Irv Pankey was one of Tyler Ferguson's coaches at his junior college in California and was involved in Penn State's recruiting of Ferguson last December. In the March printed edition of Blue White Illustrated, contributing writer Lou Prato told the story of how that happened.
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By Lou Prato
Special to Blue White Illustrated
It may seem improbable to tie in a Bakersfield, Calif., high school standout who is Penn State's first junior college quarterback with the outstanding 1978 Penn State team that was the first to become No. 1 in the polls.
But when Penn State decided in mid-December to offer a scholarship to Tyler Ferguson of College of the Sequoias in Visalia, Calif., it had help from Irv Pankey, the starting tight end on that ill-fated '78 team that lost the national championship to Alabama, 14-7, in the Sugar Bowl on New Year's night.
Pankey, who went on to play 13 years in the NFL with the Los Angeles Rams and Indianapolis Colts, has been an assistant coach at College of the Sequoias since 1998. His official title is assistant head coach, and his prime responsibility is the offensive line. However, when you are one of two full-time coaches on the staff, with seven part-time assistants, and you coach the offensive line, you spend a lot of time with the quarterbacks and running backs.
"I didn't coach [Tyler] personally," Pankey said, "but I told him to correct a few things. I'm not a quarterback coach, but I've been around the game long enough [that] I know a lot about certain things a quarterback has to do. I told him how to handle offensive linemen and what he needed to do now and then. Because I'm the assistant head coach, I put my two cents in, and he took criticism well.
"He's an intelligent kid. Sometimes he gets a little lazy with his throwing motion, but I think that's his only weakness. He's a good football player, and he's a tall kid so he's rangy. He moves very well in the pocket, very smooth, and he doesn't panic. My biggest knock is that he uses that sidearm motion when throwing the ball. You can see that on film, so the Penn State coaches already know they're going to have to work on it."
Despite the fact that College of Sequoias is some 2,260 miles from Penn State's campus, Pankey was not surprised when Nittany Lions head coach Bill O'Brien telephoned in mid-December and said he was interested in Ferguson. Pankey said more Division I teams are looking at junior college players than in the past, and it doesn't matter where the junior college is located.
"Colleges understand that most freshmen who come in are not able to start, but if they start their sophomore year and have a good year and then another in their junior year, then they're gone," Pankey said. "They're not getting kids to stay for their senior year because the money [in the NFL] is too big to pass up. So by taking a junior college kid sometimes, you get a guy who's been playing ball for those two years, has been coached well and might have an opportunity to come in and compete for a starting job or, at least, be a solid backup."
Until recent years, Penn State had not often looked to junior colleges for those types of experienced players. Yet it was more than 40 years ago, when Joe Paterno was seeking a place-kicker, that assistant coach John Chuckran found Al Vitello, a native of Naples, Italy, at Nassau (N.Y.) Community College, who had set a junior college record with a 60-yard field goal.
Vitello became Penn State's first soccer-style place-kicker and the first to kick with his left foot. He broke most of the school's place-kicking records in his first season, 1971, when he hit 59 of 62 extra points and 5 of 13 field goals for 74 points. He wrapped up his career the following season by setting a Cotton Bowl record with three field goals in Penn State's historic 30-6 upset of Texas.
Vitello's success led another Nassau Community College player to Penn State in 1973: Rich Mauti, the father of 2012 standout linebacker Michael Mauti. Injuries wiped out Rich's first season and most of the 1974 season. He evolved into solid backup tailback and spot receiver and led the team in kick returns in 1975 and 1976 and punt returns in '76 before embarking on an eight-year NFL career.
Nine years later, Penn State's third recruit from Nassau Community College, receiver Mike Alexander, came aboard. Alexander played sparingly in 1985, sat out in 1986 to concentrate on his academics and in 1987 developed into the team's second-leading receiver, behind tailback Blair Thomas, with 20 catches for 286 yards.
Based on this writer's research, after Alexander, Penn State didn't sign any more junior college players until 2007, when it landed Nerraw McCormick of Nassau and Ako Poti of San Francisco Community College to beef up its offensive line.
