Schoolboy smart and farm-boy strong, Jeff Hostetler of Hollsopple, Pa. was the classic Penn State football recruit three autumns back—another eager young man from another small (pop. 900) Pennsylvania town on his way to fun and fame under Joe Paterno's wing. There was even a strong family link in that Jeff's older brothers, Doug and Ron, each had earned three letters playing for the Nittany Lions. Ah yes, there would be another happy Hostetler in Happy Valley.
It never happened. Hostetler, disheartened by what he considered unfair treatment by Paterno, announced that he was leaving Penn State in January of 1981 and enrolled at West Virginia the following August. Now he's happy again. "West Virginia? It's almost heaven," he says, echoing the song line like a born-again Mountaineer. But Hostetler's is no false conversion: He spent last summer working a coal tipple near Morgantown.
He has also made a lot of people in Morgantown happy by spending the last two Saturday afternoons leading West Virginia to victories. Two weeks ago Hostetler completed 17 of 37 passes for 321 yards and four touchdowns in the Mountaineers' 41-27 upset of Oklahoma in Norman. Then, at home, last Saturday against Maryland, he was 19-of-37 for 285 yards, and his audible led to a 35-yard fourth-quarter touchdown pass to Wide Receiver Rich Hollins that sealed a 19-18 win.
All of which leads to the suspicion that when Quarterback Oliver Luck, who last season guided West Virginia to a 9-3 record and now is with the Houston Oilers, graduated, he must have passed the keys to success directly to Hostetler, who had understudied Luck while observing the NCAA one-year ineligibility rule for transfer students. Hostetler's performance against Oklahoma was impressive by any standard, but it was especially so because he hadn't taken a snap in game conditions since December of 1980.
Before the largest crowd in Oklahoma history (75,008), he rallied West Virginia from an early 14-0 deficit and then engineered two fourth-quarter scoring drives that broke a 27-27 tie. He didn't throw an interception, despite a ferocious pounding by the Oklahoma defense that prompted Mountaineer Trainer Greg Ott to simply put the word "body" next to Hostetler's name in the postgame injury report.
Although his play wasn't as sparkling against Maryland, Hostetler showed that he has a touch for all occasions. On the first play from scrimmage he floated a 43-yard toss into the hands of Wayne Brown. Later in the quarter he zinged a 21-yard bullet over the middle to Darrell Miller. And soon after that he led Mark Raugh perfectly on a rollout that gained 25 yards. He can even throw the ball away with style. As he was pursued hard from the right side on one play, he switched hands to avoid a sack and threw a lefthanded pass that was good enough to avoid an intentional grounding call. That kept the Mountaineers in range for a 44-yard Paul Woodside field goal, one of four he kicked in the game.
Despite Hostetler's versatility, the word most people use to describe him is "strong." He's 6'3" and 212 pounds, and his nickname is Hoss, as in Hoss is BOSS, the message that appears on the Mountaineer Field scoreboard. Around Hollsopple, the family's last name is pronounced HOE-stetler, but Jeffs father, Norman, prefers HOSS-stetler. "I like that hard sound," he says. "I like the kid to be thought of as a hoss."
"The first time I saw him, saw his size and saw him throw, I knew he could be the one to replace Ollie," says Raugh, an All-America tight end who caught five passes for 49 yards against Maryland. "Jeff's a little better athlete than Ollie was," says Quarterback Coach Russ Jacques. "We can sprint out with him, run the option, do some things we couldn't do last year."
However, those things probably won't be as extreme as what Hostetler was called on to do his senior year in high school. Because there was a shortage of running backs at Conemaugh Township High, he became a tailback that season and gained more than 1,000 yards rushing. And, to boot, he made the Parade All-America team as a linebacker. As a sophomore at Penn State he won the starting quarterback job from another highly rated recruit, Todd Blackledge. But after three games, which produced wins over Colgate and Texas A&M and a loss to Nebraska, Paterno went with Blackledge as his starting signal-caller the rest of the season.
The Hostetler-or-Blackledge debate became hot stuff around State College, Pa. that year. Hostetler feels that if anything, his good-athlete tag hurt him, because many of the more vocal alumni saw him as a natural linebacker crammed into quarterback's clothing. Backing them up was the fact that Paterno had converted both of Jeff's older brothers from quarterbacks to linebackers—Ron in 1977, Doug in 1978. Hostetler feels Paterno may have been influenced by that thinking and those precedents. Paterno says no, that he always considered this Hostetler a quarterback. Be that as it may, Jeff wasn't his starting quarterback.
Hostetler soured on Penn State completely when, after a strong off-the-bench performance against Temple—he produced touchdowns on four successive offensive series—he didn't play at all against Pitt and very little in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State.
"When I came off the field after the Fiesta Bowl, I knew I was gone," says Hostetler. "I was Player of the Game against Temple, and I didn't get in the next week. Joe had told me I was starting. Then he told me, before the game, that he was starting Todd, but that I'd be playing a lot. But I didn't get in. What was this? When I told Joe I was leaving, he tried to talk me out of it, but what he said by that time didn't mean anything anymore."
"A lot of people don't seem to realize that we started Jeff before we started Todd," Paterno says today. "We reached the point, after the Nebraska game, where we had to make a decision. That didn't mean Jeff wasn't a good quarterback. It's just that we had to decide."
"Joe had to make a decision, and he made it," says Jeff's mother, Dolly, with a smile. "It's just that he made the wrong one."
The situation is awkward for both Hostetler and Blackledge, who remain fairly good friends. Blackledge, in fact, belongs to the Penn State Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter that is directed by Doug Hostetler; Jeff is in the FCA chapter in Morgantown. But on the field, the situation has worked out well for both. Blackledge now has thrown four touchdown passes in each of unbeaten Penn State's three games this year, and Hostetler, after just two games, is making his way to the top of the pedestal vacated by Luck just nine months ago. And the similarities between Hostetler and Luck extend beyond the gridiron.
Luck graduated with a 3.95 cumulative average (one B in four years), while Hostetler has a perfect 4.0 average in finance. He just might be the only quarterback in the country with only one interception after two games and no Bs after two semesters.
West Virginia Coach Don Nehlen even gives Hostetler a slight edge in the All-American Boy competition. "Ollie once in a while could look pretty scruffy," says Nehlen. "He'd check in wearing bib overalls, sneakers, maybe a two-day growth on his face. Next time you'd see him, he'd have on a $300 sport coat. But with Jeff, he's always consistent, always the same."
The Hostetler clan is unusually close. They should be called the Hug-stetlers, judging from their displays of affection outside the locker room last Saturday as 16 of them gathered after the game. Never will their emotions be running higher than on Oct. 23, the day Blackledge, Paterno and the rest of the Nittany Lions come to Morgantown. The love for Penn State still runs deep in Norman and Dolly Hostetler, who by their own reckoning have seen close to 100 Nittany Lion games in the last decade. Even now, their youngest son, Todd, is the third baseman for the Penn State baseball team.
"It's going to be a tough, tough day." says Dolly shaking her head.
"It's going to be interesting," says Jeff with a tight smile.