The Cutting Room Floor

Some material I submitted to the publisher for the primary content for this book was deemed unsuitable for print. As such I will use this forum to periodically publish random items left on the proverbial ‘cutting room floor.’

The Freshman Experience

 

Anyone’s freshman year at college can be a fairly traumatic experience. You’re 18 years old, on your own for the first time for an extended period, meeting new people, etc. Here are some random reflections from Penn State players who arrived on campus in 1978 & 1979 as naïve newcomers….

Members of the 1979 recruiting class spent their first two weeks on campus crammed into hideously outdated single-story dormitorys that were located adjacent to the indoor ice rink but very near the practice fields in the southwest corner of campus. To my knowledge it may have been the only year any Paterno-coached squad ever stayed there in the pre-season, a possible ‘penalty’ for losing to Alabama in the Sugar Bowl the previous January. These military-style ‘army barracks’ would eventually be converted into single occupancy dorm rooms in the coming years however in August, 1979 Paterno decided to wedge in his players two to a room. Joe was kind enough to pipe in air conditioning to these  rectangular buildings a likely ploy to get us to forget the fact that each room was roughly the size of a walk-in closet that some players described as  ‘jail cells.’ Nearly all of the incoming freshmen roomed together alphabetically according to their last names. I happened to draw Todd Blackledge as my freshman fall camp roommate. Blackledge: “The one thing I remember was how close those barracks were to the locker rooms. I’m not sure if Joe was trying to save money but they were not spacious living conditions by any means. The next year they put us up in East Halls. Somebody would unlock the gates which allowed us to walk through the chicken coops as a short cut to and from the locker room. The smell was so nasty it almost made you never want to eat eggs again. Warner: “My first ever college roommate was Mark Battaglia a decision which, as I understood it, was made by Tim Curley. Even though they cut a big hole in the ceiling of those army barracks to pump in cool air, it was pretty miserable. We were doing three-a-day practices and it was a very tough camp. You’re homesick, you feel like don’t know what you’ve got yourself into and I was glad it was over when it was over.

 

A few of the returning upperclassmen left a rather intimidating initial impression. Blackledge: “All freshmen have that deer in the headlights look. My very first day I walked into the locker room I saw Bruce Clark and Matt Millen. They were two of the biggest football players I had ever seen. I thought to myself ‘what in the world am I doing here?’ I was that big fish from that little pond who just  jumped into a big old lake.”  One year earlier, both Mark Battaglia and Mike Meade also experienced the same apprehension upon their arrival.  Battaglia: “I arrive in August of 1978, a seminal event in my life that I remember to this day. My dad drove me up to camp and I don’t ever remember being so nervous. We stopped at Dick’s Diner in Blairsville and I just could not eat anything. As soon as we exit the car upon arrival at the locker room these two blue double doors to the weight room open up and almost on que out walks Bruce Clark and Matt Millen apparently having just bench pressed the world. Both of our jaws dropped and my dad turns to me and asks “are you sure you want to do this?” That fall I strained my quad, Joe redshirted me and buried me as the foreign team.  I was 220 pounds not your ideal center by an means going against Tony Petruccio, Lance Mehl, Clark and Millen. You realize quickly how much bigger and stronger you needs to be in order to play.” 

 

Mike Meade was a bruising 220 lb. fullback who was also part of the 1978 Delaware high school state champ track team. A fellow incoming freshman who played the same position in high school made a pretty quick first impression on him. Meade: “I get to the dorms my first day and am unpacking my footlocker in my room. This broad-shouldered brute walks by the open door, stops then enters and extends his right hand and in this frightfully low voice says ‘Mike Munchak. I’m from Scranton. I play fullback and linebacker.” I took one look at what appeared to be a small canned ham attached to this guy’s wrist and introduced myself using the absolute lowest octave / vocal range I could muster. After he left my room, I recall thinking to myself, ‘they brought ME here to play fullback? That dude was twice as big as I was!’ The freshman learning curve, the level of competition and expectations were all high.

 

Williams: “Your freshman year you feel you’re never gonna ‘get’ it. They hand you a giant playbook and you are with other freshmen who don’t know anything either. The only thing I got right on my first day of practice day was where do I stand in the huddle.” 

 

Warner: “The bar was set pretty high when we came in joining a team that was a goal line stand away of winning the national championship. Winning ten games each year was the norm, winning just about EVERY  game was expected. You were also expected to handle both the academic and athletic aspects while maintaining standards that were already in place. There was a LOT of talent in the backfield, we had a lot of quality  running backs to choose from Guman, Suhey, Coles, Meade, Booker Moore, a room full of future NFL talent when I arrived. We all had a mutual respect for each other but you understood very clearly you had to go out and compete if you were ever gonna get on the field.”

 

Coaches had a different perspective  as far as what to expect and how to handle incoming freshmen. Dick Anderson: You can’t baby them (freshmen) too much but you also can’t lose them” Said Anderson. “Coaches need to exercise empathy in handling them so they make it through. You can lose someone who turns out to be a great player. If you can get them adjusted you often find you have a whole different character the following year. They have to have some degree of fun. You don’t want to lose them the first time around because they had a negative first experience. It really is no different than any freshman adjusting to life on campus. That transition & development from unsure freshman to confident player always gave me a great sense of satisfaction.”   

