The Lions' Tale The saga of Penn State football has a rich cast of characters

January 18, 1995

From the bacteria that mutate in petri dishes to the mad tracts
penned in prison cells, strange results are often born of isolation.
When the founding fathers of the Agricultural College of Pennsylvania
located their institution at the center of the state in 1855, they
were driven by heartfelt notions of equidistance for all. Instead,
State College has become known for its equiseclusion. Bunkered in the
Allegheny Mountains in a parcel of Centre County farmland 15 miles
from the nearest interstate off-ramp, Penn State has been derided
from afar -- and praised from within -- as Happy Valley, a time-
warped Shangri-la of rocky meadows and russet leaves that moves along
out of step with the rest of the world.
Fortunately for de-isolationists, however, there has been football
at Penn State, 108 years' worth, and it has brought the masses to the
mountains. On autumn Saturdays some 1,000 RVs stream into town from
all compass points over Routes 322 and 220 and 26, and the sellout
crowds of 93,716 at Beaver Stadium nearly triple the local
population. Success has been the drawing card: the 686-291-41 record,
the unprecedented stretch of 49 straight nonlosing seasons from 1939
to '87, the brace of national championships and the sparkling
collection of 65 All-Americas that includes Pie, Light Horse, a
chorus line of Bahr brothers, D.J. and linebacker after linebacker.
Penn State made the first of its 31 bowl appearances in 1923 at
the Rose Bowl, bowing to Southern Cal 14-3 and pocketing a check for
$21,349.64. The Lions would pocket the first of their 19 postseason
wins at the Liberty Bowl in '59 when they beat Alabama 7-0 by scoring
on a faked field goal.
Penn State football has represented the school's values,
introducing black players to the Cotton Bowl game in 1948 (Wally
Triplett and Dennie Hoggard) and to the Gator Bowl game in '61
(All-America end Dave Robinson). Days before the '69 Orange Bowl in
Miami, All-America tight end Ted Kwalick and four teammates saved a
68-year-old Pittsburgher who had fallen into Biscayne Bay. As Kwalick
dived in to rescue the bobbing man, his fellow Lions held apart two
wake-swept boats that came perilously close to crushing the two men
in the water.
At the same time, the sheltered surroundings have given a homespun
air to Penn State, where generations of families have coached and
played and whose early teams featured a Mother and a Dad. There has
been ample space for % innovative coaches like Hugo Bezdek, Bob
Higgins, Rip Engle and Joe Paterno to expand the game, and for
curious players to broaden their horizons (see Mike Reid, defensive
dynamo of the late '60s, who owns both an Outland Trophy and a Grammy
Award). In some respects State College has functioned as a petri
dish, a secure site in which to balance academics and athletics.
Indeed, if nothing else, the Lions have made their
middle-of-nowhere lair a happy and a healthy valley. Football
officially began at the school in 1887, when the campus consisted
mainly of Old Main and the grazing cows seemingly outnumbered the
students. George H. Linsz, who earned the team captaincy because he
had the school's only football, quarterbacked a squad decked out in
knee-length pink-and-black flannel pants and tasseled ski caps to a
54-0 victory at Bucknell. ''We wanted something bright and
attractive,'' said George Meek of the Lions' colors. But after being
exposed to the sun for a few weeks, the pink -- ''really cerise,''
Meek said -- faded to white, leaving the team unacceptably
achromatic. Soon the black was changed to navy blue.
Two weeks after bopping Bucknell, Penn State won its home opener
24-0 over . . . Bucknell, on the Old Main lawn, to close out the
first of the Lions' 13 unbeaten seasons. Six years later came the
dedication of a 500-seat grandstand at Beaver Field, which was named
after board of trustees president and Civil War hero Gen. James A.
Beaver. In 1960, Beaver Field became Beaver Stadium. Its stands were
dismantled into 700 pieces, trucked one mile to the East Campus and
reassembled inside a superstructure that was the country's largest
all-steel edifice. Beaver Stadium rests in the shadow of Mount
Nittany, named after a legendary Indian princess, Nita-nee, who had
led her tribe to the fertile valley. The earth had supposedly heaved
up the mountain from Nita- nee's grave the night she was buried.
Early pioneers heard the tales of Nita-nee and named the entire
valley after her.
Penn State's teams had no nickname when the baseball team traveled
to Princeton to take on the Tigers in 1904, so Joe Mason (Penn State
'07) conjured up a tale of a Pennsylvania mountain lion that preyed
on a tiger. When Mason's Penn State nine won, the legend of the
Nittany Lion was born.
In the Beaver Field lid lifter, in 1893, the as yet unnicknamed
Penn State football team was a 32-0 winner over Western University of
Pennsylvania -- the original name of Penn State's archrival, Pitt --
but the course of Penn ! State's fortunes in the 19th century did not
always run so smoothly. In 1889 the team had journeyed to Lehigh and
lost sublimely, 106-zip. Arriving by train at Lemont Station,
sophomore Charlie Aull tried to explain what had happened to an eager
crowd of greeters: ''We couldn't get at the son of a bitch with the
ball.''
William T. (Mother) Dunn, a center whose hard-nosed attitude was
forged in the steel mills of Youngstown, Ohio, became Penn State's
initial All-America in 1906. More great players arrived in 1910:
Eugene (Shorty) Miller, a barrel- chested 5 ft. 5", 140-pound
quarterback, was a forceful leader who dazzled in the open field,
where, according to one observer, he ran ''like a hopped-up
squirrel''; fullback Pete Mauthe, the school's first inductee into
the National Football Hall of Fame, not only passed superbly and
pounded the line but also kicked a 51-yard field goal in 1912, a boot
that stood as a Lion record for 63 years; and Dexter Very was a
brilliant pass catcher and a formidable threat on the end around. It
