By now, Michigan fans have worked up a healthy lather of hatred for Penn State
— its boxy uniforms, its middle-of-nowhere location, its consistent dominance.

After all, on Saturday Penn State tries to take what Michigan wants — an undefeated season, a Rose Bowl, maybe a national championship. And as a writer in the land of maize and blue, I, too, would like to work up an angry boil for these Nittany Lions. What is a Nittany, anyhow? Is it like a ninny? A nitpicker? A nitwit?

See, I’m trying to get into the hate.

But I can’t. Not fully. For one reason.

Their coach, Joe Paterno.

I can’t help it. I like the guy. He talks funny. He looks like Columbo. His pants are too short. And his glasses are thick enough to stop bullets. But I like the guy.

And here’s a little secret.

So did Michigan.

“I offered him the coaching job here,” admitted Don Canham, who was U-M’s athletic director back in 1968. “Oh, yeah. He was my first choice — before I hired Bo Schembechler. I really wanted Joe. He had a good sense of humor, he ran a tight program and he didn’t cheat. I thought he’d be great.

“In the end, he said, ‘Don, I just can’t leave my team.’ I said, ‘Joe, I understand, but do me a favor. Don’t say anything to the press about this.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry.’ “

Canham laughs. “Do you know that he never mentioned it for 20 years? Finally, one night, we were at a Hall of Fame dinner at the Waldorf, and he got up to speak, and he said to me, ‘Don, is it OK if I tell that story now?’ “

See what I mean?

Hard to hate a guy like that.

He’s good; he’s honest; he wins

Not too long ago, I asked Paterno how close he came to coaching the Wolverines.

“Oh, I almost went,” he said. “I had great admiration for Michigan. I got to know some of the people there, and I was so impressed with them — bright, successful, handled themselves well. I used to say, ‘I hope we can make Penn State into a Michigan one day.’

“When Don asked me to visit, I was really flattered. I told him the only place I would think of leaving Penn State for would be Michigan.”

So why didn’t you, I asked.

“Well, I had gotten close to the kids that year. We had a lot of younger players. I had recruited them. I just didn’t feel right leaving them. My wife was a Penn State grad, and we just decided to stay.

“And I’ve been here ever since. I figured if I turned down Michigan, I turned down the best.”

I turned down the best? This has to frustrate the heck out of Michigan fans. I mean, it was easy to dislike a rival coach like Woody Hayes, with all his Ohio State bluster, or George Perles, with all that bleeding green-and-white talk. It was easy to despise Lou Holtz and his golden-domed pomposity at Notre Dame. These are guys for whom — if you wear the maize and blue — hatred comes easily, naturally, bubbling to the surface like oil in Texas dirt.

But JoePa? The only thing to really hate about him is the goop he used to put in his hair. Other than that, he’s good, straight, honest, and he wins. His teams don’t dance. They don’t talk a lot of trash. They haven’t been in the Big Ten long enough to have a “my-father-hated-them-so-I-hate them” legacy.

Penn State and Paterno are like the handsome new kid who comes into your school and gets good grades, captains the football team, dates the pretty girls and — what really, really drives you crazy — he’s a nice guy.

Hmm. Maybe there’s something to hate after all.

Not hard to imagine JoePa at U-M

I asked Paterno whether he ever regretted joining the Big Ten.

“Oh, once in a while, when I get my ears boxed in,” he said. “But overall, it’s been a great thing for us. I was worried that maybe some of our fans were getting bored. But now the excitement level is up.

“Being in the Big Ten is much tougher than being an independent. More physical. And every game is so important. But our recruiting — which some people thought would be hurt — has actually improved, because we can sell the Big Ten now. We can tell kids you’ll play in the best conference, best stadiums, against the best players. It’s all a plus.

“I’d rather lose to a Big Ten school than to someplace else.”

Whoa, I know what you’re thinking, Michigan fans: You’ll be happy to take Joe up on that.

But here’s my point: In an age when so many football schools are bending rules, hiding academic problems, letting kids run wild in dorms, lying and conniving to recruit players, it’s rare to find a guy who has not only been at his university for more than 30 years, but still holds the same high standards.

And who came this close to coaching your team.

It’s not hard to imagine Paterno at Michigan. He would have been like Schembechler in many ways — blustery, demanding, wary of the press, inspiring to his players and good material for voice impersonators.

Instead, we got Bo, who was great, and who hired Lloyd Carr, who also is great, and who on Saturday will lead the Wolverines against the Nitpicky Lions.

So, having given this a lot of thought and realizing I must, in the spirit of the hometown, work up some hatred for the other side, I have come to this conclusion:

Our coach is taller.

Nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah!

Mitch Albom will sign “Tuesdays With Morrie,” 7:30-8:30 tonight at Barnes & Noble, Northville; 10:30 a.m.-noon Saturday at Waldenbooks in Somerset Mall, Troy; and 1-2 p.m. Saturday at Read Between the Lines, Milford. To leave a message for him, call 1-313-223-4581.

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