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January 30, 2012

Decade of Change

In commemoration of the life of former Penn State head coach Joe Paterno, BWI is proud to re-print the fourth in a six-part series devoted to his decades-long success.

Today's article, dated in the June 1, 2010 issue of BWI's magazine, recaps the 1990s.


By Ron Bracken
Blue White Contributor


By the time the calendar rolled over into the last decade of the last century, Joe Paterno was already firmly established as a college football legend. As they say, he had his street creds.

He had won a pair of national titles and had played for two more. He had lifted Penn State from a solid Eastern program into the upper echelon on the national scene. His teams had beaten Notre Dame, Alabama, Nebraska, Ohio State, Miami (Fla.) and Texas, leaving no doubt that his Lions could scratch with the big cats.

But the new decade would bring a new set of challenges.

Penn State was giving up its independence to become the 11th member of the Big Ten, changing the landscape of college football in ways no one could have imagined at the time. And the Lions would learn painful lessons about the toll a conference schedule can take on a team.

Gone were the days when the schedule could be carefully crafted to have two or three tough games separated by softer opponents, allowing the Lions to point toward the big games while subduing the lesser foes. Now they could only do that in the non-conference games. Once the conference season came around a computer did the pairings regardless of their impact on a team's focus and preparation.

The 1990s also brought another taste of frustration similar to that experienced by Paterno with his 1968, 1969 and 1973 teams, all of which went unbeaten, untied and uncrowned. If the 1969 team was one of the best defensive units ever to play the game, the 1994 team was its offensive counterpart.

The 1990s also brought one of the biggest collapses and disappointments in Paterno's career. The 1999 season wasn't as storm-tossed as its 1979 predecessor but its ultimate stumble to the finish line was more deflating considering it had been picked as the No. 1 team in the country in preseason.

The 90s also brought some troubling disciplinary issues as players got their names in the police reports as well as the Sunday morning game reports. Robbery, stolen credit cards, fighting in the streets. Although it couldn't have been known at the time, it was a peek into the future when more players got into more trouble and Paterno was blamed for having lost control of his team.
In no way could the decade have been considered The Gay 90s, not even with a 97-26-0 record for the 10 seasons, a .788 winning percentage, the best for any decade in school history.

Actually, it was a decade typical of the super powers in the game, full of wins, disappointments, frustration, All-Americans and problems.

But the overarching story of the decade was Penn State's entrance into the Big Ten, the conference of big shoulders and plodding offenses, of tradition and long-standing rivalries. The Lions were accorded only superficial respect. They were the red-haired, buck-toothed stepchild in the family.

And they knew it. At least Paterno did. He told the squad every school in the conference wanted to see them fall flat on their faces. It would take a while for that to happen. Paterno has always done some of his best coaching when his team is an underdog, when he feels it is not being respected and so it plays with a chip on its shoulder pads.

Before it made its debut in the conference in 1993 Penn State had three seasons worth of games to play, some with long-standing rivals, some with attractive inter-sectional matchups with powers like Miami and Texas.

The results were mixed at best with bowl losses to Tennessee and Stanford in a pair of Blockbuster Bowls and a win over the Vols in the Fiesta Bowl and records of 9-3, 11-2 and 7-5.
Certainly the 1992 season did not serve as a very stable launch pad into the Big Ten.

Part of the problem was that college football had undergone a change with the formation of the BCS, which tied bowl pairings to conferences. As an independent, Penn State was left on the outside but managed to work a deal with the Blockbuster Bowl which guaranteed the Lions a bid provided they won the necessary six games. They managed to win seven. But the fact that they had no big bowl to play for, that they knew in the spring they would be going to the Blockbuster, took away from their motivation.

And not even Paterno's decision to liven up Beaver Stadium with pregame rock music for the Miami game in 1992 could give them a dose of enthusiasm. In fact, it backfired as the blue-haired alums hated it, the Miami players loved it and the Lions themselves were pretty much indifferent, which was the way the played all season and in the bowl game where they lost to Stanford, 24-3.

In the wake of the bowl loss, in the hours immediately following it, Paterno knew it was time to shake up the troops. He admitted that he had pretty much lost the team down the stretch, partly because he had placed more faith in his senior leadership than was warranted.

And for the first time in a long time, the police blotters carried names familiar to Lion fans.

Linebacker Brian Gelzheiser was charged with credit card fraud in the winter and was suspended from school. In the summer, O.J. McDuffie, Mark Graham and Ricky Sayles were involved in a downtown brawl and arrested for disorderly conduct. Incoming freshman Brian Miller was arrested for his involvement in a drug ring in his hometown but those charges were later dropped.

