Paterno’s Grand Experiment produced perfection

In the mid-1960s, there was no such thing as a Northeastern

power in college football.

Michigan State and Notre Dame dominated the Midwest. Bear

Bryant’s Alabama teams ruled the South. Out West, UCLA was at its

best and USC was rising again.

Then came Joe Paterno.

”Here was this little old school from the East that didn’t know

how to compete with the bigger conferences,” said Charlie Pittman,

who played running back at Penn State from 1967-69.

That’s what others said about Penn State. The Nittany Lions knew

better.

With players such as Pittman, Franco Harris, Lydell Mitchell,

Jack Ham and Mike Reid, Paterno changed that in 1968 and `69, with

back-to-back undefeated seasons.

Neither earned the Nittany Lions a national championship. They

had to settle for No. 2 in the AP’s college football poll each

year, but Penn State was now a national powerhouse and Paterno was

a coaching star.

”He rose to the prominence as Penn State rose to prominence as

the leader of Eastern football,” said Jordan Hyman, a Penn State

alumnus who has written two books about Nittany Lions football

during the Paterno era.

Paterno died at 85 on Sunday, less than three months after being

fired amid a child sexual abuse scandal involving one of his former

assistants.

He won 409 games during his 46 seasons at Penn State, more than

any other Division I coach, and two national championships.

His career started modestly in 1966, going 5-5 in his first

season as the replacement for his mentor, Rip Engle. Engle had had

some good teams, but the East hadn’t had a national title winner

since Syracuse in 1959 and was looked upon as a weak region in the

college football landscape.

Paterno’s first team lost 42-8 to No. 1 Michigan State and 49-11

to No. 4 UCLA, and the `67 season started with a loss to Navy.

Paterno knew, Hyman said, that he needed to make some

changes.

Instead of being loyal to the upperclassmen, ”He decided to

play the best guys,” Pittman said.

Against Miami, Paterno began playing his talented sophomore

class, players such as Pittman on offense and linebackers Dennis

Onkotz and Jim Kates on defense.

The Nittany Lions beat the Hurricanes 17-8 in Miami, lost 17-15

to No. 4 UCLA and Heisman Trophy winner Gary Beban the next week,

and finished the season 8-2-1.

”I think Joe figured it out,” Hyman said. ”He knew his system

worked. He had the talent in `67 and it only grew in `68 and he was

off to the races.”

Paterno had a keen eye for talent and was skilled at finding the

best ways to use it.

”He took quarterbacks and made them linebackers. He took

running backs and made them defensive backs,” said Pittman, who

played two years in the NFL and now is the vice president of

publishing company based in South Bend, Ind.

And long before every football coach talked about the

”process” of preparing a team, Paterno pored over the smallest

details and implored his players to do the same.

”Take care of the small stuff and the big things will take care

of themselves,” was one of Paterno’s messages, Pittman said. That

meant on the practice field and in the classroom.

”Penn State won because he wanted to recruit people with the

same values he had,” Pittman said. ”People who wanted to compete

at the highest level and people who wanted to participate and truly

enjoy college, not just to play football.”

Paterno called it his ”Grand Experiment.”

”I always tell people we came to Penn State as young kids and

when we left there we were men and the reason for that was Joe

Paterno,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell joined Pittman in the backfield in 1968 and Penn State

rolled to an 11-0 season that included a 21-6 victory against UCLA

in the Rose Bowl and concluded with a 15-14 victory in the Orange

Bowl against Big 8 champion Kansas.

The national championship, though, went to Ohio State.

The next season Franco Harris joined the Nittany Lions with

Pittman and Mitchell.

”Teams knew we were going to run the ball and they couldn’t

stop us,” Pittman said.

Another perfect regular season led to the Orange Bowl, this time

to face Big 8 champion Missouri.

Still, people were skeptical of Penn State’s success.

Pittman recalls Missouri star receiver Mel Gray saying the

Tigers had played three conference rivals better than Penn

State.

”I said, `You know what we beat them too,” Pittman said,

referring to victories against Kansas the season before and

Colorado and Kansas State in 1969.

Penn State beat Missouri 10-3, but it wasn’t enough. Texas beat

Notre Dame 21-17 in the Cotton Bowl and President Richard Nixon

proclaimed the Longhorns national champions.

The poll voters agreed and Paterno never quite forgave

Nixon.

”I’d like to know, how could the President (Richard Nixon) know

so little about Watergate in 1973, and so much about college

football in 1969?” Paterno said.

Paterno and Penn State finally won the national championship in

1982 and he added another in 1986. The ”Grand Experiment”

unveiled in 1967 had produced an elite college football

program.

”By the time you go to the end of the `69 season, when they

beat a really great Missouri team, at that point Penn State was

really there to stay,” Hyman said. ”Joe obviously was the face of

it.”