As anyone who follows Penn State football knows, it was a dearth of quarterbacks on the preliminary 2013 roster that brought Ferguson to campus in January. With little-used sophomore-to-be Steven Bench the only experienced quarterback on the spring practice roster and highly regarded recruit Christian Hackenberg not enrolling until the summer, Penn State scoured the junior colleges for a quarterback.
If the No. 1 junior college quarterback of 2011, Jake Waters of Iowa Western Community College, had not spurned a Penn State offer in early December to play for Kansas State, it's doubtful Ferguson would now be at Penn State. That led the Nittany Lions to pry Ferguson away from his verbal commitment to the University of Houston. Of course, these seemly unethical last-minute flips by recruits and coaches are a perfect example of how razor thin and mercurial recruiting has become in the modern era.
Ferguson was rated only a three-star prospect by Rivals. But recruiting expert Mike Farrell said he believes Ferguson has great potential, particularly under the tutelage of O'Brien and Penn State quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher.
"He's physically ready," Farrell said of the 6-foot-5, 210-pound Ferguson. "The biggest thing is his interceptions and decision making. … He has a big arm, but he tends to use that arm to force things too much."
Ferguson played only one season at Sequoia and probably would not have needed to go the junior college recruiting route if he hadn't broken his collarbone midway through his senior season at Bakersfield Ridgeview High School in 2011.
"Bakersfield is about 70 miles south of Sequoia," Pankey said. "A lot of colleges were on him after his junior year but they kind of backed off after he broke his collarbone, and we went down and got him. He knew if he had a good season here, he'd have an opportunity to leave after one semester."
Ferguson remembered his high school recruiting travail the day he signed with Penn State. "Coming out of high school and seeing 180 quarterbacks getting a scholarship, I thought, 'What the heck?' " Ferguson told the Bakersfield Californian. "I actually thought about playing Division III basketball. But I've had that extra year to mature instead. I'm really happy with the way things worked out."
Although Sequoia was winless in the six-team Valley North Division of the Northern California Football Association, it won four nonconference games for a 4-6 final record. Ferguson completed 55 percent of his passes for 2,614 yards and 22 touchdowns. Pankey said Ferguson made sure coaches and recruiting services were seeing him because he put highlight videos on the ESPN high school and community college website Hudl.
"The kids put all their stuff on Huddle," Pankey said, "and going into week five of the season, our offense was on top in Northern California in yards and points scored, so he got on the radar pretty quick. Akron was on him early, Florida Atlantic offered and then Houston came in really hard. He made a visit there and really liked the school, and then Bill called."
Fisher traveled to Visalia, which is located in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley about 40 miles southeast of Fresno, close to Sequoias National Park and not far from Yosemite National Park.
"I sat down with Charlie and Tyler," Pankey said, "and Charlie put him through the nines, got him up on the [black] boards to see what kind of football smarts he had, and Tyler did a great job up on the board for him."
Ferguson, who enrolled in January, is a second-semester freshman with four years to compete his three remaining seasons of eligibility. He joins two walk-on prep school quarterbacks who also started classes: Austin Whipple, a 2012 graduate of Pine-Richland High School in suburban Pittsburgh who played last fall for Salisbury School, and D.J. Crook of Worcester (Mass.) Academy, who threw for 77 touchdowns and more than 8,000 yards in his career at Barnstable High School. With Bench also in contention, the competition in spring practice should be intense.
Pankey said he will be waiting to see how well Ferguson does with coaching from O'Brien and Fisher. Pankey is well aware of how the two turned Matt McGloin from an erratic thrower into the Big Ten's leading passer. Pankey said he also respects O'Brien for what he has done for the Penn State football program in the aftermath of the Sandusky scandal and the firing of Joe Paterno.
"I think Bill and his coaches did a great job this [past] year keeping Penn State at the level that it should be," Pankey said. "I commend them for that, and I commend Bill for not taking the money and running to the pros. He's gotten those kids to buy in and pull together, and I think he brought the community back, for one, by doing the right thing, and, for two, by being competitive when everyone thought they wouldn't be. It's not Joe, but Joe was going to leave eventually, and Bill's a great guy who can carry on the Penn State tradition."
Pankey is angry because of what Sandusky did to his victims, to Penn State football and to Paterno.
