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A Brief History of Penn State Football - From Glory to Hype and Beyond

As Penn State fans, we often focus only on our slice of PSU history. From when we attended forward. Here's a more detailed look at Penn State football...when it was great, how it went off the rails, and what could happen in the future.

Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Following World War II, with its ranks swelled by combat vets using the GI Bill, Penn State College fielded an unbeaten 1947 squad that tied Doak Walker's #1 SMU squad in the Cotton Bowl, 13-13, when PSC's kicker (who became Pitt's AD) missed an extra point.  The ‘47 team finished 9-0-1, ranked 4th in the AP poll (pre-bowls), allowing an average of 4 points per game.  They were a tough bunch (football being far tamer than Omaha Beach, Bastogne, Saipan, etc.).

The national attention brought by that fabled squad encouraged the PSC Board of Trustees to make some changes in the summer of 1953.  The school changed its name to Penn State University; the Beaver Field bleachers (capacity: 23,000) were relocated to the east end of campus, expanded to a whopping 46,000, and renamed Beaver Stadium; and athletic scholarships -€” on a modest basis -€” were reinstituted (they'd been suspended since the late 1920's due to the public outcry over football deaths).

Penn State slowly (re)built its football program during the 1950s and early 60s.  The Nittany Lions beat Bear Bryant's Alabama in the 1959 Liberty Bowl, and stomped the guts out of Woody Hayes' then-No.1 Ohio State Buckeyes in Columbus in 1964, 23 to zip.  This progress culminated with a stretch of three unbeaten seasons (68, 69, and 73) in six years, none of which resulted in AP national championships, because no one respected eastern football.

Penn State adapted by scheduling decade-long series with traditional powers Alabama and Notre Dame, shorter series with Big Ten and Pac 10 squads willing to play the Lions (Iowa, Ohio State, USC), as well as a handful of contests against Big 8 (Nebraska) and Southwestern (Texas, Houston) teams.  It paid off handsomely, as the Lions finished in the national top 10 twelve times in the 1970s -€” 1980s, making 12 "BCS"-level bowls, 4 national title games, winning two consensus national championships, and one Heisman trophy.  These were good times, and the size of Beaver Stadium grew from 46,000 seats to 91,000 seats.

But with college football's break from the NCAA in the 1984 NCAA v. Oklahoma Board of Supreme Court decision, independents like Penn State needed to find a conference home in order to negotiate TV-money deals that would keep them among the "haves".  So in mid-December 1989, then relatively new Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany gathered his 10 athletic directors onto a conference call for a big announcement.  "Gentlemen, at 3pm we are making an announcement that Penn State is joining the Big Ten."  The stunned ADs sat slack jawed, unable to speak, until Michigan's Bo Schembechler broke the silence: "you gotta be shitting me."

Young Jim Delany had worked only the university presidents in his first foray into conference expansion, and learned a valuable lesson as he watched the Big Ten's athletic power brokers fight Penn State's membership bid tooth and nail for the next six months. That is...The university presidents hold the vote (which Delany had secured prior to that Dec 89 phone call), but you better involve the athletic directors in the process or there'll be hell to pay. (You're welcome, Nebraska, Maryland, and Rutgers).

Penn State's membership wasn't formally approved for another half a year (until July 1990), and they didn't begin competing in the conference until 1993.

The Nittany Lions finished the 1994 season unbeaten, mostly trouncing its new conference foes (average score: PSU 48, Opp 21).  Shortly after that, Joe Paterno stopped being obsessed with winning football games.  Sure, Penn State never spent a single week outside the Top 25 for the rest of the 1990s.  But keen-sighted, long-time observers of the program knew that college football was changing, and Penn State refused to change with it.  An arms race began somewhere in that decade (or the decade before), and Penn State appeared content to be "good" rather than "great".

The wheels came off the program as the calendar moved into the 2000s.  Forget bowls and the polls -€” the Lions couldn't beat Toledo. We suffered three losing seasons in a four-year stretch.  There were flashes of the old Penn State in 2005 and 2008, but even those teams -€” easily the best of the 2000's and 2010's - fell substantially short of the dominating teams of the 80's and early 90's.

By most accounts, Paterno made just two home recruiting visits in his entire final decade at the helm.  Two.  His mid-90's hands-off approach had degraded into absentee landlord territory.

The Lions renewed a home-and-home with long-time rival Alabama in 2010/11, and the difference between the two squads was stunning.

Penn State had a small handful of pro prospects, half of whom were father-son legacies; Bama had a whole bunch, all over the field.  It looked like the teams were from two different divisions of the same sport.

If Bama was spending $80M/year on football, then PSU had stopped its investment around the $40M mark.  That level wouldn't win championships, of course, but in a then-mediocre Big Ten, it was enough for a 9-3/8-4 record and an Outback Bowl appearance.


So when the Sandusky scandal hit in November 2011 and the Trustees punted Paterno over the telephone, from a purely football perspective, it was actually a merciful move. A program which had quit competing for championships twenty years ago was finally laid to rest.

