Brooklyn, N.Y. -- a man who had already been on the football staff for 16 years -- to be the next head coach. Make that the next, next, next, next, next head coach.

Forty-five years later, JoePa has given no indication that he's ever going to leave Beaver Stadium's hallowed ground. What is certain is that he'll coach one more game in Happy Valley this season, on Saturday against Michigan State, and for the 2011 season, at least, as Paterno announced this week.

Slow to change

"Back when JoePa was an assistant under Rip Engle, he famously said that moving the stadium from the original site would 'ruin Penn State football,'" said Gary Generose, 35, of Berwyn, Pa., who holds a bachelor's degree in finance and two advanced degrees from PSU. "He's had a few chuckles trying to live that statement down."

Generose is a Penn State lifer who applied to only one university while he was in high school. "I wanted to be here. I didn't have a backup plan," he said.

Generose drives from his current home outside of Philadelphia back to his alma mater for every home football game. His group has a prime spot near the stadium: A few rows back from Curtin Drive is a small island in a sea of sumptuous tailgate decadence that stretches for blocks in every direction on game days. Small though it may be in that context, the site is big enough for a full-size RV that trundles in from Hazleton, Pa., as well as several tables of goodies for a revolving cast of visitors.

Generose reminisced about his first visit to Beaver Stadium (Penn State 38, Brown 21; JoePa victory No. 168) as his friends cooked venison burgers, bratwurst and other meatatarian delicacies nearby. The rickety grill is nicknamed "Craig" for a very good reason. It came to be in the tailgating crew's retinue by way of a Craigslist ad, replacing a stumpy predecessor that required the chef to bend nearly double while tending the flames.

That kind of lumbar flexibility just isn't in the cards these days, especially for big games. When Michigan came to Happy Valley on Oct. 30 (Penn State 41, Michigan 31; JoePa victory No. 399), the cooking station was manned for 11 hours straight, cranking out breakfast, lunch and dinner for friends and strangers alike. There was a general agreement amongst the group to tone things down for the 3:30 start of the clash I had come to witness, versus Northwestern, so delicacies like jambalaya and deep-fried pierogi were left off the menu.

As we munched on macaroni salad and hot dogs, a line of old-fashioned school buses painted deep blue rumbled up Porter Avenue and turned left on Curtin, blasting horns by way of announcement: The football team had arrived. A short time later, fans who witnessed the team coming off the bus circulated, muttering "Bolden, it's Bolden." Another PSU tradition holds that the first-string quarterback is the first player to step off the bus on game day, and freshman Rob Bolden -- held out of the previous game due to injury -- was to get the nod in the milestone game.