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Penn State Loses Historical Landmark - by Lou Prato

BSD - If some of you read regularly, you may have noticed our good friend and renowned Penn State historian Lou Prato has been contibuting regular columns about Penn State history. When Lou asked me if it would be okay to reprint these articles on BSD, well, who am I to refuse. So let Lou know how much you appreciate them and let's hope we can look forward to these regular features here on BSD. These are the words of Lou Prato, reprinted with his permission.

A Historical Landmark for Penn State's Football Team is Gone

Phi Delta Theta house had historical tie to Penn State Football

Sept. 3, 2010

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - by Lou Prato

It's just an empty lot now, but until recently the southwest corner at the intersection of Burrowes and Pollack Roads on the western edge of the Penn State campus was the site of a historical building in the annals of the Nittany Lion football team.

Hundreds of thousands of students passed by the location over the years without realizing the football significance of the recently demolished Phi Delta Theta fraternity house that stood there decades. In the 1950s, this fraternity was the late summer preseason home for the football team as the players practiced for the upcoming season.

Phi Delta Theta was conveniently located one block from the locker room of New Beaver Field, the home for Penn State football until 1959, and adjacent to the team's practice field along Curtain Road. From 1953 to 1961, the athletics department rented the house in early August until the Phi Delt brothers returned for their fall semester classes. Using the fraternity for a residence hall enabled the Lion coaches to keep a close watch on the players when they weren't practicing. The assistant coaches who lived in State College even took turns sleeping there to prevent any overnight mischief.

"I stayed in a suite off to the left," Coach Joe Paterno remembered recently. Paterno, then an assistant coach, was a bachelor and he spent more time overseeing the players than most of the other coaches. "I have a lot of memories of the place. It's too bad they tore it down."

Many football players regret that, too, because they were members of the fraternity, and the list of Phil Delta Theta football brethren is almost like a Who's Who of Nittany Lions: Chuck Burkhart, Greg Buttle, Bobby Campbell, Fran Ganter, Jack Ham, John Hufnagel, Warren "Moose" Koegel, Richie Lucas, Milt Plum, Tom Rafferty, John Skorupan, Steve Smear and Charlie Zapiec to name a few.

"The grand old Phi Delt house wasn't a place to live, it was our life style," said Burkhart, quarterback of Paterno's great back-to-back undefeated teams in 1968-69. "It became not just the house where a number of our football players lived but a real extension of our team where the bond between brothers off the field helped develop the chemistry that was so important to our success on the field. It will never really be gone for me because of all the great memories that I will keep forever."

"We weren't even the big `jock' house either," said Lucas, Penn State's oldest living member of the College Football Hall of Fame, referring to the nickname given fraternities that catered to athletes as members. "That was DU [Delta Upsilon]. I think I even stayed (at Phil Delt) when I was being recruited out of high school. It's kind of sad that it's gone."

Lam Hood also was a member of the fraternity in the late 1950s but he didn't play football, although he was the student manager of the Nittany Lions 1959 baseball team. Hood also has vivid memories of the football team staying there because the house had to be cleaned once the football team left. "When the pledges came back for fall classes in mid September, they had to do the cleaning," Hood said. "It was quite dirty but not torn up or anything like that. To the football team it was a boarding house but to a Phi Delt it was a home."

Using the fraternity for the preseason was the idea of Coach Rip Engle and a couple of his staff assistants. In Engle's first preseason practice as head coach in 1950, the football team was still utilizing left over World War II temporary housing close to where the Lasch football building is today. "It was a long walk to practice at Beaver Field," recalled Don Barney, a sophomore that year. As Barney and two of his teammates, Joe Yukica and Jim Dooley, remembered, the next preseason the players utilized what was then a new residence building directly across the street from Beaver Field, McKee Hall. Many players stayed there during the academic year as well as preseason but once a player joined a fraternity he was permitted to move into his fraternity house if he desired.

In 1953, Engle worked out the deal with Phi Delta Theta and made it the mandatory preseason home for the players.

"The last year the team stayed there was in 1961, my sophomore year," remembered Gary Wydman, a Phi Delt brother who was the quarterback of the 1964 Eastern Championship team that thrashed No. 2 Ohio State, 26-0, in Columbus in of the greatest upsets in Lion history. "After '61, we were housed in the dorms."

Dan Radakovich, who is not a Phi Delt member, remembers staying at the fraternity as a sophomore linebacker in the preseason of 1954, and then again a few years later as a graduate assistant and full-time assistant coach under Engle. As the Nittany Lions first linebackers coach from 1959-69, Radakovich is recognized as the "Father of Linebacker U." He said he might not have met his wife Nancy if the Penn State team had not been staying at Phi Delta Theta in 1954.

"I was walking back to the fraternity after practice one day with `Beetle' Bailey," Radakovich said, referring to senior quarterback Don Bailey who was well known as the team prankster. "We were passing Rec Hall and `Beetle' said, `Hey Rad, the freshmen are in. Let's go (across the street to) the Waring Hall snack bar and bug the freshmen girls.' We did and I met Nancy and we've been married for 53 years."

Nowadays, the football team still uses the dorms for preseason practice, but once classes start the players live in residence halls adjacent to the Lasch Building football facility and practice fields. When Wydman, Burkhart, Lucas and the other football players were members of Phi Delta Theta, most other players also lived in fraternities during the academic year because fraternities were the heart of social life at Penn State. It had been that way going back to the late 1800s when the first fraternities appeared on campus. But as the college evolved into a world class university in the 1970s and 1980s, campus culture changed and so did fraternities. Today, few of Penn State's hundreds of athletes belong to a fraternity or a sorority and the public perception of fraternities and fraternity life is poor.

Furthermore, in the 1950s, Penn State was a relatively medium-sized, college with a predominantly undergraduate student population in the 11,000-16,000 range. Today the university enrollment hovers in the mid 40,000s, with undergraduate and graduate students from around the world.

When the Phi Delt house was used by the football team, the fraternities were at the height of their popularity, and the only fraternity houses on campus--at or near the intersection of Burrowes and Pollock Roads--were perceived by many as the crème de la crème. Of the six original fraternity houses, just four remain. Phi Delt Theta was disbanded after drinking violations in 2007, and the alumni group that owned the house reluctantly agreed to sell the property to Penn State for $1.75 million after a legal dispute.

During its heyday that Burrowes-Pollock intersection was arguably the busiest spot on campus. The main entrance for traffic into Penn State was just another block West on Pollock at North Atherton and hundreds of people drove or walked by the Phi Delt house on a daily basis. That gradually changed as the campus expanded eastward, opening up new or revitalized access roads into campus. Then in 2002 Pollock Road was closed at Atherton Street to make way for the new Information Technology and Services building, and a new campus entrance was built at Atherton and Curtin Road between Rec Hall and the Lion Shrine statue.

At this point, Penn State's administration has no immediate plans to build another building on the Phi Delta Theta site. Instead, the university intends to turn the property into an environmental friendly "green space" with sidewalks, benches, trees and bushes.

Even though Phi Delta Theta is no more, the Phi Delt alumni leaders hope to have an official university historical maker placed on the site "commemorating the historical significance and memories" of the fraternity. Taking a cue from that old adage about the first President of the United States, somewhere on that marker should be this historically significant notation, "Joe Paterno Slept Here--And So Did The Penn State Football Team."

Lou Prato is the retired director of the Penn State All-Sports Museum and the author of four books about Penn State football. He will be signing his latest book, Game Changers: The Greatest Games in Penn State Football History, at Beaver Stadium Store this fall.