Freshmen are such an integral part of Penn State's football team nowadays that most of today's fans have no memory of the era dating back to 1915 when freshmen were ineligible for the varsity and played on a separate team against such varsity rivals as Pitt, Syracuse and West Virginia. Even when freshmen became eligible during the 1940s because of World War II and then permanently after 1972, there were junior varsity teams for 11 seasons.
The last freshman team played in 1976, and the coach was Fran Ganter, who went on to become Penn State's offensive coordinator and recently retired after spending the past 10 years as the associate athletic director for football. The freshman team was immediately replaced in 1977 by a JV team, and the coach was a young administrative assistant named Tim Curley. By the time Penn State's junior varsity played its last game in 1983, Curley was the assistant (and future successor) to athletic director Jim Tarman.
Both Ganter and Curley had played on the freshman teams, Ganter in 1967 and Curley in 1973 in Ganter's first year as head coach of the squad. Ganter remembers his freshman games but Curley doesn't.
"We played what people called the top recruiting class in Pitt history," Ganter recalled, "with Lloyd Weston and Ralph Cindrich and so many other big-name guys, and they came up here and we beat them. When my teammates get together, we still talk about the game."
It was Friday afternoon on a Homecoming weekend, Oct. 20, 1967, and what is believed to be a record home crowd for a freshman or JV game - 4,000 fans -jammed around the football practice field to see if the frosh could beat a highly touted Pitt squad. It's the same field used today, but the only buildings at the site back then were the East Area Locker Room and a Quonset hut that housed an ice rink.
Both the varsity and freshmen dressed in the East Area Locker Room. "We didn't dress with the varsity but had our own locker room separated by the training room, and most of the varsity guys didn't even know our names," Ganter said. "Earl Bruce was our coach and he had been coaching the freshmen for years. He was getting up there in years, but he was like a grandfather to us. He was such a good guy and more worried about how we adjusted to school and all that rather than football, because freshmen were nothing then. We all called him 'Poppa Bear.'
"We only played two games, Pitt and West Virginia. So in our pregame talk for our first game, the Bear came in and said, 'I hope you guys are ready for this. This is really a good Pitt squad. Pitt is going to be the toughest team we play this year...' He paused, and then he said, '…unless West Virginia is tougher.' We're all looking at each other saying, 'What did he just say?' We still laugh about it when we get together."
Overcoming a 9-0 Pitt lead at halftime, the Lion frosh won, 16-9, with the defense holding the Panther yearlings to minus-4 yards rushing and intercepting three passes. Ganter was the offensive workhorse at fullback, carrying a team-high 14 times for 59 yards. Halfback Mike Smith was the leading rusher with 69 yards and a touchdown on six carries, and quarterback Terry Stump completed 4 of 7 passes for 74 yards.
Two weeks later, Ganter scored the first touchdown of the game at Morgantown against West Virginia. But, as Bruce had suggested, the Mountaineer freshmen were better than Pitt and won, 34-17.
No one is more synonymous with Penn State freshman football than Bruce. The coaches before him had other on-field duties in addition to coaching the freshmen, but that was Bruce's prime responsibility for 24 years. He had been the coach since 1946 in what was an unusual arrangement with California State Teachers College (now California University of Pennsylvania), where Bruce was actually the head coach of the football team.
Because of crowded housing conditions on the main campus after the end of World War II, Penn State assigned most freshmen to California. That enabled some of the football freshmen to play on the small college's varsity team, which was then part of the Pennsylvania State Teachers College Athletic Conference.
In 1951, Bruce joined coach Rip Engle's staff as a full-time assistant and coached the freshmen until his retirement after the 1969 season. Every year, at least one graduate assistant would be assigned to help Bruce - and his successors - with the freshmen. John Chuckran, who followed Bruce, had been a Penn State freshman in 1944. However, because freshmen were eligible due to the war, Chuckran not only played on the varsity but was the star tailback and captain of the team, which had a 6-3 record.
After returning from the armed services, Chuckran was a backup tailback on the 1947-49 teams and joined Joe Paterno's coaching staff in 1970 following a stint as head coach and athletic director at Allegheny College. When Chuckran moved into football administration in 1973, Ganter, Chuckran's freshman graduate assistant, succeeded him.
"In those days when I played and coached, the freshman team also served as the scout team," Ganter said. "We'd go out to practice 20 minutes early and practice as a freshman team and then spend the rest of the day with the varsity as scout team."
A two- to four-game schedule had been normal since the 1950s, but often games would be canceled by one team or the other because of injuries or lack of players. "Some of the guys remember me walking up and down the bus asking guys what positions they can play," Ganter said. "We never really put the team together until Thursday and decided who was going to play. Because of that, many guys had to play both offense and defense."
Ganter vividly remembers the first road trip of his initial team. The frosh had easily defeated Milford Academy and Delaware at Beaver Stadium, and on Thursday, Oct. 24, they were traveling to Annapolis for an afternoon game the next day against the Plebes.
