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Penn State football is a study in duality. Do the Nittany Lions benefit from “East Coast bias,” or suffer a bias against East Coast football? Certainly, East Coast football was the kingpin in the early days of the collegiate game. The Ivy League dominated. Army, and to a lesser extent Navy, were powerhouses in one way or another, until the early 1960s. Over the years, however, the Ivy League fell by the wayside; Army and Navy dropped precipitously. When Notre Dame (with a few exceptions) refused to play them, the Catholic schools fell in prestige. Boston College remains competitive. Pittsburgh has a long and storied history. Syracuse’s all-time record would surprise a few people, and lately Rutgers has started to make some noise. Penn State, however, is the kingpin of East Coast football. They have won the Lambert Trophy, signifying “Eastern football supremacy,” twenty-five times. The term “Eastern football” was a common expression, especially when applied to Army’s great teams, which was meant as a catchphrase for “American supremacy.”


Penn State University

University Park, Pennsylvania

Founded: 1855

Enrollment: 35,000

Colors: Blue and white

Stadium: Beaver Stadium (opened: 1960; capacity: 107,282)

All-time record (1887-2006): 780-343-42

Bowl record: 25-12-2 (through 2006)

National championships: 1982, 1986

Big 10 Conference championships: 2

Heisman Trophies: John Capelletti (1973)

Outland Trophies: Mike Reid (1969)

First round NFL Draftees: 34 (through 2007)

Website: www.gopsusports.com

Notable alumni: Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge; U.S. Senator Rick Santorum; astronaut

Guion Buford; political commentator Margaret Carlson; Olympian Mary Ellen Clark


The rise of Southern, Midwestern and West Coast college football was inexorable. By the late 1960s there was little doubt that the best, most competitive football was played in these three regions, over and above that played on the East Coast. Still, the so-called “East Coast bias” remains, at least in the minds of some. Population shifts and demographics may mean that more great athletes and teams rise from the “Sunbelt,” but that has not stopped New York City from being a media center. This is still where the influence, the writers, the networks, and of course many of the votes for such things as Most Valuable Player awards, Heisman Trophies and national championships emanate from.

Penn State earns its way into the “Elite Ten” by virtue of tradition, but above and beyond its accomplishments between the 1920s and the 1950s, it established itself as a national – not simply an Eastern – powerhouse in the modern era, which is also the “Joe Paterno era.”

Pennsylvania is and always has been football-crazy. It is a lunch pale state, a blue-collar region of coal miners and steelworkers. The people are rough and coarse; “shot ‘n’ a beer” types. But Pennsylvania struggled to find sports Nirvana.

The Pittsburgh Pirates were a baseball power in the early twentieth century but too often an also-ran in the succeeding decades. The Philadelphia A’s had two major dynasties, but sold them off to pay the bills. The Pittsburgh Steelers were just plain bad.

There was Pitt and Penn State football. Pitt was better. Then came Joe Pa. This ushered in a new era in Pennsylvania sports greatness. The Pirates became champions in the 1970s. The Steelers established the best decade in pro football history up until that time. Penn State passed Pitt and turned Happy Valley into a college football Mecca.

More than 100,000 fans show up for games. They are known as “Linebacker U.,” having produced such stalwarts as LaVar Arrington and Jack Ham. They are on the “right side of history” when it came to integration. Under Paterno, Penn State managed to be a winner on the field and in the classroom. Five Nittany Lions players (Lenny Moore, Jack Ham, Franco Harris, Mike Munchak, August Michalske) have been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. 

But Penn State had winning teams every single season from 1939 to 1964. The annual grudge match with Pitt (both teams were independents until Penn State joined the Big 10 in 1993) was one of the best rivalries in the nation.


Hugo Bezdek coached at Penn State from 1918 to 1929. In 1922, Penn State accepted an invitation to play one of the most historical football games of all time. The Rose Bowl stadium was completed that year. The Nittany Lions traveled to Pasadena to take on Southern California. What happened on January 1, 1923 was a portent of things to come.

Los Angeles and environs were already a car-crazy culture. The Penn State team got caught in traffic on their way to the stadium. USC’s players and coach Elmer “Gloomy Gus” Henderson sat around wondering if their opponents would make an appearance. The fans wanted to know if there would be a game.

Finally, Penn State showed up. Henderson inquired of Bezdek what happened. An argument ensued. Bezdek somehow figured the traffic was a USC plot to throw his team off. Henderson thought it was meant to take the edge off his charges. Punches were almost thrown. The game, a 14-3 Trojan victory, featured bad blood. The traffic delay caused a late start. The early-setting winter sun hid behind the San Gabriel Mountains by game’s end, which was played in the dusk. Fans could barely see what was going on. Afterwards Bezdek, a former pugilist of some note, wanted to fight Henderson. This catastrophe was avoided, ostensibly because Henderson wore glasses.

