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Message From Lou Prato

BSD: During our discussion with Lou Prato last week, Lou told a story involving Mike Ditka, Pitt, and a motel room. Well, he had a chance to talk to Joe Paterno this past weekend and got the story straight from the legend's mouth. So he asked me to pass along this message to all of you.

I wanted to follow up my two-part chat with you on Back Shoes Diaries to correct something that was discussed by some of your readers in the comments following our chats.

I mentioned Mike Ditka being involved in a recruiting struggle between Penn State and Pitt when Joe Paterno was an assistant coach and trying to recruit Ditka. I wrote that as part of the recruiting battle, Pitt once hid Ditka in a motel room so Paterno and other Penn State coaches could not contact him.  I was wrong. It was a different recruit from Western Pennsylvania and also involved Penn State’s longest living member of the College Football Hall of Fame, Richie Lucas.

I saw Coach Paterno Saturday evening and asked him about the motel room incident. He said it was not with Ditka in 1956-57 but with a quarterback from Bethel High School named Jerry Eisman, who was the No.1 prospect in the state the previous year.  While Joe was looking at film (yes, film back then) of Eisman’s games he was impressed by a quarterback for a Bethel opponent, Glassport. That was Richie Lucas. Paterno and Penn State’s head coach, Rip Engle, decided to offer both Eisman and Lucas scholarships, as well as a scholarship to a third highly-rated Pennsylvania quarterback, Ross Fichtner of McKeesport.

Pitt was after all three quarterbacks, too.  Unlike recruiting these days, commitments were not in writing and there was no official signing day. Recruiting went on right up until the player enrolled or reported for preseason practice and that produced a lot of behind the scene shenanigans.  Sometime in this period Pitt tried to keep all the other colleges away from Eisman by putting him up in motel. As the recruiting intensified over the summer, Eisman told Paterno he was coming to Penn State and Fichtner indicated he was going to Miami of Florida. Richie was also leaning towards Penn State.   Then Eisman changed his mind and went to Kentucky. Fichtner also switched, to Purdue, but Richie stayed with Penn State.

Joe wrote about this recruiting situation in his 1989 book, Paterno: By The Book, and it’s also included in the 1971 book, Paterno: Football My Way, by Merv Hyman and Gordon White. But there is no mention of the motel in either version.

Of course, Richie went on to be a first team All-American and finished second in the Heisman Trophy race in 1959 to LSU’s Billy Cannon, but he did win the Maxwell Trophy. Richie was the No. 1 draft choice of the Washington Redskins, but they wanted him to play defensive back and he wanted to play quarterback. So he signed with the Buffalo Bills team in the new, rival American Football League. Unfortunately, an injury ended Richie’s pro career early. For years he was Penn State’s ticket manager and then an associate athletic director. Richie is now retired and still residing in State College.

Eisman went to Kentucky and faded into obscurity on three mediocre Kentucky teams, but later was Kentucky’ quarterback coach and offensive coordinator in the 1980s. Fichtner became a starting quarterback at Purdue following future Pro Football Hall of Famer Len Dawson and then a standout cornerback for the Cleveland Browns for nearly a decade. He was so good that he was the cover boy of a 1966 Sports Illustrated story entitled, "Pro Football’s Best Defenders."

Sorry for my bungle on the motel story. However, you can see that recruiting was just as bizarre fifty years ago as it is today and maybe more so.