"In those days, we carried cash because there were no credit cards," Ganter said, "and I got a cash advance of $600 or $700 in an envelope, which was to pay for our meals, hotel and incidentals. So we get to Ed's Steakhouse in Bedford for lunch. After our lunch, I gave the envelope to the manager who was with me and told him to pay the bill and I'll get the guys on the bus.
"We're more than halfway to Navy, and I asked the manager for the envelope so I can pay the hotel and then I'd give him back the envelope. And he said, 'I gave the envelope to the guy at the restaurant. I thought that was the money for the dinner.' There were no cellphones, so I couldn't call the restaurant. So we're pulling into the hotel and I have no money and no credit card and I've got 35 or 40 guys on the bus who have been riding for four hours.
"All this was going through my head and I was going to go for a pay phone, and here's a guy following us for the last 40 minutes. The guy walked up and said, 'I think you tipped our waiter too much money. The players have never let me live that down."
Ganter also laughs at another off-field incident when he was assisting Chuckran in 1971.
"We were at West Virginia, and Chuckran gave me the bed check assignment," Ganter said. "I go to Greg Murphy's room and he's not there. I ask, 'Where's Murph?' He says, 'I don't know.' Murph is from Brooklyn and I know he's a man of the world, so I'm getting nervous. I walk over to the hotel and I'm passing the bar and he's sitting at the bar having a drink. Now, remember, in New York the drinking age was 18.
"I walked in and said, 'What the hell are you doing?' And he's going, 'This is OK. I'm old enough. I'm 18.' I didn't know what to do. He's such a loveable guy. I was the GA and I didn't want to get him in trouble, a player at 10 o'clock sitting at the bar when he's supposed to be in his room. I got him out of there and didn't report it."
More than 40 years later, when he was in State College as part of the 40th reunion of the undefeated 1973 football team, the one-time outstanding defensive end recalled that night at the bar with a hearty laugh. "I was surprised when Frannie walked in and started chewing me out," Murphy said. "I figured the drinking age [in West Virginia] was the same as back home. Frannie may not remember, but I finished the drink before we left."
The beginning of the end of the freshman teams actually was in 1972, Chuckran's last year as the coach, when the NCAA lifted the restriction on freshman eligibility. By 1977, so many freshmen were playing on the varsity, some becoming starters, that Paterno and his coaches decided to field a junior varsity team that included upperclassmen, primarily to help with recruiting. Although Penn State had junior varsity teams in 1941, '42, '47, '48 and '49, a JV team in the late '70s was a rarity.
"Not many schools had JV teams," Ganter recalled. "I think it was Nebraska that had a big-time JV program, and we thought we should. I remember the discussion. We said if we have a JV program, then we can play teams like Nassau [Community College], Massanutten [Military Academy] and Milford [Academy] and we can recruit. We can see potential recruits as we play them. They're going to be coming to our campus and play live in front of us."
That made sense, because in the early 1970s, Penn State had success in recruiting two players from Nassau: kicker Al Vitello in 1971 and wide receiver/kick returner Rich Mauti in 1975.
In the first game played on an intramural field near the flower gardens, about where law school building is today, the JV team beat Fork Union Military Academy, 17-0, and then lost its only away game, at Nassau, by a similar score before defeating Milford, 35-3, and losing to Wesley (N.J.) Junior College, 10-6.
"I don't remember the first game, but I do remember when we played at Nassau," Curley recalled. "It was a downpour and we played in a mud bath and the players were having fun. It was a crazy day. The one player I remember from that team is Kip Vernaglia but he's the only one I remember.
"The junior varsity was a great opportunity for some really good players who were behind some people because of depth at a position to get on the field at Beaver Stadium. It was an opportunity to have some fun, as opposed to just practicing all the time and not receiving a reward for all your hard work. Four years can be a long time if you don't get the opportunity to play."
The JV teams may have gotten the opportunity to play, but they never received the media coverage the freshman teams did. The Daily Collegian occasionally carried stories about games but sometimes it was just the score and nothing more.
Even the Penn State media guides rarely mentioned the JVs, although the 1982 publication actually had a full page of statistics about the 1981 season in which the team finished 3-2. The Lions outscored their opponents 114-62. Bill Emerson had 179 yards on 48 carries, and Jeff Butya finished with 143 yards on 37 attempts to lead the team in rushing, while quarterback Doug Strang completed 18 of 40 pass attempts for 382 yards and three touchdowns. Two years later, Strang became the starting quarterback.
Two other current members of Penn State's football staff were involved with the JV squad before it was disbanded in 1983 after three games.
"I was a student trainer for football from 1979 to '82 and head trainer in 1982," recalled current head trainer Tim Bream. "I helped out at the junior varsity games. I can't remember all the coaches, but I think John Rosenberg [who coached defensive backs] was one of the coaches, along with a graduate assistant named Brian Ford."
