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Penn State Football: Running On is a Pricey Proposition

by on January 31, 2013 11:00 PM

A walk-on by any other name – run-on or non-scholarship player -- is a player who pays to play.

And, at Penn State, could very well pay a lot.

Over the course of his career, the sticker price to play Penn State football sans scholarship could run as much as $210,000 for out-of-state students. That’s assuming Johnny (and Jimmy) Football get zero aid, athletically, academically or because of household income.

Odds are he’ll get at least some non-football aid. Still, the initial price tag is high.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, students at Penn State pay the highest tuition bill in the country among four-year public colleges. For 2010-11, the department’s College Affordability and Transparency Center reported PSU had the highest in-state tuition among four-year public institution in the U.S., at $15,200.

Pitt – as always, when it comes to Penn State – was second, $364 back. Those numbers are for tuition only and don’t count room and board, books and fees.

In total, using Penn State’s current College Cost Calculator, an in-state marketing major who enrolls in fall 2012, attends eight semesters plus takes nine credits each of three summers – the norm for a football player – and graduates within four years will spend $144,339. That’s assuming an annual across-the-board percent increase of 4 percent and covers tuition, room and board, books, fees and incidentals. For out-of-state students, using the same parameters, the price is $212,798. Yikes!

According to NCAA rules -- and 16.5.2, to be exact -- a non-scholarship player may eat at the squad’s dinner training table with his scholarship teammates, but he will be docked for the meal and the price will be credited against his standard board costs. But if he needs to stay in school for bowl practice-- not in the next few t(y)ears, of course -- or over Thanksgiving break for a game, for instance, those fees are waived. So, in 2012 prior to the Wisconsin game, the turkey and trimmings were free.

In turn, they get to play football for Penn State and, quite possibly during this sanction-era, fulfill at least a few of their dreams. At these prices, these kids really, really want to play for Penn State. All the more reason – in my book – to root for them all. Not only on the field, but in the classroom.

Those numbers show what a salesman Penn State football coach Bill O’Brien is. The second-year Nittany Lion boss, faced with the heart(less) of the onerous sanctions that limit him to 15 scholarships per year, is now Pennsylvania’s Piped Piper of Prep Players Paying Sticker Price to Play for PSU.

O’Brien’s run-on strategy of attracting very good but not the very best in-state players to play for Dear Old State and pay out of their own -- and their parents’ -- pockets will not only populate his roster, but add depth and legitimate spirit, in the locker room and in the stands. Many kids grew up going to Beaver Stadium on football Saturdays and revering Joe Paterno. They’ve dreamed of running out of the south end tunnel.

Two great examples are the recently-departed Jacob Fagnano of Williamsport, who saw considerable time in the secondary in 2012, and Jesse Della Valle of Shaler High, originally recruited by Tom Bradley, but given a shot at punt returner this season – and walk-on turned scholarship recipient. Both are somewhat undersized, but tough on the field, well-mannered and earnest students. Prototypical Penn State walk-ons, then and now. The dream is so big that Fagnano’s little brother, Jared, transferred from Akron last year to play for Penn State.

And they all come to play. Every day.

In return, they and their successors get an education at one of the top public schools in the country, a chance to hone their football skills under a head coach who was very successful in the NFL whose staff includes coaches who have won national titles in college and have coached in the pros, as well as being stalwarts of the Penn State defensive staff under Bradley. And, with a roster that will feature a dwindling number of multi-starred scholarship players, they will have a better chance to see playing time.

It is a chance that, under normal circumstances, likely would not have happened.

Of course, even though some may earn scholarships as walk-on poster boy Matt McGloin did, it’s originally on their own dime. And with a max of 65 scholarships soon to kick in, there will be fewer chances to reward non-scholies with football financial aid.

Penn State already has a tradition of walk-ons who made good. There’s Deon Butler, the all-time leading receiver now with the Seattle Seahawks. Gregg Garrity, whose Sugar Bowl TD reception of a Todd Blackledge pass is Penn State legend, was a walk-on. And Garrity’s son will continue that tradition this fall. Interception machine Neal Smith of the 1960s was a walk-on, as were Troy Drayton, Rich Gardner, Greg Truitt and Josh Hull – all of whom went on to play in the NFL.

Two of the most interesting success stories are wide receiver Ethan Kilmer and cornerback Marlon Forbes. Both actually made the team as the purest form of a walk-on. They were invited to join the squad only after going through the on-campus cattle call of tryouts, when they joined dozens of high school heroes from Beaver, Mifflin and Snyder Halls. Another great example is center Joe Iorio, who started for the Nittany Lions as a freshman after making the squad as a non-scholarship player.

That’s the kind of commitment these new players who, seemingly by these dozens, are agreeing to come to play for O’Brien and Penn State as run-ons. They are, in essence, like every other “regular” Penn State student when it comes to the pocket book – even if they are astute pocket-passers. They and their parents are convinced paying the dollars for Penn State makes sense.

No matter what you call them – or what it costs them – O’Brien is hoping that over the next few years, these walk-ons will help give Penn State’s opponents a run for their money. And if there’s any doubt in anyone’s mind as to the myriad benefits Penn State provides on the playing field and beyond, O’Brien can point to Bill Emerson.

Under Paterno, Emerson began as a walk-on on that Blackledge-Garrity 1982 national championship team. Eventually, as a special-teamer, he worked his way into a captain’s position in 1984.

These days Emerson is the chief executive officer of Quicken Loans. Obviously, his years at as a Penn State walk-on were a great investment.

Recent Column:

Bill O'Brien's Behind-the-Scenes 'Supa Seven,' Jan. 28, 2013


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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