Penn State football was solid but not spectacular in the succeeding decades. Pitt won the 1937 national championship and made several Rose Bowl appearances, but Penn State did not play in a bowl game again until a 1948 13-13 Cotton Bowl tie with Doak Walker and Southern Methodist.

The integration of the Penn State program proved problematic, as it did with a number of Northern schools, in the 1950s. Alabamians complained long and loud about having to play them in the 1959 Liberty Bowl, a 7-0 Lion victory. Consensus All-Americans between 1906 and 1964 included Mother Dunn, Bob Higgins, Charles Way, Glenn Killinger, Harry Wilson, Rich Lucas, and Glenn Ressler.


Penn State All-Century Team

Chosen by Lou Prato, Penn State Football Encyclopedia and director of the Penn State All-Sports Museum



Pos.            Player

G             Joe Bedenk

G             Glenn Ressler

G             Sean Farrell

G             Mike Munchak

TE             Bob Higgins

TE             Ted Kwalick

QB             Glenn Killinger

QB             Kerry Collins

WR             Kenny Jackson

WR             Bobby Engram

RB             Harry Wilson

RB/KR Lenny Moore

RB/KR Curt Warner

FB             Matt Suhey

PK/FB Pete Mauthe



Pos.            Player

DE             Sam Tamburo

DE             Dave Robinson

DT             Bruce Clark

DT             Mike Reid

LB             Mother Dunn

LB             Dennis Onkotz

DB             Neal Smith

LB             Jack Ham

LB             LaVar Arrington

DB             Harry Wilson

DB             Lenny Moore

DB             Rich Lucas

DB             Mark Robinson

P             Joe Colone


In 1966, the school hired Joe Paterno. He was a graduate of Brown University, where he had been an English major. His family wanted him to go to law school, but he became an assistant football coach at Penn State. Later he said that he “never wanted to coach football,” but it got into him and stuck. He was an assistant in Happy Valley for sixteen years before taking over.

Entering the 2005 season Paterno coached sixty-nine first team All-Americans and twenty-three Academic All-Americans. In 2000, the NCAA reported that his graduation rate was seventy-five percent.  The library at Penn State was named after him. He also had 343 career victories entering the 2005 season. He passed Bear Bryant for the most victories among all Division I-A coaches, but Bobby Bowden passed Joe Pa in an ongoing competition.

Penn State was 5-5 in Paterno’s first year (1966). But after that they separated themselves from the pack. Paterno still says his 1968 team was the best ever. They put Penn State on the map; certainly it elevated them above the moniker “Eastern power” to a national one. Junior tackles Mike Reid and Steve Smear set the tone. Linebacker Jack Ham led the “Rover Boys.” Quarterback Chuck Burkhart “can’t run and he can’t pass,” said Paterno. “All he does is think and win.” Penn State went 10-0, then beat Kansas, 15-14 in the Orange Bowl; one of the greatest games ever played. But everybody was watching the Rose Bowl. Unbeaten Ohio State’s victory over USC in that year’s “Game of the Century” made the Buckeyes’ national title a fait accompli.

But in 1969 Paterno and Penn State’s supporters started to get mad. They were 11-0 with a 10-3 win over Missouri in the Orange Bowl, but Texas captured the national championship. If the pollsters had voted with social pathos in 1966, when they awarded integrated, once-tied Notre Dame with the national championship over segregated, unbeaten, untied Alabama, there was no such sentiment favoring Paterno’s racially diverse 1969 team in comparison with the now archaic all-white Longhorns.

No less an “authority” than President Richard Nixon “awarded” the national championship to Texas coach Darrell Royal in the winning dressing room following their 15-14 win over Arkansas.

“How could Nixon know so little about Watergate and so much about football?” Paterno, a lifelong Republican who even spoke at the GOP national convention, quipped years later.

Penn State had a 30-game unbeaten streak after beating Missouri, and would extend that by one more game in 1970. From 1967 to 1974, his teams were 80-10-1. They were unbeaten in 1968, 1969 and 1973, but were not awarded with any national titles (which went to Ohio State ’68, Texas ’69 and Notre Dame ’73).

In 1968, Ted Kwalick made consensus All-American. He later starred at tight end for the San Francisco 49ers. Dennis Onkotz, Mike Reid, Jack Ham (who starred in Pittsburgh with Franco Harris on Super Bowl champions), Dave Joyner, Bruce Bannon, John Skorupan, and John Cappelletti were also consensus All-Americans.


