Even as they equipped student interns with fliers, bullhorns, sandwich boards, golf carts and anything white they could find, the crew behind Penn State's football marketing in 2004 wondered how their plan might work.
Could they really get more than 20,000 Penn State students to wear white to a football game during a glum season in the days before Twitter, texting, and TikTok? Obviously, Guido D'Elia said, people were nervous.
"We did everything we could," Penn State's former director of branding and communications said, "because we knew that, if it didn't work the first time, it wouldn't work at all."
Seventeen years later, Penn State is preparing to host more than 110,000 fans Saturday night against Auburn for what has become perhaps the single greatest atmosphere in American sports. The Penn State White Out, a trademarked phrase, is a showcase, a spectacle and a brand with which the university, its alumni and sports fans nationwide identify.
More than 1.3 million people have attended the 12 full-stadium White Out games Penn State has hosted since 2007, turning Beaver Stadium into a wall of white and sound. Former Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, who visited for four White Out games, has said that the atmosphere is worth a 10-point advantage for the Nittany Lions. Players used to tell D'Elia that they had to pinch their helmets to stop them from vibrating because of the sound. And athletic directors across the country have approached Penn State for years to ask, "How did you do that?"
"If you're a sports fan, you need to have a White Out on your bucket list," Penn State coach James Franklin said. "It's something I think everybody should experience."
But Beaver Stadium wasn't always such a destination.
'Everyone's got a white T-shirt'
Beaver Stadium, the nation's second-largest venue, has a capacity of 106,572, a dizzying 110 rows in its East stands and at one time the reputation for being unintimidating. Through several expansions since its early days as a 46,000-seat horseshoe, Beaver Stadium gained size but lost sound. D'Elia noticed that effect acutely in 2004.
He was on the field with a marketing team member when Penn State played UCF in mid-September. The announced crowd was a sizable 101,715, and Penn State won 37-13. But all D'Elia saw were disinterested, quiet students, many of whom were sitting.
This was a dreary time for Penn State football, with three losing seasons in four years and another one coming. These kids needed a jolt.
"I said, 'Just look at how many students are not having any fun, just not getting what fun it could be,'" said D'Elia, now a gameday and marketing consultant for college football programs nationwide. "It flashed to me that it was like a full dance floor. When there's a full dance floor, you're more likely to get a bunch more people out there dancing."
Penn State needed a hook, and D'Elia had an idea. What about a uniform? If Penn State could get more than 20,000 students to dress in unison, maybe they would act in unison. Then came idea No. 2.
"Everyone's got a white T-shirt," D'Elia said.
'We thought we had a chance'
After the UCF game, the marketing, business and communications units went to work. Since the Lions would play consecutive road games, the athletics staff had two weeks to flood the students with their White Out plans before the next home game against Purdue.
This being 2004, however, they couldn't flood social media with the idea, and Thefacebook (as it was known then) was of no use. Further, Penn State wouldn't release student email addresses, so the departments began a grassroots marketing blitz.
They sent interns to classrooms and dining halls to explain the concept. Students sat at busy campus corners and dorm quads with bullhorns, shouting at people to wear white.
Interns drove around campus in golf carts, occasionally with the Nittany Lion mascot in tow, to spread the news. They left leaflets on car windshields downtown. The athletic department made a commercial with a driver in a white bus saying, "It's White Out week."
Even on gameday, interns stood outside dorms with bullhorns imploring students to change their shirts if they weren't wearing white.
"We thought we had a chance," said Greg Myford, then the athletic department's associate director of business and communications. "And the students responded."
The first student White Out was a huge success, even though the game wasn't. No. 9 Purdue won 20-13, with receiver Taylor Stubblefield scoring the eventual game-winning touchdown. Stubblefield now is Penn State's receivers coach and will experience his first White Out on the home sideline Saturday.
Still, then-Purdue coach Joe Tiller called Beaver Stadium "the most challenging environment we've been in all year, even more challenging than what we faced last week [at Notre Dame]." Penn State had something with the White Out, which the students took upon themselves to recreate two weeks later against Iowa.
Penn State nearly derailed the White Out later that season, though, twice calling for fans to wear blue against Northwestern and Michigan State. "Against my better judgment," D'Elia said. Fans didn't relate to the attempted "Code Blue," the idea dissolved, and Penn State returned to the White Out in 2005.
Then Kirk Herbstreit came to town.
'The best student section in the country'
Penn State was 5-0 and ranked 16th in 2005 when No. 6 Ohio State arrived along with ESPN Gameday. Naturally, the students wore white, and they thundered.
At halftime, ESPN wheeled a mobile set onto the field, from which Herbstreit pointed and said, "That's the best student section in the country. They're crazy."
"And we all just said, 'Yesssss!" D'Elia recalled. "There's our marketing campaign for the next two years."
Penn State beat Ohio State 17-10, the statement game of its rebound season that produced a Big Ten title. Penn State Athletics wanted to capitalize on this momentum in 2006 and sought a date for the first full-stadium White Out. But D'Elia asked everyone to look ahead.
In 2007, Penn State would host Notre Dame in the second game of the season. The weather would be warm, and Penn State could spend the season-opener against FIU drumming home the White Out message on the stadium scoreboards. That would be the debut.
A crowd of 110,078, the overwhelming majority in white, attended the game to form what then was the second-highest attendance in school history. Penn State beat Notre Dame 31-10, and, in less than three years, Beaver Stadium had become one of the nation's most intimidating venues.
In a 2007 ESPN the Magazine survey, coaches voted Beaver Stadium as the loudest and most atmospheric they had seen. Later that season, when Penn State hosted Ohio State, an acoustics team measured a sound pressure level in the stadium of 122 decibels. Or, as the researchers reported, "loud enough to cause physical pain on the eardrum."
"When you get an event like a White Out, and those types of visuals, and that type of excitement with that age group, it's like a wildfire," said Myford, now the athletic director at the University of Alaska Anchorage. "And it started with the students."
'They made themselves a factor'
The White Out took an enforced pause in 2020 because of COVID-19, but Penn State still held a modified White Out against Ohio State. A Penn State theater class even created a playlist of ambient sound that included Beaver Stadium's famous cowbells.
The White Out is more than a spectacle; it has become a lifeblood event for Penn State football. Franklin said that more than 300 recruits and their guests normally attend the game, with demand so intense that he has to decline many ticket requests. Its return in 2021 has major ramifications for the university, the town and the football program.
The 2013 White Out game, which Penn State won in four overtimes against Michigan, marked the beginning of Saquon Barkley's transformation from Rutgers recruit to Penn State recruit. Among the high school prospects expected to attend Saturday is Jadyn Davis, the top-ranked quarterback recruit of the 2024 class according to 247Sports.
"The impact and the electricity that it provides to our town and for our state and for the hotels and restaurants and bars and local economy, for our students and for our campus and community, I think it's special. I really do," Franklin said. "You talk about putting us in position for our future in recruiting and showing student-athletes the type of environment that they'll be able to play in, in one of the most beautiful settings in college football. When it comes to the campus, the town, and the community, all these things matter."
Penn State's White Out record is 8-8, largely because the event is scheduled for the biggest home game each season. But as an event, the White Out helped bring a stadium and a fan base to life. And this November, when Penn State plays Michigan, the student-only White Out will return.
"When they put on their whites, they expect to be intimidating, and they are," D'Elia said. "They made themselves a factor. Wearing white is part of the crowd's identity now, and their identity has become part of the Penn State brand. That's much better than the folks who came up with it.
"It has a life of its own now. Our fans have adopted this as their role. When they get in their whites, they mean business. They're an intimidating force, and just about every coach will tell you that."