 

Inside The Numbers

 

Since 1970, only six of the 56 national champions (1982 Penn State, 1993 Florida State, 1996 Florida, 2006 Florida, 2012 Alabama and 2015 Alabama) played four teams ranked in the AP Top 15 on the road in the year they won their title. Of those six teams, 1982 Penn State’s percentage of Top 15 opponents played on the road ( 33%) is the HIGHEST of all 56 national champions. NOTE: I do include the team’s bowl game as a road game IF the game was played at a venue not considered the champion’s ‘home field’. In other words I consider the Miami Hurricanes playing their bowl game in the Orange Bowl or USC playing in the Rose Bowl as a ‘home’ game.

 

The grid posted on page 198 in the book illustrates that 1982 Penn State played four teams rankled in the AP Top 5 and six teams ranked in the Top 15 (the values for all 56 champions in the modern era are found on the ”# of Ranked Opponents Played’ page under the Sortable Data tab of this site). Pure speculation here but given Joe Paterno’s obsession for scheduling the best teams college football had to offer I contend that, given the opportunity to play additional games in the 1982 season, the Nittany Lions would have likely scheduled even more ranked teams.

 

1978 USC and 1982 Penn State are the only  teams in college football history to win a national championship with an Opponent Win/Loss percentage above .625 and an SoS value over 10.00. SoS values had dropped off slightly in the ’90’s due to, among other things, the advent of overtime.

 

James Vautravers’ website, www.TipTop25.com, offers some very insightful points on the topic of schedule strength: 

  1. “..simply looking at the winning percentage of a team’s opponents… just isn’t very valuable…adding in the winning percentage of their opponents’ opponents is misleading… because a typical 8-4 MAC team, for example, is far, far different from a typical 8-4 SEC team…”
  2. “…the relative difference in power of the weak teams on (a team’s) schedule is nearly meaningless. What matters most is the strongest opponents they played…AP poll voters tend to do a poor job of accounting for strength of schedule.
  3. “..When comparing the performance of two teams, you may need to break their games up into categories by power level of opponent. Close wins over bad teams are a negative. Close wins over top 10 teams are not. If one team has a lot more close games than another, it might be because that team played a lot more rated and winning opponents…” 

 

In the book I cite the 2014 Ohio State Buckeyes as an example of weaker schedule strength in the playoff era. The trend continues as 2016 champion Clemson Tigers faced thirteen opponents who appeared in bowl games with six of those teams (46%) finishing their regular season with at least five losses. By contrast, none of the opponents 1982 Penn State faced that appeared in bowl games lost more than four games. Teams may be playing more games but we are seeing a gradual decline in the overall quality of opponents they face.

 

The 1982-83 Pennsylvania Sports Landscape

 

The Keystone State was the epicenter for three other landmark sporting achievements that occurred within six months of the Nittany Lions securing their first national title which may have served to overshadow, to some degree, Penn State’s accomplishments:

  1. August 28, 1982,…Williamsport, PA  – A team from Kirkland, Washington defeated Taiwan ending that country’s five-year domination in the Little League World Series. Kirkland snapped Taiwan’s 31-game World Series winning streak, a record that still stands to this day.
  2. May 31, 1983,….Philadelphia, PA  –  The 76ers captured their first NBA crown since 1966-67 with a four-game sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers. It would be the last NBA Finals to end prior to June.
  3. June 20, 1983 ….Oakmont, PA – Larry Nelson won his lone U.S. Open in dramatic fashion, making up seven shots over the final two rounds to beat Tom Watson by a single stroke. Nelson’s 65-67 finish broke a 51-year Open record. Nelson’s two-day, 10-under par 132 record score has yet to be equaled.

 

In Scores Of Other Games…

 

As a player you had to be pretty clueless if you didn’t pick up on the information occasionally offered up by the public address announcer during breaks in the action during games in Beaver Stadium. People literally held their collective breaths and stopped whatever they were doing whenever the phrase ‘In scores of other games’ was heard. To add to the drama, the announcer would always add a brief pause if any of the scores impacted Penn State’s status in the polls.  

During interviews both Allen brothers offered up crystal clear recollections of these somewhat biased anouncements.

“I was in the sixth grade seated with the rest of my family in section NW for the 1978 N.C. State game,” said Pete Allen. “I distinctly remember what came over the stadium loudspeakers that day: ‘in scores of other games… Oklahoma 14, a short pause then…Nebraska 17.’ The place went nuts. It was so exciting in that stadium that day when they announced that because it meant we were would be ranked as the top team in the nation for the first time ever. Sports Illustrated  had just put Chuck Fusina on their cover then two weeks later we beat Pitt 17-10 to head into the Sugar Bowl against Alabama ranked number one in the country.”

