It may kill Rip Engle, Penn State's coach, to hear about it, but he has a fine football team. Success, you see, makes Engle miserable. By crushing a supposedly formidable Navy team last week 41-7 Penn State threatened to make this the most miserable season of Engle's life. It also proved that State is the best team in the East and perhaps one of the best in the country.
Engle has a whole locker full of outstanding players. There is, for instance, Roger Kochman, the moody but brilliant halfback, who as a sophomore ran back a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown against Syracuse, the national champions. Kochman is a bit of a hypochondriac—"He wouldn't be Kochman if he was healthy," said a local newspaperman—and in practice he jogs when others run, but his coaches look away and wait for Saturday afternoons. Last Saturday afternoon against Navy, Kochman ran all over the place, skirting end, smashing through the middle, leaping high to catch passes and generally looking very much like the All-America many people think he is.
Penn State also has a solid wall of tough linemen, led by two giants, Chuck Sieminski and Dave Robinson, both sure bets for the pros. Teammates have nicknamed Sieminski, a 6-foot-5, 255-pound tackle, "the biggest man in the world." Robinson, an end, is a mere 6 feet 3 and 220 pounds. When Engle and his staff want to test the courage of new men they line them up in scrimmage against Sieminski and Robinson. Those who survive have made the team.
But the team pet is a little man, Junior Powell, a 165-pound halfback. A couple of winters ago Powell was racing someone in the gymnasium with such enthusiasm that he crashed into the wall and broke his jaw. "All my life," says Rip Engle, "I've been looking for a back who could run through a brick wall." Navy was no brick wall, but Saturday Powell ran through it for two touchdowns anyway.
In spite of these players, Engle was worried about the game with Navy. To Engle no sky is completely blue, no rose without its thorn. What bothered him was that he didn't have a quarterback, someone to replace last year's star, Galen Hall. Technically he had three quarterbacks, but none with enough experience. "It's like going into the World Series with a rookie pitcher," said Joe Paterno, the backfield coach. Engle agreed. "We won't know anything until we see how our quarterbacks act," he said. Saturday they acted. Pete Liske, Don Caum and Ron Coates completed 16 of 24 throws for 234 yards. Passing, as much as running, was responsible for the lopsided score.
Around Penn State, Engle's gloom is taken about as seriously as a course in home decoration. Were he to be playing Vassar on Saturday, he would try to convince people that his second team is weak and that Vassar has some good halfbacks. He starts a football week in doubt, goes on to despair and finally to expectant disaster. One morning last week he stood in the lobby of the Nittany Lion Inn studying the floor. "I just saw the Today program," he said somberly. "Lescoulie picks Navy. That's wise."
Despite this constantly gloomy outlook, Rip Engle has never had a losing season in his 12 years at Penn State. Even this bothers him. "We're fighting the law of averages," he mumbles. Engle's teams have won three bowl games in the last three years, but he will not tolerate talk of a fourth. "You've mentioned a naughty word," said Mrs. Engle one evening as Engle winced. He is still trying to explain how Penn State scored 30 points in the Gator Bowl last year against a Georgia Tech team that had allowed only 50 points all season. "They handed us the last 10 points," he says defensively.
For all this grumbling, Rip Engle is a charming man, soft-spoken, courteous and thoughtful. Throw a black robe over his shoulders and he could play the part of a Supreme Court justice. He has close-cropped white hair, cool blue eyes and a weathered complexion. At 54, his body is still compact. He doesn't smoke or drink. "His only vice," says Jim Tarman, State's sports publicity man, "is his car. He's a potential hot rodder." Engle drives a dark blue Cadillac equipped with air-conditioning, soft carpeting and a ship's compass. "When I drive into a strange town I like to know where I'm going," he says.
Engle drove into Penn State in 1950, having left Brown University where he had been head coach for six years. Penn State is located right in the middle of Pennsylvania or, as some people say, equidistant from nowhere. The university was founded in 1855 as a farmers' high school with a student body of 60. Later it became a college and finally, in 1953, it gained university status. It is huge today—about 17,000 students and 180 buildings covering 4,000 acres—and it is still growing.
The football stadium was once in the heart of the campus, but several years ago it was picked up and moved—in 700 pieces—to a new location about a mile away. Now it sits in the middle of the agricultural school, looking like an abandoned aircraft carrier. Cows graze not far from the end zone. A short while ago Coach Engle was showing the campus to George Munger, the former coach at the University of Pennsylvania. On the way to the stadium they passed a large bull standing near the fence. Munger looked at it for a minute and then bellowed: "Moo, moo. I'll give you room and board."
Despite Engle's gloomy predictions before Navy, a large portion of the Penn State student body returned to the campus to watch the game, even though classes would not begin until the following Monday. Two current magazines had ranked Penn State 12th and sixth. "These polls are based on hearsay," said Engle. "They asked me to rank Ohio State. I don't know what Woody Hayes's got, but I put them first because I'd read they were good. No one knows what we'll be like. Expect the worst and hope for the best, I always say."
Navy's coach, Wayne Hardin, was expecting the best. "Penn State is rated No. 1, and that's the way we like it," he said. ("How can we be number one before we play?" asked Engle.) "I can assure you that we won't be scared," Hardin continued. ("We wouldn't want them to be scared," Engle said.) Hardin announced that John Sai, Navy's leading runner last year, was hurt. ("He'll play," said Engle.) "Defense," concluded Hardin, "will be the issue. I don't think we can stop them cold, but we can cut down their scoring." ("We'll have to cut down their scoring," said Engle, and later: "I feel like I'm sitting on a bomb.")
The bomb exploded on Saturday afternoon, but Hardin, not Engle, was sitting on it. Penn State received the kickoff and moved swiftly on the ground, Kochman, Powell and Al Gursky, a strong halfback, one of many, running well. Navy held near its goal, but minutes later State was back and this time it scored, Quarterback Pete Liske sending Gursky through the line without the ball and then flipping him a soft five-yard pass for a touchdown. The rest of the game was a sleighride. The final score of 41-7 might just as easily have been 55-7.
Engle was, of course, pleased, especially with his three quarterbacks—Liske in particular—who had passed accurately and had run the team with poise. True to form, however, he said that the whole team still needed a lot of work. Hardin could only shake his head: "I wish I had Engle's quarterback problems," he said.
By winning so convincingly, Penn State must now be considered not only as the class of the East but as a legitimate national power. Its next opponent is Air Force, and of course Air Force will win. Just ask Rip Engle.