STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - In a parking lot outside Penn State's Beaver Stadium, Herb Reedman, class of '71, and his five buddies from the Yardley area were readying their RV for homecoming weekend.

They had attached a life-size cardboard cutout of Nittany Lions football coach Joe Paterno to the front. Reedman, retired owner of Reedman Chevrolet-Oldsmobile in Langhorne, was manning the grill and sipping a Budweiser while Barry DiNola, a jewelry maker, was sizing up an outdoor spot for their 52-inch plasma-screen TV on which they would watch the game.

"This is just to die for," said Mark Marseglia, a construction worker, who like his buddies didn't even have a ticket to the game, but wanted to be in the thick of the revelry, close enough to hear the roar of cheers mushrooming from the stadium.

This was Thursday - still 48 hours before kick off - and these Bucks County men, along with many students, staff, alumni and other diehard fans in Happy Valley already were awash in homecoming hoopla.

The fun is a huge part of the big business of Penn State football, and home games - with homecoming as the kingpin - are a primary vehicle in strengthening ties with alumni and keeping them donating to the university. In 2007, alumni gave $51.5 million of the $190.3 million in donations that Penn State said it collected.

Penn State boasts one of the largest homecomings in the nation, the second-largest college football stadium in the country, and more than 460,000 alumni on record around the world - the second-largest network for four-year schools behind the University of Minnesota, says the national Council for Aid to Education.

The largest concentration - 75,000 alumni - is in the Philadelphia metropolitan area, university officials say.

Its football team, which raised more than $44 million in revenue in 2006-07, ranking it 11th in the country, is undefeated this season and has once again has emerged as a national-title contender, racheting up the spirit.

And university officials, ever more mindful of the economic downswing, were hoping to capitalize on it.

"Fund-raising is not just about sitting down with someone and asking them for a gift. It's a process of talking about possibilities and getting to know people and cultivation," said Penn State President Graham B. Spanier, who has made fund-raising a priority during his 13 years as president. His homecoming agenda included meetings with donors, schmoozing with dignitaries, waving from a parade float, playing the washboard and riding a vintage bicycle to the game.

Homecoming, he said, "is a key event . . . because they can enjoy themselves as well."

Preparation, competition

The planning starts in December when a team of 600 students hold fund-raisers, and reach out to alumni.

By fall, the leaders are putting in up to 30 hours a week , said Donavan Hunt, 21, a senior public relations major from Lansdale and public relations chair of the event.

For many of the school's nearly 4,000 fraternity and sorority members, the parade-planning starts in earnest on homecoming week as they scramble to build their floats. This year, students ordered 159 gallons of glue, more than 10,000 feet of chicken wire and 2.2 million pomps - sheets of tissue paper.

The competition can be fierce. The brothers at the Triangle - the engineering fraternity - heard from police on Wednesday that someone may try to vandalize their float, which featured movable Lion King characters.

So they sealed it in a gray tarp and took turns watching over it through the night.

"We had people pushing up against the tarps. Had we not been here, they might have come in," said senior Sean Russell, 22, of Cranberry Township, near Pittsburgh.

Remnants of their vigil remained on Thursday atop the flatbed truck holding their float: An open engineering class notebook. A doughnut box. An empty Mountain Dew bottle. Empty beer bottles.

Lion tales

The homecoming theme, "Inspired by Tradition," perhaps was nowhere more evident than in the library on Friday where homage was paid to 13 men who played the Nittany Lion mascot.

Those present spanned current mascot James Sheep, a senior from Chambersburg, to Robert Ritzmann of State College, who suited up from 1942 to 1946. Each had a tale, including a recent lion who had to be rescued after jumping in a pool on the crowd's demand and finding a wet lion suit weighs a lot more more than a dry one.

Daniel Kohlhepp, a retired real estate developer from Dubois, recounted how he started the tradition of the one-arm push-ups. He had become the lion in 1967 after a knee injury ended his wrestling career. Each time Penn State scored, he would peel off as many push-ups as the scoreboard demanded, a tradition that became increasingly difficult for future Lions as the team grew better.