took six decades for this Penn State triumvirate to be surpassed by
another, a unit that constituted one of the finest backfields ever:
tailback Lydell Mitchell, fullback Franco Harris and quarterback John
Hufnagel.
If there has been one hallmark of Nittany Lion football, it has
been the constancy of its coaches. In the 76 years since Bezdek began
coaching at State College (he also managed the Pittsburgh Pirates
during his first two years on campus), Penn State has had only five
head men. And one of them, Joe Bedenk, coached for just one season,
1949, making the average tenure of the other four 19 years.
Of that handful Bezdek was the most controversial. A disciple of
Amos Alonzo Stagg, he was aloof, strict and tough. The first practice
of the week was known as ''bloody Tuesday,'' and his facile response
to a player complaining of an injured leg was that he should ''cut it
off.'' But Bezdek was also a gifted tinkerer, drawing up the fake
reverse and a play known as the spinner. He also allowed a sports
psychologist to examine his troops. In 1919 he outwitted Pitt's
legendary Pop Warner, winning 20-0 by, in the words of one scribe,
''unleashing an aerial attack that has never had a parallel in the
game.''
Behind the running of All-America halfbacks Charley (Pie) Way and
Glenn Killinger, Bezdek's 1920 and '21 teams were 15-0-4. This was
the onset of Penn State's ''golden era,'' which included the arrival
in '21 of the fleet Harry Wilson, dubbed Light Horse Harry by The
Philadelphia Inquirer. Thanks to Jay S. McMahan, a 6 ft. 7",
215-pound tackle who shunned headgear and received the moniker Tiny
from Damon Runyon, Wilson became the first player to be named
All-America at two schools. In turning down recruiters who wanted him
to go to West Point after he graduated from Penn State, Tiny
suggested they approach Wilson, who went on to Army, where he was
again named All-America in 1926.
In 1930 Bob Higgins, Bezdek's successor, ushered in an 18-year
reign that was kinder, gentler and, at times, even more golden. An
All-America end at Penn State in 1919, Higgins was handicapped for
his first nine years by the school's ''purity campaign,'' which
prohibited the awarding of athletic scholarships. Although his record
for those years was a dismal 29-40-4, he stood by his tried-and-true
defensive sets and his single-wing attack. And it paid off: After his
3-4-1 mark in 1938, Penn State would not experience another losing
season until 1988.
Higgins's faith received its greatest reward in 1947, when the
9-0-1 Lions won the first of their record 22 Lambert Trophies, a
symbol of supremacy in the East. That team yielded a mere 17.0 yards
rushing per game, still the lowest average in NCAA history. It also
yielded a Penn State legacy: All- America guard Steve Suhey would
later marry Higgins's daughter Ginger, and three of their sons --
Larry, Paul and Matt -- would go on to wear the blue- and-white.
Charles A. (Rip) Engle had a family connection to State College,
too: His uncle, Dad Engle, was a Lion lineman from 1910 to '12.
During Rip's coaching tenure, from 1950 to '65, Penn State solidified
its reputation as a national power -- though no one chancing by Engle
in his dark-blue Cadillac would know it. He had a sour expression
seemingly frozen on his puss; he was the GLOOMY- GUS COACH to
headline writers and a white-haired anomaly in Happy Valley. The
nonlosing streak was a burden to Engle. ''We're fighting the law of
averages,'' he would say. His first teams, though, were anything but
average. End Jesse Arnelle and defensive tackle Rosey Grier were
Engle's first star recruits, and each started for three years.
With a flair for engineering his offense around the talent at
hand, Engle did enliven games at Beaver Field, modifying his multiple
T to a split T with a belly series, in which the fullback lined up
directly behind the quarterback, to take advantage of the gifts of
halfback Lenny Moore in the ; early '50s. Engle often played his
entire second unit -- ''the Reddies'' -- as much as his first, and he
was keen at developing capable quarterbacks like Riverboat Richie
Lucas, the 1959 Heisman runner-up. He had help: His quarterback coach
was Paterno, who had played the position under Engle at Brown. ''It
will be an impossible task to replace Rip's inspiration and
leadership,'' said the 39-year-old Paterno after being named Engle's
successor in 1966. ''However, if hard work and dedication can
succeed, then I'm certain our staff will develop good and exciting
teams.''
Sharp, respectful, humble. With those qualities -- as well as an
eye for talent, a knack for motivating and a genius for game strategy
-- Paterno not only lived up to his callow assurances but also
catapulted Penn State football into one of the half-dozen elite
programs in the land. He coached the first Penn State football team
to attain a No. 1 ranking (in 1978) and the first to be No. 1 at
season's end (in 1982). Under him the Lions have rolled up 19 bowl
victories (versus three by his predecessors) and gone 20-6-1 against
Pitt (before him, Penn State had beaten the Panthers a total of 27
times in 65 tries). In 1992 he also brought the Lions into the Big
Ten conference, allowing them to return to the Rose Bowl this year.
Paterno has coached 50 All-Americas, at least one from every
position except cornerback and punter. He has had more All-America
defensive linemen (10) than linebackers (nine). The honor roll of
linemen includes Reid, Bruce Clark and Matt Millen. And his I
formation has produced a pack of memorable runners: Charlie Pittman,
Mitchell, Harris, John Cappelletti, Matt Suhey, Curt Warner, D.J.
Dozier, Blair Thomas and Ki-Jana Carter. In 1973 the bowlegged
Cappelletti rushed for 1,522 yards and 17 touchdowns and became the
school's first and only Heisman winner, whereupon he dedicated the
award to his brother Joseph, 11, who had leukemia.
Yes, Penn State football has faced tragedy. Mostly, though, the
Nittany Lions have experienced astonishing growth and glory, which
makes sense. After all, it is Happy Valley.

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