Encyclopedia: Penn State

Updated: December 26, 2005, 2:36 PM ET
ESPN College Football Encyclopedia

The following is reprinted from ESPN College Football Encyclopedia: The Complete History of the Game , edited by Michael MacCambridge

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Locating Penn State can be a trying task for outsiders. The TCU football team flew into Harrisburg in 1953, mistakenly thinking the school was there. But State College is 90 miles away, nestled in the state's central valley, in the shadow of Mount Nittany. Though difficult to find on a map, Penn State is much easier to locate in the landscape of college football history, where Happy Valley is a national landmark of stability and gridiron excellence. The Nittany Lions recorded 49 consecutive nonlosing seasons (from 1939 to 1987), have had just two coaches since 1950 and have enjoyed five undefeated seasons and two national championships since 1968. Penn State is where over 100,000 fans turn out to see old-fashioned football, with the home team in generic uniforms and its players helping opponents up, handing the ball to officials after scores and providing pride for an entire region.

Tradition
Only one school is known as Linebacker U. Penn State has churned out top linebackers in assembly- line fashion. Seven of them -- LaVar Arrington, Greg Buttle, Shane Conlan, Jack Ham, Dennis Onkotz, Brandon Short and John Skorupan -- have been named All-America by The Associated Press. Many others have contributed to that position's legacy at Penn State. Since 1928, their exploits have been dissected and discussed every Wednesday during the season. That year, fans began gathering midweek at the Nittany Lion Inn to rehash the previous game and talk about the upcoming opponent. The gatherings became known as the State College Quarterback Club, and coach Joe Paterno still attends the weekly meetings. He also brings along players, providing fans a better connection to the men who inspire "We Are Penn State" cheers. That chant is accompanied by the Blue Band, and blasts of a lion's roar from the public address speakers add to the atmosphere at home games. Fans often pass the Lion mascot overhead up the Beaver Stadium grandstand through the student section to the top of the seats.

Best Player
While Lydell Mitchell gained more yards in college and Franco Harris was among the career leading ground-gainers in the NFL, it was another Penn State back, Lenny Moore, whom Paterno would call the best player he ever coached. Moore, who played tailback and defensive back, wasn't huge at six feet and 185 pounds, and he never made first-team All-America (thanks to Syracuse's Jim Brown). But the Pennsylvania native could work magic on both sides of the ball. The Reading Rambler averaged 6.2 yards per rush from 1953 to 1955. He also intercepted 10 passes, six as a senior, and was a special-teams star. Moore still ranks fourth at Penn State in punt return average (15.8 yards) and ninth in kickoff return average (24.3). In 1954, a national TV audience saw him run for 143 yards and 2 TDs, then clinch a 35-13 win at Pennsylvania by intercepting a fourth-quarter pass and returning it 53 yards for his third score. Moore went on to a Hall of Fame career in pro football, scoring 113 TDs and gaining more than 12,000 yards over 12 seasons with the Baltimore Colts.

Best Coach
Critics labeled him pious and self-righteous when he spoke in the late 1960s of a "grand experiment" to prove a school could win football games and educate players. Joe Paterno has done that. Entering the 2005 season, he's coached 69 first-team All-Americas and 23 first-team academic All-Americas. The 2000 NCAA graduation report showed 75 percent of Penn State's football players earned a degree in four years, compared to the national rate of 50 percent. And entering 2005, Paterno had the second-most Division I-A victories (343), two national championships, four other undefeated seasons and a record 20 bowl victories. He's the only coach to win the Orange, Cotton, Sugar, Fiesta and Rose bowls. Not bad for a Brown University English major who said he never wanted to coach football. Paterno spent 16 years as a Penn State assistant and was in his 40th season as head coach in 2005. JoePa, a brooding perfectionist decked out in huge trifocals, rolled-up trousers, white athletic socks and black shoes, is synonymous with Penn State football.

Best Team
Paterno has coached in more than a third of the football games in Penn State's history, so he should know. He says his 1968 Nittany Lions were the school's marquee team. They weren't big on defense, but they were quick, aggressive and tenacious. Junior tackles Mike Reid and Steve Smear set the tone up front, and linebacker Jack Ham and the other "Rover Boys" cleaned up the rest. Much-maligned QB Chuck Burkart -- "He can't run and he can't pass. All he does is think and win," Paterno said -- and halfbacks Charlie Pittman and Bob Campbell powered Penn State to a then school-record 4,025 total yards of offense, including a school-record 2,739 rushing yards. The Nittany Lions went 10-0 in the regular season and beat Kansas in the Orange Bowl, but finished No. 2 behind Ohio State in the final poll. Penn State went 11-0 a year later, including an Orange Bowl win over Missouri, but again finished second in the final polls, behind Texas.

Biggest Game
Like a heavyweight title fight, the 1987 Fiesta Bowl was prepackaged as both a sports event and a battle of Good vs. Evil. Clean-cut Penn State (11-0) and rowdy Miami (11-0) staged a morality play in the Arizona desert to decide the national championship. Miami arrived in Tempe wearing combat fatigues, and the No.1 Hurricanes walked out of a steak dinner they were sharing with No.2 Penn State. "Did the Japanese sit down and eat with Pearl Harbor before they bombed them?" asked Miami defensive lineman Jerome Brown. The coat-and-tie-clad Nittany Lions kept their mouths shut and gained confidence in a defensive game plan designed to confuse Heisman-winning QB Vinny Testaverde. A college football-record 70 million people watching the game on NBC saw Penn State's defense intercept five Testaverde passes -- two by linebacker Shane Conlan -- and sack him five times. The turnovers offset Miami's otherwise dominating performance; the Canes held a 445-162 advantage in total offense, including 22 first downs to Penn State's eight. The Nittany Lions' 14-10 win gave them their second national championship in five years.