"I want to congratulate you," Kohlhepp told the mascots who came after him, "and I want to say I'm sorry about all the sore arms."

Staying true blue

Penn State cultivates staunch loyalty among many alumni. A 2006 study showed that 70 percent had "very positive overall feelings" about Penn State, the highest of 32 schools surveyed including Yale, Boston College, Georgetown and Princeton.

Consider 1948 graduate Bob Klein, who lives with his wife, Judy, also a Penn State graduate, in Center City.

He hasn't missed a homecoming in nearly 50 years. He's drawn by the football, not the hoopla.

A retired business owner, he has donated nearly $2 million to Penn State, which endowed a management professorship. He was vice chairman of a capital campaign, served as former chair of the alumni association, and won the distinguished alumni award.

Last week, a Penn State fund-raiser visited him in Philadelphia to let him know that the state, hurt by recent drops in revenue, was cutting its funding.

Klein wants to help his alma mater but worries about the economy himself.

"A whole lot of what I own is worth a heck of a lot less now," Klein, 83, said Friday at the Nittany Lion Inn, where he and his wife were staying for the weekend.

But he boasted that more than 100,000 applied for admission to Penn State this year, a sign of its popularity and a reason to make sure it thrives.

"They must be doing something right," he said.

Party on

Many college football games come with tailgate parties, but at Penn State they start days in advance, especially for those looking to win a prize.

"Welcome to our 'Homecoming for the Holidays,' " said 1992 graduate Madeline Martin, 38, a lawyer from Roxborough, as a team of student judges entered their tailgate canopy on Saturday.

Martin and her group - they have a Web site, 2thelion.com - were one of 11 tailgates that registered for the contest. They were judged on food, decoration and spirit.

Santa Claus, about the only red splash in this blue-and-white Christmas display, stood at the entrance, holding a Chihuahua in a blue fleece, as Yule songs played.

"Oh my God, that's so funny," judge Meghan Walsh, 20, a junior from Richboro in Bucks County, said.

Near a plate of cookies was scrawled a letter: "Dear Santa: This year, I would like go to Florida on Jan. 8 [the date of the national championship game], beat Michigan, beat Ohio State . . . "

Later, Martin's crew claimed their award, then headed into the game.

Game on

They were among more than 110,000 inside Beaver Stadium on Saturday afternoon, one of the largest crowds in Penn State history. It included a student section of 21,000, most in white shirts. The 92,000-student body (including branch campuses) had to vie by class for their season tickets online at a specified time. Each class sold out in under three minutes.

Also in the audience were celebrities, including the CEO of Nike, Sarah Palin's husband, Todd, and MSNBC's Hardball host, Chris Matthews.

The crowd, especially hungry for victory after losing the last nine games to rival Michigan, roared as the team took the field.

"If they happen to lose this one, this stadium could crumble," quipped John Black, who writes a newsletter on Penn State football games mailed to 160,000 alumni.

Things started off dicey with a missed snap, fumble and failed field goal. But late in the second half, Penn State scored its second touchdown and pulled within three. The Nittany Lion dropped in the end zone and popped off 14 one-arm push-ups to a delighted crowd. In the second half, he pumped a lot more, as Penn State won, 46-17.

Former mascot Kohlhepp watched from the stands.

"He delivered the goods," Kohlhepp said with pride of this year's Lion. "He's as good as the football team is."

Homecoming Numbers

Pennsylvania State University alumni: 467,701

In Pennsylvania: 267,255

Percentage who made donations in 2007: 17

Amount of donations in 2007: $51.5 million

Football revenue in 2006-07: $44 million

Beaver Stadium capacity: 107,282

First modern Penn State homecoming with a football game and parade: 1920 vs. Dartmouth

First homecoming queen: 1940

First king: 1973

SOURCE: Pennsylvania State University; Council for Aid to Education; U.S. Department of Education; Central Pennsylvania Convention and Visitors Bureau

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To view a slide show of Penn State's homecoming weekend, go to: http://go.philly.com/homecoming EndText

Contact staff writer Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or ssnyder@phillynews.com.