Older brother Patrick enjoyed how the crowd reacted to these announcements. “The announcer would always pause a bit when broadcasting any score involving ranked teams and it seemed like all 84,000 fans would hold their breath in anticipation,” he said. “It really got the fans on the edge of their seats and they would react approvingly cheering if either Pitt or Notre Dame was behind.”

During our 1982 game against N.C. State it was a bit of déjà vu with the very same opponent on the opposite sideline. This from noted Penn State historian Lou Prato’s book Game Changers: The Greatest Plays in Penn State Football History: “November 11, 1978 – Penn State 19, North Carolina State 10: With No. 2 Penn State holding on to a 12-10 lead with 4:40 left and the crowd of 59,424 growing restless, Matt Suhey returned a punt 43 yards for a touchdown to clinch the victory. As soon as Suhey scored, it was announced that No. 1 Oklahoma had lost in Lincoln to Nebraska, 17-14. Three days later, Penn State was ranked No. 1 for the first time ever.”

Our sideline was fired up after they announced the Pitt-Notre Dame score over the loudspeaker in the waning moments of our 54-0 blowout over the Wolfpack since everyone now realized we had managed to play our way right back into contention for the elusive national title.

 

More Reflections on Paterno

 

Joe Paterno may have treated all players fairly but on occasion he did not treat them all equally.  in order to get players’ attention there were times he wasn’t the benevolent patriarch people envisioned. “There was no question that Joe would get in players’ faces during practice,” recalled Dick Anderson. “Some would mind their p’s and q’s, others would get really nervous, others would walk off, maybe even quit the team. It was designed to get both the individual’s as well as the team’s attention. Joe would look for opportunities if he needed to spur the team. The coaches all understood what Joe was trying to do, to get a message across. He felt there were times you had to shake the tree, to push a few buttons to get a guy to go from good to great. His philosophy was ‘Hey we know you are pretty good but we think you can be better.’

 

Joe would begin every team meeting in the center of a room surrounded by his players who were seated either in undersized classroom chairs with armrests or in padded foldout bleacher seats in a room with giant wall dividers that served as partitions whenever the team meeting ended and we broke into individual positional meetings.

Mike Suter recalls Joe reinforcing what he preached during the recruiting process. “In one squad meeting I remember Joe saying ‘Listen, I don’t care if your parents complain to me about your playing time. I have two jobs – to make sure you graduate and to field the best possible team I can for Penn State.”

 

Paterno’s micromanaging could also border on a near-obsession. “I couldn’t stand my original freshman roommate Rick D’Amico,” recalled Battaglia. “It was just not working out. He was a city kid from Morningside (an inner city neighborhood in Pittsburgh) and he called me a ‘pencil-necked geek from Upper St. Clair’. The noises I heard come out of that body were not human. After about two weeks we decided to switch roommates on our own. Rick moved in with Sean Farrell while I began rooming with Dave Opfar. After finding out about it Joe just reams us out in a squad meeting. ‘You guys gotta learn to live together!’ It was his way of reinforcing a basic rule that changing roommates without his approval was simply not tolerated. There were reasons he wanted certain guys to room with certain other guys. Over the years I have found that every organization has people who either question management’s decisions or may be ‘defeatists’ – people who moan and groan about doing extra work. The challenge is trying to get everyone to row in the right direction. Part of it requires people with the same virtues, people with a ‘we’re all gonna do the right thing and we’re all gonna do it right together’ beliefs. We had that in 1982. It is a lesson I will never forget for the rest of my life.”

 

 

Six Of One, Half a Dozen of the Other

 

Position battles at the major college level were (and likely still is) pretty intense however the competition at some of the more prestigious ones attracted more attention than others.  That certainly was the case at Penn State in the early 80’s. 

Early on the book reveals that NFL Hall of Fame quarterback (and cancer survivor) Jim Kelly was recruited by PSU as a linebacker in 1978 and opted instead to follow Howard Schnellenberger to ‘The U’. The following year Todd Blackledge and Jeff Hostetler were both standout scholastic signal callers – part of a talented 1979 high school recruiting class that included names like Elway, Marino and Dickerson.

Joe Paterno had a difficult choice to make between the two in the spring of 1981. Joe gave the nod to Blackledge and Hostetler soon transferred to West Virginia. Each ended up eclipsing most of the passing records at their respective schools before becoming future starting NFL quarterbacks.

Receivers’ coach Booker Brooks offered some intriguing perspective on a factor that played a key role in Paterno’s decision.  “We had quarterbacks like Tom Shuman, John Hufnagel and Chuck Fusina who all had necessary arm strength but Todd (Blackledge) had a rocket. He was throwing a heavy ball in high school and his receivers were just dropping his passes” said Brooks. “I told him ‘don’t change a damn thing. We’ll have receivers at Penn State who will be able to catch your passes.’ In our opinion Jeff pulled the ball down too many times when we had open receivers. There was no question that he (Jeff) could make some thrilling runs but when you have guys open 25 yards down the field you gotta get the ball to them. Todd had the discipline to stay in the pocket. It was a very difficult decision to make between two great athletes.”

 

More C.R.F. coming soon!