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BSD Q&A With Lou Prato

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One of the highlights of working on We Are Penn State was the opportunity to meet famed Penn State historian Lou Prato. As you would expect, he's a guy who loves to talk about Penn State football, but beyond that he has always been helpful to me in offering advice and answers to my out-of-the-blue questions I send him from time to time.

To repay the favor, I wanted to give him the opportunity to come on BSD to talk about his books. So this is the first of a two part series between BSD and Lou Prato. I think you will enjoy it.

BSD: If you ask me, the 1912 team should have won the National Championship. And even though they didn't hand out the first Heisman Trophy until 1935, they should have given it to Shorty Miller anyway. Your thoughts?

Prato: Yeah, I know you jest, but there is a lot of truth in what you ask. Football is quite different today than it was at the turn of the century and the mid 1930s when the first Heisman was awarded and the first national weekly football poll was started by the Associated Press. I write about this period in my first book, The Penn State Football Encyclopedia. Most Penn State fans of today have no idea of the past. Penn State had very good-- and sometime great--teams up until 1930. That's when State de-emphasized all athletics to place education first but most of our opponents did not-particularly Pitt. So, while Pitt was claiming national championships in the 1930s, Penn State was getting its butt kicked by such teams as Waynesburg.

Even the success of the great 1947 team didn't turn it around. Rip Engle's teams started to with great players like Lenny Moore and Rosey Grier, but it still took Joe Paterno to get back Penn State into the elite of college football. I say, back into, because from 1909 through 1923 we had teams that could beat anybody on the so-called "given day." Historians have looked back at the undefeated 1911 and 1912 teams-Shorty Miller's teams-- and declared they should have been national champions. And the stretch from 1919 through 1923 was one of Penn State's finest, and included the school's first bowl game, in Pasadena. But it all went into the garbage dump in the 30's.  Sure, Shorty could have won the Heisman and maybe Glenn Killinger in 1921 and Light Horse Harry Wilson in 1923, and a couple of other Penn State players, too.


By this time, I've may have put some of your readers to sleep-or they've gone off to read all that B.S. on the Pitt web site that tells how many national championships Pitt has won. I say B.S. because a lot of undefeated teams claimed national titles back then and there is still a dispute about who really won the national championships until the AP came along. What the heck, almost all of them have been "mythical" until the BCS was created and there are still disputes about this. But that will continue even when the playoffs start. Yeah, I'm a dreamer. Oh, as to Pitt, its won just two mythical championships since the AP poll began, the same number as Penn State. And remember, we should have won a couple more if not for some of the bias against eastern teams.  And if any Pitt fan wants to argue, just tell them one thing: 48-14!!!

BSD: How many Penn State books have you written so far, and are you working on anything now that you can share?

Prato: I've written four books, starting with The Penn State Football Encyclopedia, published in 1998. After that it was What It Means to be A Nittany Lion (2006), co-authored with Scott Brown, who now covers the Pittsburgh Steelers for the Pittsburgh Review; The Penn State Football Vault (2008); and Game Changers: The Greatest Plays in Penn State Football History (2009).

I'm currently helping Dan Radakovich write his autobiography. We have tentatively entitled the book, Bad Rad: The Father of Linebacker U and the Steel Curtain.  We hope to have it published sometime next year. Dan may not be well known to Penn State fans but he played for the Lions in the early 1950s and was one of the standouts of the great 7-6 upset over Ohio State in 1956. After that he became the first linebacker coach for Penn State and he taught Gerry Sandusky about linebacking when Dan left in 1970. A year later, while defensive coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, he put together the line that made up the famous Steel Curtain. But he did a lot more than that in nearly five decades of coaching for various teams in college and the pros. What's more, he's a genuine character and was sent to see a psychiatrist by Rip Engle when Dan was a player. Years later Dan Reeves of the Denver Broncos sent him to another psychiatrist. As the saying goes, "You can't make this up."

Oh, I am researching another book about Penn State's trailblazing role in civil rights in sports, and writing another book (as I get the time) that I can't mention at this time. So with that and all my other free-lance writing I keep very busy in my "semi-retirement."  Fortunately, like Joe Paterno I don't play golf. But unlike Joe, I still have to save time to cut my two acres of grass.

BSD: People say I have an unhealthy obsession with Penn State football because of the amount of time I devote to the blog.  So I'm curious about how one gets on the path to becoming Lou Prato. Was there an exact day you knew you wanted to become a Penn State historian? How did you get into doing this?

Prato: I was very lucky. Fran Fisher once told me when I was in DC running the broadcast graduate journalism program for Northwestern and trying to figure how to get hired at Penn State, that the best way to do that is "move back here and see what happens."  So, I did, in February of 1996, and was here teaching  a journalism  course at Penn State  in early September  as an adjunct instructor and doing radio and TV news consulting when I received a telephone call from a publisher about writing the history of Penn State football. I had stopped writing sports more than 20 years before, except for an occasional piece about Penn State football, and had been writing mostly broadcast news articles, including a monthly column in a national journalism magazine, The American Journalism Review.  I know I got the call because Budd Thalman, then Penn State's associate athletics director, had given the publisher my name among with  a couple of others.

About the same time the journalism dean gave me a two-year teaching contract. So, while I was teaching I was also writing the book and that sure worked out. A couple of my classes and my office were in the same building as the Daily Collegian and in my free time I did research on the book. A few months after the teaching ended in June of 1998, the book was published and it was a hit, particularly with the athletics department and Joe Paterno.  A few months later, the Nittany Lion Club asked me to be the editor of the monthly newsletter on a free-lance basis. So I could do that and continue my consulting. Then in early December of 1999, Tim Curley asked me to work a few hours a week with the designers of the all-sports museum project.  As the year progressed, I was spending more and more time with the museum and in March of 2001 Tim hired me to be the museum's first director.  That ended my consulting business.

As editor of the NLC newsletter and director of the museum I became more familiar with the great history of Penn State athletics, and the media began seeking me out for quotes about our historical past. I continued writing an occasional free-lance historical article and then another couple of book publishers came along as I was nearing the end of my 5-year commitment to Tim, and you know the rest of the story.  Three more published books and dozens of print articles and many newspaper quotes and radio and TV appearances and I am now considered Penn State's unofficial sports historian.

The moral of the story is when Fran Fisher talks, you better listen.

Was there an exact day I wanted to have that recognition?  I never even gave it a thought. In fact, I used to tell my friends that when I died they could spread my ashes over Beaver Stadium because I sure have wasted a lot of time watching Penn State football there.  And the punch line is my office at the museum was right above the Penn State locker room but just a few feet from a water boiler room, and if that boiler had exploded the intentions for my ashes would have come instantly true.

BSD: This concludes Part I of our discussion with Lou Prato. Tune in tomorrow to get Lou's thoughts on recruiting, Penn State joining the Big Ten, and his expectations for the 2010 season.