It is a place where everybody is 6 ft. 3" tall, weighs 230 pounds
and has eyes like the gun slits in a tank. The matriculants at
Linebacker U have names like Onkotz, Laslavic, Parlavecchio,
Goganious and Radecic -- steel mill names -- and they are all the big
men on campus. To be fashionable there, you could wear a bolt in your
neck, if you had a neck.
Linebacker U is not a school, it's a time warp -- college
football's very own Brigadoom -- a mythical place that regularly
seeks to conquer the mythical national championship. For nearly 30
years the best linebackers in America have made their way to the
hills of central Pennsylvania and transformed the campus of Penn
State University (a very real place) into Linebacker U (a very unreal
one, particularly if you happen to be a ballcarrier). There in Happy
Valley they lace on the black cleats that make their feet appear to
be perpetually muddy, as if they have just emerged from the
primordial ooze. At other schools, in deference to glamour, the
quarterback invariably gets the girl. At Penn State the linebacker
Southern Cal used to call itself Tailback U, but it has been
awhile since anybody from that school went Student Body Right to a
Heisman Trophy. For a long time Alabama was known as the home of
great college quarterbacks -- Joe Namath and Ken Stabler, to name
two. In the '80s Brigham Young and Miami shared that mantle. Now it
belongs to no one. Linebacker U has outlasted all of those
Though the name suggests subordination, linebacker is the
quintessential football position, requiring both quickness and size,
for its practitioners spend as much time traveling backward as
forward. At Penn State the emphasis has always been on how quickly
the swarm can sting. ''We'd like them to have good speed, but the
ability to accelerate is the most important thing,'' says Jerry
Sandusky, the Nittany Lions' linebacker coach for the past 25 years.
When Joe Paterno became head coach in 1966, he and an assistant
coach named Dan Radakovich installed a defensive system that used
four linebackers rather than the customary three. If these weren't
exactly the Four Horsemen outlined against a blue-gray October sky,
they were certainly a gathering storm. The positions were even given
names -- Hero, Fritz, Mike, Backer and, later, Sam -- like those of
Top Gun pilots. |
Over the intervening 28 years, nine Penn State linebackers have
been named first-team All-Americas. Thirty-three of Paterno's former
players have been linebackers in the NFL, and yet only Ed O'Neil, in
1974, and Shane Conlan, in '87, were taken in the first round of the
pro draft, indicating that these were not supermen in the mold of
North Carolina's Lawrence Taylor, who was chosen No. 1 by the New
York Giants in 1981.
Sandusky joined the staff as the offensive line coach in 1968 and
became the linebacker guru in 1970, when Radakovich left to join the
staff at the University of Cincinnati. Four years later Radakovich
moved to the Pittsburgh Steelers and helped devise the Steel Curtain
defense. Sandusky, who had a chance to go to Temple as the head coach
in 1988 but turned it down to remain the dean of Linebacker U, wrote
a book published in 1977 called Developing Linebackers, The Penn
State Way. Sandusky is not the liveliest of raconteurs, but the
book's absence from the best-seller list undoubtedly had more to do
with the fact that the Penn State way of developing great linebackers
has always been to recruit them.
''There have been so many great players here, you'd be crazy to go
someplace else if you want to be a linebacker,'' Trey Bauer, who
played for the Lions from 1984 to '87, has said. ''Penn State
recruits great athletes at linebacker, but I don't really think they
handle them any differently. The coaches pretty much stay with the
basics every single day.''
Greg Buttle left Penn State in 1976 as the school's alltime
leading tackler, with 343, and once had 24 tackles in a game against
West Virginia. Buttle had played quarterback and receiver in addition
to linebacker in high school but wanted nothing more than to be a
Hero for the Nittany Lions. ''Buttle was a guy who, when we recruited
him, came right out and said he was coming here because he wanted to
be a Penn State linebacker,'' says Sandusky.