Nittany Lions on the run


S/Start season; F/Finish season



Year Record                                                            Run

1967 8-2-1 F/7-0-1                                                8-2-1 (1967)

                                                                        7-0-1 (1967)

1968 11-0                                                            19-2-1 (1967-68)

                                                                        18-0-1 (1967-68)

1969 11-0                                                            30-2-1 (1967-69)

                                                                        29-0-1 (1967-69) 30 games

1970 7-3 S/1-0 F/5-0                                                37-5-1 (1967-70)

                                                                        30-0-1 (1967-70)

                                                                        5-0 (1970)

1971 11-1                                                            38-6-1 (1967-71)

                                                                        16-1 (1970-71)                                               

1972 10-2                                                            48-8-1 (1967-72)

                                                                        26-3 (1970-72)

1973 12-0                                                            60-8-1 (1967-73)

                                                                        38-3 (1970-73)

                                                                        38-2 (1970-73) 40 games

1974 10-2                                                            70-10-1 (1967-73)

                                                                        69-10-1 (1967-73) 80 games

                                                                        61-8-1 (1967-74) 70 games

                                                                        48-5 (1970-74)

                                                                        45-5 (1970-73) 50 games

1975 9-3                                                            79-13-1 (1967-75)

                                                                        78-11-1 (1976-75) 90 games

                                                                        57-8 (1970-75)

                                                            54-6 (1970-75) 60 games


Capelletti is Penn State’s version of “The Gipper,” only his story – or really the story of his younger brother Joey – is real inspiration, not manufactured. Capelletti won the 1973 Heisman Trophy, then announced at his acceptance speech that the award was for his little brother, battling leukemia. The story was made into an inspirational movie, Something for Joey, after he died in 1976. Consensus All-Americans between 1974 and 1979 were Mike Hartenstine, Greg Buttle, Keith Dorney, quarterback Chuck Fusina, and Bruce Clark.

Paterno’s next best shot at a national championship came in 1978, when his team was unbeaten and ranked number one. Given the opportunity to finally win it on the field, the Nittany Lions fell to Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, 14-7, giving a co-title to the Crimson Tide and USC. In four tries, Paterno never beat Bear Bryant.

From 1980 to 1987 Penn State was 76-19-1, including a 23-1 mark between 1985 and 1986. On January 1, 1982 Penn State, lead by running back Curt Warner (later a star in Seattle), beat Marcus Allen and Southern California in the Fiesta Bowl, 26-10. Paterno finally won the national title in 1982. Only a 42-21 loss to Alabama marred an 11-1 season that included a 27-23 Sugar Bowl triumph over Herschel Walker and Georgia.


Penn State versus Alabama (5-8), Miami (7-6), Michigan (3-9), Nebraska (0-0), Notre Dame (8-8-1), Ohio State (9-6), Southern California (4-4)


The 1987 Fiesta Bowl was billed as “good versus evil,” with Joe Pa’s clean cut Lions representing “good,” the fatigue-clad Miami Hurricanes’ “evil.” A college football record seventy million TV viewers watched Penn State bottle up Heisman-winning quarterback Vinny Testaverde. They intercepted five Testaverde passes, two by linebacker Shane Conlan, and sacked him five times. Despite being outgained, 445-161 in total offense and twenty-two first downs to eight, Penn State stopped Miami’s fourth quarter drive when Testaverde threw his fifth interception to capture Paterno’s second national championship (12-0). Consensus All-Americans in the 1980s included Sean Farrell, D. J. Dozier, and Shane Conlan.

In 1993, Penn State joined the Big 10. The move looked to be a good one in the early years. In 1994 the Lions were 12-0 with a 38-20 victory over Oregon in the Rose Bowl, their first return to Pasadena since the 1923 “traffic delay” game. However, Paterno was again denied a national championship, which was awarded by consensus to Nebraska. It was this event which helped to propel what later became the Bowl Championship Series. Consensus All-Americans in the 1990s were O. J. McDuffie, Ki-Jana Carter, Kerry Collins (later a Super Bowl quarterback with the Giants), Jeff Hartings, Curtis Envy, LaVar  Arrington, Brandon Short and Courtney Brown. Brown and Arrington were the first two picks of the 2000 draft, making Penn State the first team since Nebraska in 1984 to have two players selected one-two. In 2007, the Arizona Cardinals made Levi Brown their first draft pick.

In the 2000s, Penn State slipped. Larry Johnson made consensus All-American in 2002. In 2005 the Lions won the Big 10 Conference but did not go to the Rose Bowl, which was reserved for USC and Texas in the BCS national championship game.