An appropriately cowed administration hired a no-name, never-been-a-head-coach guy (Bill O'Brien) on the cheap in January 2012. BO'B (as he affectionately became known) instituted some much needed overhauls.

  • He introduced computers, digital video, and free weights (we're not making this up).
  • He doubled PSU's recruiting budget, bringing the Lions up from 10th in the Big Ten, to about 6th or 7th.
  • He went for it on 4th down.
  • He traded in the high school offensive playbook for a modern, NFL style attack that used things like "audibles" and "reads" and "matchups".

PSU didn't have many players, couldn't recruit very many, and didn't win a ton of games - but for the first time in a long-time, the Lions had a little juice.  There was a spark of life despite the near-death sanctions, rather than just a semi-animated corpse going through the motions.

Then BO'B left for the pros, and Penn State officially caved in to the college football arms race, after two decades of sitting on the sidelines.  They pursued actual college head coaches for their vacant position, and paid one -€” James Franklin -€” a top-5 salary.  At Franklin's request, they tripled the recruiting budget, dropped a couple million on "decorations" for the football facility, and spent more than $1M/year on an assistant coach.

Big boy pants level moves for a program that had only recently begun using digital video.

Financially speaking, in other words, the sleeping giant finally woke up.  Penn State looks willing to outspend Michigan State and Nebraska, and at least keep within shouting distance of Michigan and Ohio State.  So that's the good news: one more school buying nukes makes the conference appear stronger at semi-finalist selection time.


Unfortunately, schematically speaking, the giant's also been lobotomized.  True, James Franklin somehow won 9 games at Vanderbilt.  Twice, actually.  But we know a lot less about those circumstances than we do the last 26 games he's coached at Penn State (which seems more directly relevant to discussing how James Franklin will do at Penn State).  And here's what we've seen:

  • His 2014 spring roster featured exactly two offensive linemen with any game experience at all, and just five total non-true freshmen offensive linemen. So he chose to implement an old school smash-mouth run blocking scheme.
  • Oh by the way? The old school smash-mouth was run from the shotgun, featuring read-option action by a completely stationary, pocket-passer at QB who kept the ball a grand total of one time in two years.
  • His passing scheme of choice was the traditional Bill Walsh "west coast" -€” a massively complex and tightly integrated timing scheme best executed by savvy, long-time veterans. By rule, college football never has long-time veterans, so very few coaches attempt to run traditional Bill Walsh "west coast" offenses in college. This tenet became coaching dogma once Bill Walsh struggled to implement the Bill Walsh west coast offense at Stanford in 1993. Still, Franklin broke that dogma anyhow.
  • He had 3 receiving TEs and 0 blocking TEs, so he made them block and didn't throw them the ball.
  • 2014 Northwestern couldn't stop the run, so he passed 36 times and ran the football exactly one time in the 2nd and 3rd quarters.
  • He ran a jet sweep "fake" punt from Michigan's 33 yard line, that everyone saw coming because of the jet sweep pre-snap motion, while Michigan was in punt safe, because no one expects to return a punt when the other team is kicking from your 33-yard line.
  • And on, and on, and on.

Thus, the big boy pants financial injection is best represented as a blood transfusion into a brainless Frankenstein who is armed with a club, blindly swinging at the pitch black darkness, but generally missing his targets -€” unless that target is Rutgers, who is just dumb enough to guide Frankie's club toward its own stupid face.

Yet, there remains one meandering, moderately contiguous logical chain of hope.  To wit:

  • By all accounts, James Franklin had very little to do with the defense these last 26 games. Left unencumbered, the defense performed well (finishing 4th and 15th in S&P+, despite "sanctions"). I.e., when Franklin isn't coaching the Xs and Os, said unit can do well.
  • Anti-chalkboard, CEO-only, recruiting specialist coaches can do well in college. See also: Swinney, Dabo,
  • James Franklin was at the very least smart enough to realize that 126th in 3rd-down conversions isn't very good, and he fired his friend/offensive coordinator John Donovan. Launched him into the sun.
  • Franklin hired a new offensive coordinator, who had been a successful head coach, for big money (because PSU can do that now). So there's at least a chance the new guy isn't a total moron.
  • That new OC, Joe Moorhead, ran an offensive scheme at Fordham that would seem to fit the personnel he inherits. So even if Moorhead actually is a moron, chances are we'll still minimize our personnel weaknesses by default, rather than accentuate them as we've done the last two horrendous seasons. And that would be a really nice change.

Of course, if one or more of those reasons for hope prove false, then Franklin will get fired, too, and Penn State will re-enter the coaching search pool in one or two years.  But we'll be free of sanctions, with a much more talented roster, unburdened by legacies -€” real or fictitious -€” and ready to waste money indiscriminately with the blue bloods.  And maybe the next guy returns PSU into contention for meaningful things before all of the pay-for-play and concussion lawsuits end college football as we know it.