Biggest Upset
Channels were being switched all over the country early in Penn State's nationally televised game against No.1-ranked Pittsburgh on Nov. 28, 1981. Led by QB Dan Marino, Pitt was ahead 14-0 and threatening to score again with less than a minute remaining in the first quarter. Marino, who had completed nine of his first 10 passes, tried to hit Dwight Collins for a third TD, but Penn State DB Roger Jackson intercepted. The Nittany Lions promptly drove 80 yards and scored to make it a 14-7 game. And they kept scoring. Penn State rang up 48 consecutive points against the nation's No.1-ranked defense. The 48-14 upset cost the Panthers a chance for a national title.

Heartbreaker
Alabama fans at the 1979 Sugar Bowl held up a sign reading "Remember Gettysburg." All Penn State could remember after the game was how a national championship was lost after a remarkable defensive stand. The Nittany Lions were top-ranked and had six first-team All-Americas. But Bear Bryant's Crimson Tide, ranked No. 2, pulled off a 14-7 upset after Penn State failed to score on first down from the Bama 8 with about seven minutes left in the game. The final two plays in that stand began two feet from the end zone. Mike Guman tried to score over left tackle on fourth down, but was smashed short by Alabama linebacker Barry Krauss.

Wildest Finish
Trailing 14-7 in the 1969 Orange Bowl, the Nittany Lions blocked a Kansas punt and recovered the ball at the 50 with 1:16 remaining. Burkhart completed a 47-yard pass to Campbell as the PA announcer told the crowd that Kansas running back Donnie Shanklin was the game's MVP. Three plays later, Burkhart scored around left end. Paterno decided to go for two points. A pass to WR Bob Campbell fell incomplete, and Kansas' band and fans took the field in celebration. The Jayhawks, however, were penalized for having 12 men on the field. (Game films showed they used 12 on four consecutive plays.) Paterno gambled again. Campbell ran around left end and dived into the end zone for a 15-14 victory that Paterno later said put Penn State on the national map.

Conference Call
Penn State spurred extreme upheaval in conference makeups when it ceased being an independent and gained membership to the Big Ten Conference in June 1990. The move had seismic implications, indirectly prompting the SEC to add new members and split into two divisions, leading the Big Eight to follow suit (thereby contributing to the demise of the Southwest Conference) and creating resulting jolts in almost every major conference in big-time college football. In 1993, the Nittany Lions played their first league game, ending 106 years of independence. They went 12-0 in 1994, claimed the Big Ten championship outright and won the Rose Bowl. Success in the league fueled $55 million in construction and renovation projects for sports facilities at Penn State, and it led to increases in booster membership and alumni donations.

Stadium
What began as a 30,000-seat horseshoe is now the nation's second-largest stadium, an intimidating 107,282-seat monstrosity distinguished by a hodgepodge of designs borne out of repeated expansions. Beaver Stadium actually sat on the west side of campus for 50 years, but was moved to the east side in 1960, when the school president wanted to make room for an academic building. The entire stadium was dismantled into 700 pieces and moved one mile to its permanent location. While reassembling the stadium, school officials added 16,000 seats, which began five decades of capacity growth. A $93 million expansion that included 12,000 new seats and 60 sky boxes was finished before the 2001 season.

Rival
Ohio State is probably Penn State's biggest current rival, but that series does not come close to matching the ferocity that defined the Nittany Lions' annual in-state grudge matches with Pittsburgh. The Penn State-Pitt series began in 1893 and, from 1900, was played every season (except 1932-34) until 1993, when Penn State joined the Big Ten. It resumed in 1997, but ended in acrimony after the 2000 game. The rivalry between the schools, separated by 140 miles, reached a zenith in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Paterno and Pitt coach Jackie Sherrill met five times. The coaches squabbled as their teams battled with Eastern supremacy and national rankings on the line. Paterno went 3-2 against his nemesis. JoePa ended the series after Pitt refused a deal to play twice at State College and once at home. Critics say Paterno dropped Pitt as payback for the betrayal he still felt from the Panthers' joining the Big East in 1982 rather than helping Penn State form a proposed all-sports Eastern league.

Inspiration
John Cappelletti won the 1973 Heisman Trophy after running for more than 200 yards in three consecutive late-season games to finish the year with 1,522 yards. The tailback is best remembered, however, for his Heisman acceptance speech. Cappelletti mesmerized the crowd, which included U.S. vice president Gerald Ford. He spoke of how the rigors of football were nothing compared to the leukemia battle being fought by his 11-year-old brother, Joey.

"This trophy is more his than mine because of the inspiration he has been to me," Cappelletti said. Joey Cappelletti died of leukemia on April 8, 1976. A year later, the brothers' relationship was depicted in a CBS-TV movie, Something for Joey … On Sept. 23, 2000, Penn State cornerback Adam Taliaferro was lying on the soggy Ohio Stadium field without movement in his fingers or legs. The freshman from Voorhees, N.J., had just attempted to tackle Ohio State running back Jerry Westbrooks. Taliaferro's C-5 vertebra was fractured and his spinal cord bruised. Two days later, doctors at the Ohio State Medical Center inserted a metal pin and grafted bone to stabilize Taliaferro's spine at the neck in place of broken vertebra pieces. Doctors said this type of spinal injury results in permanent paralysis of the legs in most cases, but in January 2001, Taliaferro walked out of a rehabilitation center on crutches.

And on Sept. 1, 2001, Taliaferro led the Penn State team onto the field for its season-opening game against Miami. Although he couldn't play again, Taliaferro smiled as he jogged out to midfield. The Beaver Stadium crowd erupted. "We believe" flashed on the scoreboard.

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