And in August, midway through preseason drills, Bobby Engram and Sayles were caught removing items from an apartment they believed to be that of teammate Richie Anderson. They were jailed, admitted to being guilty, were sentenced to probation and kicked off the team. Engram eventually was allowed to return but not Sayles.

Then there was the whole quarterback situation. Returning starter John Sacca hurt his back and his backup, Matt Nardolillo, suffered a shoulder injury forcing Paterno to use freshman Wally Richardson in the opener at Cincinnati. Kerry Collins, who had been expected to challenge for the starting job after throwing for over 400 yards in the Blue-White Game, was on the sidelines with a mysterious injury to his index finger suffered at a family reunion not long before preseason practice began.

That set the stage for a season that became a train wreck.

The 1993 season would be different. Paterno made one of his classic coaching moves and formed a Breakfast Club in the off-season where he would meet with representatives from each class on the team in an effort to get to know them better, to develop a better chemistry on the team.

It was a decision based on years of wisdom and experience. He knew a change was needed and he was unafraid to make it. Changing times and changing youth demanded it. The lily-white Penn State image that had been portrayed from the glory days of the late 60s was tainted.

In an interview in 1990 he had already sensed the change in attitudes of the incoming athletes and in the culture in which they lived.

"I worry so much more about things like drinking,'' he had said that day. "Kids drink so much more these days. I know some kids have a couple of beers on a Saturday night, but I've had a couple that I know of who had serious problems.

"And I worry all the time about drugs. I hear rumors all the time and I keep running them down…

"And I worry about the poor kids we have. I worry that some kid who is dirt poor and can't get something is going to steal. I'm not one of those guys who says 'Look at those kids at this school or that school,' because I know the kind of pressure some of our kids are under.

"So I'm not as comfortable as I was 15 years ago, certainly not as comfortable as I was 20 years ago. Then, I didn't worry that we had a kid getting involved in drugs or who was an excessive drinker or who was so poor he might steal.''

He couldn't have known how prophetic those words were at the time. The next decade would prove him painfully right.

But in 1993 his larger focus was on getting his team ready for a conference schedule for the first time in school history. There was an excitement around the program as it ventured into the unknown, meeting teams it had never met before, going places it had never been. As the captain of his ship Paterno pointed the bow into the wind and never looked back.

The Lions wrapped up the 1993 season with a 10-2 record, losing to Michigan and Ohio State and beating Tennessee in the Fiesta Bowl. But it was the season finale against Michigan State that really set the tone for the following year as Collins, who beat out Sacca earlier in the season, led the Lions on a stirring comeback in East Lansing to beat the Spartans, 38-37, after they had been down 37-17.

With Collins firmly established as the quarterback, with running backs Ki-Jana Carter, Stephen Pitts and Mike Archie, fullbacks Jon Witman and Brian Milne, tight end Kyle Brady and an offensive line led by guards Marco Rivera and Jeff Hartings, Paterno had an offense unlike any he'd had since the 1982 bunch led by Todd Blackledge, Curt Warner and Kenny Jackson. Five of them became first-round draft choices.

And he unleashed it on a Big Ten that had rarely, if ever, seen its like in the conference. No more off-tackle, off-guard, short pass, kick offense for the Lions. They had every sort of offensive weapon a coach could want. It finished No. 1 in the country in total offense (520.2 yards per game) and scoring (47.8 points per game).

Minnesota was the first team to see it up close. As former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer used to say, the Lions hung half a hundred on the Gophers (56-3) and they were off and running.

They were so versatile and explosive that they had both Southern Cal and Ohio State down by 35-0 at the half. But they were also capable of winning the street fights, as they showed with late wins at both Michigan and Illinois.

After watching the Lions demolish Ohio State, 63-14, color commentator and former NFL coach Dick Vermeil was moved to say, "They just have so many weapons. Now that the passing game is like it is, they take turns doing what they want to do.

"This is the best offensive team I've seen since I've been doing college (football) broadcasting and that's since 1988.''

The Lions needed all of that firepower as they fell behind Illinois, 21-0, in the first half in Champaign.

It all started to go bad for Penn State when the power in the Lions' hotel went out and they had to walk up 15 flights of stairs to get taped, then back down 15 flights to get pizza and hoagies for their pre-game meal because the lack of electrical power meant their normal pre-game meals could not be cooked.

Once they arrived at the stadium things only got worse as the Illini capitalized on several Penn State mistakes and jumped out to a 21-0 lead in the first quarter.

