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Penn State Football: Fish Where The Fish Are

by on January 27, 2010 7:00 AM

The 2010 National Letter of Intent signing day for major college football quickly approaches. Next Wednesday, Feb. 3, hundreds of high school football phenoms will sign on the dotted line.

(It’s also signing day for field hockey, soccer, track and field, cross country and men’s water polo as well. Got that, Rivals and Scout?)

In Happy Valley, the names and high schools of the recruits most certainly do change -- OK, not always; the 2009 roster sees you two Mautis and raises you a Suhey. But at Penn State, for the most part, the recruits’ home states do not.

For good reason: For nearly a half-century Joe Paterno has ascribed to the theory that there are plenty of major college football caliber players within a five-hour car drive. Therefore, there’s no reason to go chasing halfway across the country for an 18-year-old who may or may be better than the one who lives 200 minutes away in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh or Baltimore. Or even closer.

Sever Toretti, a Penn State lineman in the 1930s, really made his mark in Nittany Lion football lore for his recruiting prowess decades later. He was a full-time Penn State recruiter during Paterno’s early years, and knew every high school coach and every small town stoplight in the state.

It was Tor’s theory that fans favored recruits from outside the region, and most assuredly the state, because they knew little about them. Their exploits became bigger, the opposition tougher, their reputation larger. The reality was, according to Toretti’s time- and travel-tested strategy, that the high school players from a few miles away were just as good as the far-away stars, but everyone knew about them -- and their flaws. So he never discounted the local kids.

In that sense, consultants and high school football recruits may be alike in that both are really rather ordinary in their usual circles -- until they get more than 100 miles away from home.

I’m not here to tell you which of Penn State’s 2010 recruits is extraordinary. Even the recruiting gurus aren’t all that sure. I mean, how could they possibly see every one of the players they rate?

With the big signing date within reach, I took a look back at Penn State’s recruiting history on a state-by-state basis, in hopes of detecting any trends or changes during Paterno’s reign.

Here’s my methodology: I started with the 1984 recruiting class; those Penn State football players who began attending classes in fall 1984. I selected that year since it was the first year I was editor of The Penn State Football Annual, and it was just the start of the recruiting information boom. In each issue of The Annual we ran an overview of the incoming freshman class, written by such recruiting experts as Ronnie Christ and Phil Grosz.

This way, there was continuity and a level of consistency. Players typically profiled each year were on scholarship. So walk-ons or late signees were not included. After 2006, I no longer edited The Annual. So, for 2006-09, I used the lists on the Web site of Fight On State -- part of the network – and run in first-class fashion by Mark Brennan, a sharp of a mind as there is on the Penn State football beat.

Armed with that information, I charted the home state of each Penn State recruit, as announced on signing day and shortly thereafter, for 26 years, from 1984 to 2009. 

Penn State Football Recruiting: 1984-2009

Home States of Incoming Freshmen on Scholarships 

    OVERALL                      BY DECADE

Rank State  #      %       1980s 1990s  2000s

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 1       PA   203    39.2%  32%   41.5%  40%

 2       NJ    72     13.7%  24%   13%     7.8%

 3       Ohio 53    10%     8%     14%     7.3%

 4       MD   35    6.7%    3%     4%       10%

 5       VA    33    6.3%    6%     6%       6%

 6       NY    31    6%       5%     5%       7.3%

 7       SC    13    2.5%    3.8%  2%       2%

 8       NC    11    2%       1.5%  2%       2.5%

 9       Fla    9      1.7%    3.8%  1.6%    .5%

 9       Mich  9      1.7%    <1%   1%      3%

11      Del    8      1.5%    <1%   --        3.4% 

The results are underwhelming. But look closer with me any way.

Joe Paterno fishes where the fish are – and at the local fishing hole, to boot. The Penn State coach has been around for so long, doing it essentially the same way, that the past two decades are near mirror images of each other. Near. Shifts are subtle, but telling. Check out New Jersey and Delaware.

The 1984 starting point comes at an interesting time. It does so on the heels of the Nittany Lions’ first national championship. You had to figure the 1983 freshman class was almost wrapped up, already to sign five weeks after Penn State beat Georgia on Jan. 1, 1983.

So the 1984 class signaled a new era, and for awhile, it was. The schedule had taken on a national feel, the fan base was expanding and so was the player base. From 1984-89, less than a third (32 percent) of the Penn State recruits came from Pennsylvania.

Taken alone, that’s no big deal. Joe was just a little out of whack. But for the two decades since, Paterno has mined the Keystone Stone for more than 40 percent of his roster. Whether the caliber of Pennsylvania high school football has ebbed or flowed, the number of scholarship players Penn State takes from its home state has remained remarkably consistent – 41.5 percent in the 1990s and 40 percent in the 2000s.

Consistent? You want consistent? For at least the past 26 years, 6 percent of the Penn State football players on roster have been from Virginia. In the 1980s. The 1990s. And the 2000s.

Let’s break down the numbers a bit more and reveal the biggest shift in Penn State recruiting in a quarter-century – a coastal erosion that the Nittany Lion head coach is trying very hard to correct.

New Jersey: No Longer Boss

Look at the Garden State. Fully one-quarter of the Nittany Lions’ recruits in the shank of the 1980s came from New Jersey. Two decades later, it was a third of that. It is a precipitous drop, one that has been steady over a longer period of time. Paterno has identified this, and has made recruiting in New Jersey a renewed priority on the Lion staff. This number will go up.


Larry Johnson’s success in Maryland has been well-chronicled. Derrick Williams is the biggest get, no matter what the state, in a long time. That helped open the floodgates. By my count Penn State has signed 14 high school seniors from the state of Maryland over the past four years.

The Big Ten Imperative

Forget that new recruiting frontier when Penn State joined the Big Ten. The state of Ohio accounted for about 8 percent of the recruiting booty in the ’80s, and the number is still there -- down from a high of 14 percent in the 1990s. In both the 1990s and 2000s, Penn State has had less than 10 signees from Big Ten states not named Ohio. That’s fewer than one a year.

Sinking Swamp Feeling

In the 1980s, Penn State headed south for such plums as Michael Timpson. Penn State had a little niche market going (3.8 percent), as Miami and Florida State were just gaining momentum, Florida wasn’t a player and USF and UCF were not even a twinkle in a school president’s eye. Now, Florida is a recruiting traffic jam and PSU is MIA.

Delaware: Sons of Beaches

The population of Delaware is growing as the beach towns explode, in concert with corporate growth due to tax regulations. Penn State is a doable drive as Delaware (3.4 percent in the 2000s) is starting to fill the numbers role that Florida did.

With Joe Paterno, even in the world of recruiting, you can find a nugget or two if you are willing to sift through the shifting sands.

Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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