Penn State History: The Gamble That Saved The Grand Experiment


When Rip Engle unexpectedly stepped down after the 1965 season, there was no surprise to see Joe Paterno named the next head coach. Paterno had been offered the head coaching job at Yale the year before, but he was quietly told by officials at Penn State they wanted him to take over for Engle whenever he decided to call it quits. So Paterno stuck it out at Penn State and was soon rewarded with the head coaching job when Engle retired just after the 1965 season.

As Paterno often mentions, his first year as the Penn State head coach was not a good one. He was 39 years old at the time, and like many young head coaches in their first year he tried to do too much. Penn State had gone 11-9 in Engle's last two years, and Paterno felt they could do better. He pushed the team harder than ever in the spring. When the brutal practices carried over into the fall, many of the upperclassmen were resentful of the new coach and his new way of doing things.

Paterno's coaching staff wasn't happy either. The entire staff from the end of the Engle era was retained under Paterno, except for Bob Phillips was hired as an assistant to fill the spot created by Engle retiring and Paterno being promoted. Many of them were accustomed to doing things the same way for years under Engle. Now they were taking orders from a new boss who many felt was asking too much of the players on the field and in the class room as part of this thing he called the "Grand Experiment".

Paterno had a pretty good roster in his first year. Jack White returned at quarterback along with his favorite wide receiving target Jack Curry. With Leon Agevine and Bob Campell at wingback and Ted Kwalick at tight end, Paterno thought they would have a pretty good passing attack. The first team defense was pretty strong with Tim Montgomery in the secondary and Mike Reid playing middle guard, but there wasn't much depth to work with on the bench.

The Paterno era got off to a good start with a 15-7 win over Maryland. The defense was stellar, and Reid was the star of the game with three safeties. The next game didn't go so well with Penn State getting blown out 42-8 at the hands of Michigan State who was ranked #1 in the nation. All-American Bubba Smith knocked White out of the game with a bleeding kidney.

White started the following week, but State got shut out 11-0 by Army, and fans were grumbling that the offense looked terrible. In only his third game, Paterno was already starting to hear people question whether he was the right man for the job. Paterno called for a major shake up in week four against Boston College. White was benched and Tom Sherman took over at quarterback. To better utilize Sherman's skills, Paterno scrapped the I-Formation offense in favor of the Wing-T.

This is basically how the whole first season went under Paterno. Moving players around. Changing offensive formations and defensive alignments. All the while barking at players and coaches and turning them off to his leadership. Penn State stumbled to a 5-5 finish, and the young Paterno was already worried he was going to lose his job. He knew that drastic changes needed to be made.

In the spring of 1967 Paterno realized he had a major problem on defense. The players he was returning were not very good athletes, and he knew they were not the right players to run the traditional 5-3-3 defense that Penn State had run in the past. To top it off, his star defensive lineman Mike Reid had torn a knee ligament while competing in the quarterfinals of the NCAA wrestling championships.  In Paterno By The Book, Paterno explained, "I had to find a way of playing a great defense without great defensive athletes...I needed something that might take three years for other coaches to figure out - truly a new system."

Paterno spent the summer of 1967 locked up in his den with a pad and pencil developing a new 4-4-3 defense. It was a revolutionary defense that was flexible and aggressive. When the team reconvened in the fall Paterno and his assistants installed the new defense.

They opened the season in Annapolis against Navy in a game that Paterno predicted would be a high scoring event. Navy took a 10-3 lead into the half, but Penn State battled back and took a 22-17 lead with under two minutes to go when Sherman hit Campell in the endzone for a 20 yard touchdown pass on 4th-and-2. The visiting Penn State fans and cheerleaders erupted in euphoria as it looked like the Lions were going to win the day. But on the ensuing drive Navy went 78 yards in six plays and 47 seconds to score a touchdown, and Penn State lost 22-23.

After the game Paterno went ballistic in the locker room. He berated his defense for giving up, but secretly Paterno feared he had made a major mistake in changing his defensive scheme. He was 5-6 as a head coach, and he knew that drastic changes were needed. Penn State needed to start winning if he was going to save his career. The prospects of getting a win in the near future were slim as his next two games were against Miami and UCLA who were both ranked in the top ten in the preseason. Paterno had a lot of time to think on the depressing bus ride home from Annapolis, and it was then he came up with one last plan. It involved a drastic change, but there was no room for error. It was a decision that was going to make him or break him as a head coach.

Paterno was tired of coaching players who didn't believe in his system. The offensive players on the team had played for Paterno when he was an assistant under Engle, so they adjusted to Joe Paterno the head coach pretty well. But for the defensive players it was a major adjustment that they didn't take well. Paterno decided if he was going to go down, he was going to go down with his players. His first recruiting class had a bunch of defensive players that showed a lot of promise. They gave the first team offense all they could handle on the scout team the previous season. (Freshmen were ineligible to play on the varsity team back then.) In the words of Dennis Onkotz in Lou Prato's What It Means To Be A Nittany Lion, "They couldn't run on us."

Paterno knew he had to get his best players on the field, but he couldn't upset the team prior to making the trip to Miami. He had to keep them together, so for the entire week leading up to the game it was business as usual. The seniors played on the first team defense, and Paterno's crop of gifted sophomores played on the scout team against the first team offense. Nobody knew about the plan Paterno had devised.

It was a humid 78 degrees when Penn State stepped on the field in Miami. The Nittany Lions were an 11-point underdog to the Hurricanes and not many people were giving them a chance. Paterno started the same defense that started against Navy except for sophomore Steve Smear who was replacing injured John Ebersole. But after the first play he sent in sophomore Jim Kates to replace senior Joe Zelinsky at linebacker. Then sophomore Neil Smith was sent in place of Ed Zubaty at safety. Then sophomores Dennis Onkotz and Pete Johnson were in the game. By the end of the first quarter the group of young sophomores were in disbelief as they stood on the field together and the first team defense watched them from the sideline.

They played the entire game, and they dominated the Hurricanes. The group of sophomores combined for 35 tackles and three interceptions. Penn State carried a 17-0 lead late into the fourth quarter thanks to two touchdown passes from Sherman to Kwalick. Miami scored a late garbage touchdown when Campell mishandled a punt at the Penn State 30 yard line. Penn State shocked the world and won 17-8 in a game nobody expected them to win.

After the game Paterno caught some of the seniors sneaking into a bar to get a beer at the airport on the trip home. There was a strict rule of no drinking on road trips and Paterno was furious. One player was kicked off the team and the others were disciplined. Some of the players lobbied Paterno to change his mind and go easy on them, but Paterno would have none of it. After the events of the Miami game, he was certain in what had to be done. When the team reported for practice on Monday, all of the sophomores that played in the game against Miami had blue jerseys hanging in their locker signifying they were playing on the first team.

The seniors on the team had no room to complain ever again. They lost their jobs and were outplayed by the sophomores. Some of them had challenged Paterno's authority by breaking his rules, and Paterno laid down the law. It was his team, and he was going to run it his way. Anyone who didn't like it was free to go.

It was the week that saved Joe Paterno's career. Though Penn State lost to UCLA the week following Miami, they greatly outplayed the #3 ranked Bruins and lost the game 17-15 on gaffes by the offense and special teams. Paterno called it the best game Penn State had played in a long time, and the Beaver Stadium crowd stood in applause for Paterno for a well played game. Though nobody realized it at the time, Penn State was about to begin a 31-game unbeaten streak and would not lose again until 1970.

To be continued...

(H/T to Lou Prato and his amazing Penn State Football Ecyclopedia.)

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