On the winter banquet circuit Coach Joe Paterno of Penn State averaged three speeches a week and he invariably opened his talks with a deep sigh and the words: "O.K., I might as well start with the Gator Bowl thing." Then he would recall the catastrophic moment last December 30 when his Nittany Lions were leading Florida State 17-0 in the third quarter and had the ball, fourth and a yard to go, on their own 15. Paterno ordered the Lions to go for it. They fell just short, Florida State scored twice in the next 69 seconds, got a field goal at the end of the game and came up with a 17-17 tie. "Yes, I admit it was a dumb call," says Paterno, "but I'd do it again tomorrow. Who knows? We might do it the first game of this season. If a coach can't make a decision outside the percentages, the school might as well hire a computer coach. We're going to gamble, and we're going to play exciting football."
It was Paterno's scrambling gambles that made for Penn State's fine 8-2 record last year as well as for one of the most stimulating seat-of-the-pants revivals of the season. When the Lions lost their first game to a so-so Navy team 23-22, Paterno benched most of his senior lettermen, thrust eight cocky sophomores into his starting lineup and redesigned his defense. That did it: the Lions lost just once more, a valiant 17-15 effort against UCLA, and thus came within three points of having an undefeated season. They compiled this streak of successes despite the fact that their No. 1 linebacker, Mike Reid, and their best runner, Bob Campbell, spent most of the season recuperating from surgery. "Who knows?" says Paterno, "if we hadn't lost to Navy, we might have been 2-8."
There is no chance of any 2-8 nonsense this year, but Paterno is still no man to cling to the status quo. Even though he has 14 first-stringers back, including those pesky sophomores and Campbell and Reid, Paterno spent much of his spring-practice time juggling and rejuggling his lineups. The final result is that eight men will be in different positions this fall.
On the offense Paterno's major mission was to find replacements for Quarterback Tom Sherman and Split End Jack Curry, who holds every pass-receiving record at Penn State. Junior Chuck Burkhart, an all-but-untried understudy to Sherman last season, will probably be Paterno's quarterback. Although Burkhart does not have a strong arm, he was fairly impressive during spring sessions and completed 40 of 68 passes in his last two scrimmages. Paterno is the first to admit that Burkhart may be no more than adequate, saying, "He's not going to be any wonder quarterback, but he'll get the job done."
September 8, 1968
There are two men vying to replace Curry. One is senior Leon Angevine, who was a defensive halfback much of last fall, and the other is sophomore Greg Edmonds, a youngster who is blessed with fast reactions. The interior offensive line has been shaken up, partly to add speed and partly to fill up the holes left by graduation losses. Dave Bradley has moved from guard to tackle to pair with John Kulka, the only man in the interior line playing the same position he did last year. Dave Rakiecki, an ex-middle guard, and Gary Williams, formerly a tight end, are at the guards, and sophomore Warren Koegel will probably be at center.
Naturally, Paterno is worried about the lack of experience in several positions, but one spot where there should be no problem of any kind is at tight end. That belongs to Ted Kwalick, the 6'4", 230-pound All-America who can run 40 yards in 4.6 seconds, has hands so big that he cannot find gloves to fit them and is so much a master of his position that a Dallas Cowboy scout says flatly, "Kwalick could start right now for almost any NFL team there is." Last year Kwalick caught 33 passes for 563 yards and four touchdowns. If Burkhart can hit him frequently, Kwalick will improve on that record this season.
Except for the quarterback, the Penn State backfield must be rated one of the best in the country, although there is an enormous if: Fullback Don Abbey, who was one of Paterno's sophomores last fall when he led the team in scoring with 88 points, had a winter knee operation, missed all of spring practice and is now in a wait-and-see condition as to whether his knee will hold up. If it does, Abbey's explosive inside punch, his pass-catching talent and his placekicking ability will present Paterno with tremendous backfield versatility. Halfback Campbell is an old-fashioned triple-threat tailback with speed and open-field elusiveness, and Charlie Pittman, another of last year's whiz kids, is a good outside speedster as well as an able pass receiver.
Of his defense, Paterno says, "We'll have more speed than last year, but it's not a big unit. In fact, it's the smallest I can remember." It isn't small, it's tiny. The front four, Tackles Jim Kates and Steve Smear and Ends Frank Spaziani and Lincoln Lippincott, average no more than 210 pounds, with Kates being the biggest at 225. But they are scrappy, and if they should allow some holes now and then Penn State's linebackers can plug them up. With the exception of sophomore Jack Ham, all are veterans. Mike Reid was back close to top form in the spring, and both Pete Johnson and Denny Onkotz, who intercepted six passes in '67, look solid. The secondary, with Paul Johnson and Mike Smith, both ex-running backs, at the corners and Neal Smith at safety, seems to be considerably speedier than last year's. All three, however, will be playing unfamiliar positions.
Although Joe Paterno could never be called a pessimist, he is aware of his team's weaknesses, the major one being the thinness of his reserves. The squad was hard hit by injuries in spring practice. "We have a depth problem everywhere," Paterno says. "With our schedule we must be concerned how we'll hold up over 10 games—and right now, I'm worried." There are few patsies in Penn State's future, which includes UCLA, Miami, Army, West Virginia and Syracuse. Yet Paterno is a realist as well as a risker, and when all the doubts and ifs about his team have been discussed, he confides, "We really could be better than last year."
If that's true Joe Paterno may find him-self with yet another bowl game decision. Half the fascination of the moment will be watching to see if gambling Joe goes "outside the percentages" again. The percentages are that he will.