It was here that Paterno drew on his years of experience. He had seen his 1981 team fall behind No. 1 Pitt, 14-0 on the road in 1981 and storm back to win. He had watched the 1982 team drive down the field against Nebraska and score in the game's final seconds to win. And he knew that this team was poured from the same mold. He assured them they could still win if they played better on defense and didn't panic.

What they did was put on what will always be known in Penn State lore as "The Drive.'' Trailing 31-28 and heading into the wind and a misty rain with 6:07 left on the clock, Collins marched the Lions 96 yards against the No. 2 defense in the country. There was no margin for error and the Lions made none. No blown assignments, no missed blocks, no foolish penalties or dropped passes. They were almost symphonic in the way they performed as they moved to the Illinois 2. From there Milne slammed into the end zone with :57 left on the clock. There was little doubt that this was that offense's finest hour.

But as good as it was, meeting every challenge, Paterno's team was victimized at the polls.

A pair of meaningless late touchdowns by Indiana made a 35-29 game look a lot closer than it was and the Lions, who had fallen from No. 1 after beating Ohio State, were permanently sentenced to second place in the polls behind Nebraska. They were never able to climb back to the No. 1 spot they held after beating Michigan.

Not even a 38-20 blowout over Oregon in the Rose Bowl could unseat the Cornhuskers, who had beaten Miami in the Orange Bowl the night before and had been proclaimed national champions before the Lions ever took the field in Pasadena.

It was 1969 all over again when President Richard Nixon had crowned Texas the No. 1 team in the country after it had beaten Arkansas in the season-ending game while the Lions sat at home, unbeaten and headed for the Orange Bowl.

"I consider them national champions just as much as anyone else,'' Paterno said of his squad.

Collins spoke up for his team, adding, "There is not much more we can do, with an unblemished schedule, an 18-point win in the Rose Bowl and big wins over top-ranked teams.

"Oregon is a great team but we beat them by 18 points and we deserve a split for the national title.''

Once again, the Lions were unbeaten, untied and unloved by the voters in the polls. It reopened an old wound. For Paterno it was the third time one of his teams had finished unbeaten and second in the polls as the 1994 team joined the 1969 and 1973 squads with silver medals instead of gold.

Graduation stripped the Lions of their big guns for the 1995 season but the bulls up front along with Milne, Witman, Pitts, Archie and Engram were back and they extended their winning streak to 20 before Wisconsin stopped it. Ohio State and Northwestern, the Cinderella team of the 1995 season, also took a bite of Lion steak as the reality of conference play finally hit home for Penn State.

Penn State hit a plateau beginning in 1995, winning between nine and 11 games over the next four years.

But 1999 would be different. The Lions were ranked No. 1 in the preseason polls and boasted a defense anchored by linebackers LaVar Arrington, Brandon Short and Mac Morrison and defensive end Courtney Brown.

There was, however, a small dark cloud in Penn State's sky as the Lions headed into the 1999 season. Longtime defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky had announced in the summer that he planned to retire at the end of the 1999 season. The man who had built and burnished the linebacker tradition at Penn State, was leaving.

"Football coaching has been a wonderful career because it has brought me into contact with so many exceptional young people," Sandusky said in a release announcing his decision. "The opportunity to impact the lives of the many student-athletes who've come through the program has been one of the great rewards for me. Penn State football is special because of the sense of family established by those associated with the program today and those players, coaches and staff who've been part of it over the years.''

It was only fitting and proper that this team, built around his defense, should send him out on top.

But it didn't. On Nov. 6, a date many fans will forever remember, Minnesota shocked the Lions and the college football world when it rolled into Beaver Stadium and upset the unbeaten Lions, on a last-second field goal.

From there the Lions stumbled to the finish line, losing 31-27 to a Tom Brady-led Michigan team and then 35-28 to Michigan State to finish a year which began with high hopes with a 9-3 record after a trip to the Alamo Bowl.

To some it was the most disappointing season in Paterno's tenure only because so much had been expected by so many only to have it all implode in November, a month Penn State traditionally owned.

And no one could even begin to sense what lay in store in the next 10 years.

Losing seasons - four of them in five years. A near-tragedy turned heartwarming success story as Adam Taliaferro recovered from paralysis suffered while making a late-game tackle at Ohio State to run out on the field at Beaver Stadium again, even if he was in street clothes. More players in more trouble with the law. Administrators calling on Paterno at his home with the purpose of asking him to step aside.

If the 90s were a venture into the unknown, so too, would be the first 10 years of the new millennium but for vastly different reasons.



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