Having fewer athletic scholarships is not new to school’s football program
In the spring of 1950, Penn State’s students began a campaign to hire “a big-time coach for a big-time college.” Penn State was already a big college. Enrollment had temporarily ballooned thanks to the G.I. Bill, but with the count surpassing 11,000 in the early ’50s, it would be substantially larger than in prewar Penn State years. This was the beginning of the steady enrollment growth at Penn State that continues to this day.
But what was all this about a “big-time” football coach? In 1950, Penn State emerged from a 20-year “purity period.” Back in the teens and ’20s, there were some sterling years, including several undefeated seasons and an appearance in the 1923 Rose Bowl. However, the tenure of coach Bob Higgins (1930-1949) and Joe Bedenk (who served temporarily in 1949) produced mixed results. Losing seasons in the 1930s, a turn-around between 1939 and 1941, and chaos during the war gave way to success in the G.I. Bill years. The competition during this period was a mix of small colleges such as Lafayette and Muhlenberg, with Eastern powers including Syracuse, Pitt, and Army. Even games against Penn, Columbia, and Cornell were struggles.
Higgins’s highlight season was 1947, when Penn State limited its opponents to a total of 27 points on its way to a 9-0-1 record, followed by a tie with Southern Methodist in the 1948 Cotton Bowl. This was the culminating season for an amazing group of war veterans, including Steve Suhey, Wally Triplett, and Chuck Drazenovich. The next season was almost as good (7-1-1), but 1949 (5-4) pointed to future doldrums. Penn State lacked the components of a competitive football program, especially athletic scholarships. New free-substitution rules that permitted a two-platoon game with more specialized players made the situation even more acute. It seemed likely that the Nittany Lions would return to the ranks of the unremarkable.
The problems of the 1930s and ’40s resulted from a “grand experiment,” which, in this case, was the design of President Ralph Dorn Hetzel. It was Penn State’s response to the Carnegie Commission report of 1927. This scathing review of all college football’s ills, argued that the athletic standards of the time had become inconsistent with American collegiate educational and ethical values. In one sense, the landmark study seemed to long for a return to an era when the game was run by and for students. But the “students’ game” of the nineteenth century had been overtaken by alumni control. Alums and other fans wanted ever-bigger games played in massive stadiums, with professional coaches and trainers. The “highly organized commercial enterprise” that college football had become by 1929 was seen as the primary problem.
Unlike many other schools, Penn State voluntarily scaled back. It abolished its 75 athletic scholarships, and intercollegiate athletics was removed from formal alumni control and made part of a new School of Physical Education and Athletics. Coaches were given academic rank, and, with other faculty in the school, placed under a noncoaching director, who had status equivalent to that of a dean. Players would no longer receive special tutoring to ensure they maintained academic eligibility.
Penn State’s alumni and fans, however, never gave up on the hope of returning to football respectability. In addition to the absence of full scholarships, restrictions on training-table meals, recruiting, and even scouting opposing teams made the chances for success pretty slim. Although the players who came to Penn State did their best under less-than-ideal circumstances, there was increasing hostility to this concept of amateurism. Alumni began surreptitious “recruiting” of promising players in the mid-’30s. Supportive alums and local businessmen offered part-time and summer jobs and, later, small stipends for the neediest players.
Eventually, following strict new NCAA rules, the board of trustees lifted the ban on scholarships in May 1949. Fifty full grants-in-aid became available to lure new players to State College. The new Penn State president, Milton S. Eisenhower, and board of trustees president James Milholland hoped that Penn State would gradually become competitive with the football powers of the day — Michigan, Ohio State, Minnesota, and Army, as well as traditional rivals Pitt and Syracuse.
The hiring of Ernest B. McCoy as athletic director and dean in 1953 completed the transition. McCoy had been Fritz Crisler’s assistant at the University of Michigan. He ended all remaining alumni control of athletics and made Michigan the model of academic and athletic balance to which Penn State sports would thereafter aspire.
Starting with the fall of 1950, new head coach Rip Engle compiled 10 straight winning seasons, and led Penn State to its first bowl game of the new era. In a windy, snow-covered Philadelphia, Penn State defeated Alabama, 7-0, in that inaugural 1959 Liberty Bowl. President Hetzel’s experimental “purity period” was over; coach Rip Engle, along with his young assistant Joe Paterno, had begun a new “grand experiment.”