"I don't think Joe's accomplishments as a football coach should have been affected by Jerry's situation," he said, adding that he felt the NCAA should not have stripped Paterno of 111 wins. "Did he make all the right choices because of Jerry's situation? We'll never know and we can't ask him. Joe did a lot of good for a lot of people.
"When I look back at Joe, I thank him for keeping us all to task. He sat down in my living room [in Aberdeen, Md.] and said, 'Mrs. Pankey, Mr. Pankey, I can promise you two things: Your son will get his degree and he will play big-time football. In that order.' And I thank him for that. He was a standup guy. He was that way with everybody, good, bad or different. Kick you in the butt when you needed it and love you up when you needed loving up. And once you played for him, he had your back for the rest of your life."
When he was playing for Paterno, Pankey wasn't always pleased with his coach, primarily because of the way he was moved around, starting at left tackle in 1977, tight end in 1978 and left guard in 1979 when he was a co-captain. But after his senior year, he was named a second-team All-American despite the Lions' disappointing 8-4 finish, and the Los Angeles Rams made him their No. 2 draft choice, the 50th overall player picked.
The Rams paired him at tackle with Jackie Slater, and they were teammates and pals for 10 years. Slater got the glory, but Pankey was never jealous. When Slater was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2001, he made sure he thanked Pankey, "a guy who brought it every day, a guy who made me turn my game up, you see, because I wanted to be the best tackle on the team. If I hadn't done it, he would have made a hell of a lot more money."
Pankey said money never motivated him. Although he graduated from Penn State with a degree in hospital administration, he didn't realize until after retiring from the NFL following the 1992 season that he might want to be a coach and teacher. Paterno hired him as a graduate assistant in 1996, and the next season he was an assistant offensive line coach at Cornell.
While playing with the Rams, Pankey used to go hunting around Visalia and in the nearby Sierra Nevada Mountains, and he fell in love with the area. When he heard about an opening at College of the Sequoias, he applied and was hired. He also loves to teach, and in 2005 he became the chair of the Physical Education Division. He's now a tenured professor.
The last time Pankey was at Penn State was in 2008 when he went back to see his two sons play for Oregon State in the second game of the year. Keith was a true sophomore, starting at outside linebacker, and Kevin was a true freshman tight end, who was expected to redshirt. Keith played and Kevin didn't, as Penn State won, 45-14, with Pankey cheering for Penn State along the Nittany Lion bench.
"My wife was shocked when I told her I was rooting for Penn State," Pankey remembered. "She said, 'But those are your kids.' And I said, 'No, this is my school. That is their school.'"
Keith went on to start every game in 2008 and was an honorable mention All-Pac-10 choice in 2009, but a ruptured right Achilles tendon before spring practice hindered him throughout the 2010 season. He worked out for the NFL Draft but decided he didn't want to continue playing football.
"I went up [to Corvallis] for his pro day, and he did pretty good," Pankey said, "but he said he was done with football and I was cool with that. He graduated this past year and he wants to get into some managerial role in his major [geology]. So he's managing a variety store right now just to get it on his resume."
Kevin never did get in an Oregon State game because of his grades. He dropped out, played one season for Sequoia and then received a scholarship from New Mexico State. But that didn't work out either because of academic problems and back surgery, so he returned home.
"Kevin has been working on his degree online," Pankey said, "and he'll get his degree in international studies this spring. He's working at a car dealership right now but he wants to live abroad and do something in his field."
Pankey and his wife, Colleen, who works part-time at Sequoia, also have a daughter, Lilley. "She'll graduate this May from Concordia University down in Irvine with a degree in communications," Pankey said. "She wants to be a TV newscaster."
Pankey loves his job and doesn't want to be the head coach, having turned down an offer at Sequoia three years ago before the school hired Robert Dougherty. Nor does Pankey expect to retire any day soon. And he has some last words for Bill O'Brien and Penn State.
"I think I'll have a couple of offensive linemen here this year that I'll have [Penn State] come out and look at," he said. "I have a couple of 'grinder' kids who just might be the type they want."
Maybe Ferguson is the start of a new Nittany Lions recruiting pipeline. If so, it could earn College of the Sequoias a new nickname: Penn State West.