That tradition is Penn State's most effective tool in resupplying
the linebacker larder. ''Kids look at that,'' Paterno says
succinctly. Sandusky believes it is best to be subtle, however, on
recruiting visits. ''It's nothing we really talk about much,'' he
says. ''They are aware of a tradition, and we hope they would want to
feel a part of that, but we just leave it mostly unspoken. For an
athlete who has the abilities and the confidence we want, it's a
plus. But there also may be instances when people think we have so
many linebackers that they get frightened off.'' ^
Ah, but if the Penn State linebacker were so easily frightened, he
would not be a Penn State linebacker. ''I'm proud to be part of that
tradition,'' says Washington Redskin linebacker Andre Collins, who
was named All-America as a senior in 1989. ''I go out there and try
to uphold the honor.''
Outsiders have long marveled at the continuity of the Lions'
success at the position and wondered if Paterno or Sandusky had some
special magic, but it is probably the continuity itself -- 27 years
of coaching together -- that has accounted for much of their success.
Buttle once said of Sandusky, ''He was the best coach I've ever been
around. Once he gets his four guys, he doesn't teach by rote but by
example. It's, 'Watch how I do this.'
''But there's another reason,'' Buttle continued. ''When you go
out for your first spring practice, there are 50 guys trying to fill
four linebacking spots. I'm not talking about 50 guys recruited as
linebackers, I'm talking about 50 athletes. There are 10
quarterbacks, there are wide receivers. There are 50 guys who Joe
thinks are the best athletes, so he decides to try them at
The spiritual sire of this great clan is Dennis Onkotz, an
All-America in 1968 and '69, who was so quick that in addition to
playing linebacker he returned punts. Onkotz played beside Jack Ham,
who was a unanimous choice for All-America in 1970. After Onkotz
graduated, Ham played with Charlie Zapiec, an All-America in 1971,
and John Skorupan (1972).
Ham begat Jim Laslavic, Lance Mehl, O'Neil, Rich Milot, Kurt
Allerman and Buttle, who Paterno once said was ''as good a linebacker
as we've ever had.'' Chet Parlavecchio, Walker Lee Ashley, Keith
Goganious, Mark D'Onofrio and Rich McKenzie all distinguished
themselves at the U. The best linebacker who didn't play linebacker
at Penn State was Matt Millen, who was moved to the defensive line
after his freshman season because the Lions needed size up front. It
wasn't until he reached the NFL -- and became the only player ever to
win Super Bowl championships with three different teams (the Oakland
and L.A. Raiders, the San Francisco 49ers and the Washington
Redskins) -- that Millen returned to linebacker.
Conlan may have been the best of the big-game players, first
shutting down Oklahoma quarterback Jamelle Holieway in the 1986
Orange Bowl, then Heisman winner Vinny Testaverde of Miami in the
Fiesta Bowl the following season. Holieway had been averaging nearly
100 yards a game rushing, but with Conlan % isolating on him, he
gained a total of one yard in 12 carries. Conlan intercepted two
Testaverde passes in the '87 Fiesta to lead Penn State to a 14-10
victory and the national championship. ''He's the same kind of
athlete Jack Ham was -- intelligent, intense, consistent,'' Paterno
has said. ''We never asked a linebacker to do as many things as we
asked him to do.''
Collins learned gang tackling around the dinner table as the 12th
of 19 children. He had been a reserve safety of little promise until
'88, when he was moved to linebacker and made a name for himself. ''I
think Andre is probably as good a linebacker as we have had around
here,'' Paterno said, sounding downright effusive.
By the mid-'80s it was getting easier to spot the great
linebackers because there were fewer of them. In 1985 Penn State had
only seven linebackers in the NFL, third in the country, behind
Alabama, which had eight, and Ol' Tailback U, Southern California.
There were 14 ex-Trojans playing linebacker in pro camps that summer,
12 of whom made it onto rosters.
The drought was at its worst in '88, '91 and '92, when there were
only five Nittany Lion alums in the NFL, but things at L.U. began to
return to the familiar with Collins and Goganious, and the '94 season
was graced by the classic black-cleated form of Brian Gelzheiser
(box, right), who added his name to the honor roll of Lion 'backers.
If history is our guide, Linebacker U will not only survive, but
thrive. Hero, Fritz, Mike, Backer and Sam wouldn't have it any other
January 18, 1995
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Forty Penn State players have gone on to play linebacker in the
NFL. Here are 16 of the best.