Spider Caldwell, the popular equipment and facilities coordinator, was in his first year as a student manager in 1983 and was assigned to be the equipment manager for the JV games. Graduate assistant Pat Flaherty, who assisted Dick Anderson with the offensive line, was the JV coach.
"The junior varsity was the scout team, so when we played a game, we usually ran the plays of the opponent our varsity was playing that week," Caldwell said. "We would hold the play cards we used in workouts against the varsity, holding up the play cards in the huddle. We would run some of our own plays, but much of the time we would use the scout plays. That way, anyone scouting the JV games to see what plays the varsity ran wouldn't get much. I specifically remember running the West Virginia plays against Fork Union on the intramural field the day before we played West Virginia at Beaver Stadium."
That Fork Union game on Oct. 21 was the second of the season after an earlier game against Nassau. The final JV game was played against Milford on Nov. 11, 1983, but all the final scores have been lost somewhere in the sports archives.
That was nearly 78 years after the original freshman team walloped State College High School, 45-0, in its historic first game on Oct. 2, 1915. Although that game is not listed in the official athletic records, it is noted in the 1917 school yearbook, La Vie. The freshman team didn't lose again until five years later, on Nov. 8, 1919, when Pitt won, 7-0, to end a streak of 18 consecutive victories, including wins over such opponents as Penn, Indiana and Wyoming Seminary and scoreless ties with Pitt and the Bellefonte Academy. A 78-0 victory over Bloomsburg in 1917 set the record for the highest score by a freshman team.
Through the 1920s, the Lions continued to field strong freshman teams, but what's surprising is that the school continued to have a freshman team after de-emphasizing athletics in the 1930s. As part of the de-emphasis, financial aid was eliminated, meaning that the teams of the early 1930s were made up, essentially, of walk-ons and became perennial losers.
The 1931 varsity team is considered the worst in the school's 126-year history, with a 2-8 record, and the freshman team was just as bad. Those frosh were outscored 123-14, with Kiski Prep handing the team its most lopsided loss ever, 65-0
When coach Bob Higgins' alumni friends began recruiting players in the mid-1930s and providing them with jobs and housing, the varsity team improved, and so did the freshman team.
Perhaps the greatest freshman team of all time was the 1941 squad, which was loaded with outstanding players like guard Steve Suhey and end John Potsklan who, after World War II, became the foundation of the varsity's undefeated Cotton Bowl team of 1947. Led by triple-threat tailback Dave Alston - Penn State football's first black player - the 1941 team became the first undefeated freshman team in 15 years.
Coached by Marty McAndrew, the frosh rolled over five opponents: Bucknell (19-10), Colgate (21-0), Syracuse (21-0), Cornell (20-6) and Army (33-8). Alston scored eight touchdowns, passed for three others - two to his brother Harry - and drop-kicked five extra points. The decisive victory over Army is significant because the Cadet frosh would form the foundation of Army's national championship varsity team of 1944. "This game, according to the players, was the toughest and hardest they have ever played in," stated the official record in the Penn State archives.
With the outbreak of World War II, freshmen were eligible from 1942-45, but Penn State did not field another freshman team until Engle became the head coach in 1950. Instead, the Lions had a JV teams that went 0-1-1 in 1942, 3-2 in '48 and 2-1 in '49. (They also played three JV games in '47, but their record is not known.)
Now, declaring the 1941 freshman team the greatest of all time would get a strong argument from the 1968 team. It featured such future standouts as backs Lydell Mitchell and Franco Harris, offensive tackle Dave Joyner, linebacker Gary Gray and defensive back Greg Ducatte. They played only two games, defeating West Virginia, 49-7, in Beaver Stadium before a crowd of 400, and Pitt, 32-13, in a Friday night charity game at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh on Nov. 8 that drew 6,000 fans despite rainy weather.
A Pitt fumble following the opening kickoff led immediately to an 8-yard touchdown by quarterback Bob Parsons, and minutes later Mitchell scored after the defense forced a punt. The Lions had a 20-point lead on a pass interception for a touchdown by linebacker Mike Reitz, who also kicked the two extra points before Pitt finally scored just before the half. When Pitt scored again late in the fourth quarter, Penn State had 32 points, including another interception by Reitz for a touchdown.
"I remember the game well," said Joyner, now Penn State's athletic director. "It was one of the last athletic events at Forbes Field, and they were starting to dismantle the stadium for their move the next season to Three Rivers [Stadium]. We dressed in the Pirates' locker room, and I remember seeing the names of [Roberto] Clemente, [Willie Stargell] and others above the lockers. A lot of us were awed that we were in the same locker room where Clemente and Stargell dressed.
"I also remember the rain and the mud, and we were having fun because we were beating the heck out of our biggest rival. But it was an eerie feeling under the lights and because of the weather, and I didn't think there were more than 1,000 people there. That was a great freshman team, and I can't see how there was ever a better one."