By Ben Berkowitz
(Reuters) - To understand America's devotion to college football, consider that after Penn State fired coach Joe Paterno over the school's sex abuse scandal, many dedicated fans said it was as if a deity or god had fallen.
The Church of College Football meets on campuses across the United States on Saturdays every autumn, has millions of believers who worship the teams, the coaches, the former stars and even the team mascots with a fervor that exceeds many religions.
When university trustees fired Paterno and the school's well-regarded, longtime president at the same time on Wednesday, thousands of people convened outside the legendary coach's home.
It is no coincidence that many have compared the child sex abuse scandal at Penn State, in which one of Paterno's former assistant coaches allegedly assaulted eight boys over a decade, with the many attacks by Catholic priests. In both instances, it was as if the mystique of the institution was employed by top officials as a cover-up.
"It's kind of part of the grand bargain of being not just a fan but a member of a community -- you gain a sense of connection to something large and meaningful, but when other people in that community misbehave everyone else has to shoulder some of that responsibility," said Warren St. John, whose 2004 book "Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer" tells the story of die-hard football fans of the University of Alabama.
He wrote about one family that skipped a daughter's wedding because it conflicted with a big game.
That narrow focus -- the team above all else -- is now on display in central Pennsylvania, where fans of the Nittany Lions are left trying to explain their loss of Paterno to people who do not understand.
"I think it will be a very emotional weekend," said Paul Pfahler, a longtime fan from the campus area. "The Nittany Nation is suffering too."
Big-time football programs -- in which teams often appear in championship bowl games -- have great impact at many American universities. It is at the core of their fundraising. It is the force that attracts students. It inspires alumni to remain involved in campus life.
In 2010, five schools averaged more than 100,000 in attendance per game and 15 schools averaged about 80,000 a game. In total, 49.7 million people saw a college football game in person that year, according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association. That brings in huge amounts of money.
Then there are the huge TV audiences and the lucrative TV contracts.
How important is college football to a school's athletic program?
Most universities, under U.S. laws governing equal opportunity for male and female athletes, have to file papers with the federal government detailing revenue and expenses by sport.
In the most recent year for which data was available, Penn State generated $116.1 million in revenue from sports. Of that, $72.7 million came from the football team. The university spent $19.5 million on the football team, and nearly $28.5 million on all other sports.
The most important thing to a dedicated fan of the college game, though, is beating that school's most hated rival. On "Rivalry Saturday," the weekend when most such games are played, fields of grass become literal fields of battle.
"People very strongly identify with the local team. Frequently in the United States, people leave their colleges and universities with really deep emotional ties, and so when you have a sports team that represents that institution, it becomes a way to remain emotionally attached with the place you went to school," St. John said.
When the University of Texas plays the University of Oklahoma -- one of the most intense rivalries in U.S. sports, known as the "Red River Rivalry" -- the governors of the two states are compelled to exchange a trophy between winner and loser.
Few people really care when the U.S. Military Academy at West Point (the Army) and the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis (the Navy) play basketball or compete in track and field. But the Army-Navy football game is another matter. Played annually since 1890 and televised nationally, the game is one of America's most overt displays of patriotism.
The war analogy is not just for the military academies. Another passionate rivalry is Ohio State University and the University of Michigan.
It is because coaches take winning so seriously that their fans hold them in such high regard. No matter how sickening the details are of the alleged Penn State sexual abuses, no matter how much damage outsiders say the scandal has done, devoted fans appear to have a different set of priorities.
"It's a time to recognize the victims and Joe Paterno," said Brian Derr, 20, a second-year Penn State student camped out outside the stadium.
(Additional reporting by Ian Simpson in State College, editing by Philip Barbara)