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Rutgers, Ex-Boss Friedgen Part of Homecoming for Penn State's Jersey Guy John Donovan

by on September 07, 2014 9:00 PM

Penn State offensive coordinator John Donovan is a Jersey Boy from River Edge, so this coming weekend is a homecoming of sorts.

That his counterpart, Rutgers O-coordinator Ralph Friedgen, was his former boss for 13 years at Georgia Tech and Maryland only adds to the intrigue of his week. 

And that’s to say nothing of the fact that Donovan turns The Big Four-Oh on Thursday.

Or that in the preseason he said the ticket requests from friends and families for Saturday’s game in Piscataway were already pouring in.

Or that this is the only second time in the 24-game series that both Penn State and Rutgers at 2-0 enter the game undefeated and untied, discounting season openers.

(The first came in 1993, when 3-0 Penn State – in its first season in the Big Ten – entered the game after wins over Minnesota, Southern Cal and Iowa. Rutgers, which beat Colgate and Duke to open 2-0, lost 31-7 in Beaver Stadium.)


Donovan was a high school hoops star at River Dell Regional High School in Bergen County, N.J. – just 46 miles north on the Garden State Parkway from Rutgers’ High Point Solutions Stadium in Piscataway, where Rutgers’ entry to the Big Ten Conference will officially kick off on the football field at 8 p.m. on Saturday.

An all-county basketball player, Donovan was inducted into his high school hall of fame after a stellar career. He was an all-league quarterback and kicker as well, then became a three-year starter at defensive back at Johns Hopkins, where he had a dozen career picks. After spending a year as an assistant at Villanova, he coached three seasons at Georgia Tech and 10 more at Maryland (2001-10) before joining Franklin at Vanderbilt in 2011.

At Georgia Tech, Donovan worked under Freidgen, the Yellowjackets’ offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach and alongside Bill O’Brien, Tech’s running backs coach at the time and still one of Donovan’s closest friends. When Friedgen went to Maryland in 2001 to become the Terps’ head coach, Donovan followed (and, eventually, so did O’Brien, for the 2003-04 seasons). Penn State head coach James Franklin worked under Friedgen at Maryland from 2001-04 and 2008-10, and at one point was head coach-in-waiting, set to succeed Friedgen.

When Donovan came to Penn State with Franklin from Vanderbilt, he was welcomed back to the Garden State with open arms, by friends, family, old teammates and bunches of high school coaches. Donovan had recruited in his home state in the past, most recently for Vandy but also for many years while a recruiting coordinator and assistant coach at Maryland.

Making inroads was difficult. And that was because, in part, all roads from New Jersey led to Penn State. And not just Routes 78, 80, 202 and 276, either. Penn State owned the Road to No. 1.

“I’m from Jersey and I’ve recruited Jersey a long time,” Donovan said in the offseason. “And we’d come to Jersey in the spring, maybe, and try to get a gauge of a kid’s interest. It usually didn’t last. So we’d move on.

“When I came back here for the first time in January and was going to see all the (New Jersey high) schools, all of these guys would show up and be happy for me. They were fired up. They’re fired up, they’re happy to see you: ‘Yeah, Penn State!’ It was different.”

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Penn State leads the series 22-2 and, for Donovan, there’s a reason for that. There was the Penn State brand – which went by the Grand Experiment under its architect, Joe Paterno -- and a host of experienced of assistants who knew New Jersey better than a revolving door of Rutgers coaches did.


“Even growing up in Jersey or recruiting at Maryland, you always heard about Penn State kids,” Donovan said. “ ‘He’s a Penn State kid. He’s a good kid, he’s tough, he’s smart.’ That was kind of the consensus of what made a Penn State kid. He doesn’t get in trouble … Overall, he’s a good, tough football player who was a good kid. ‘He’s a Penn State kid’ I would hear that a lot. I’ve heard that for years.”

The Penn State-New Jersey pipeline has been open for decades.

Beginning with Dave Robinson in 1962, Penn State has had 11 first-team All-Americans from New Jersey – stalwarts like Lydell Mitchell, Kenny Jackson, Walker Lee Ashley and Tamba Hali. Also jumping the state line were tough-guy linebackers Trey Bauer, Chet Parlavecchio and Mark D’Onofrio; tough-guy quarterbacks Doug Strang, the Brothers Sacca and Tom Bill; and Steeler-tough Franco Harris (whose brother Pete was a 1978 All-American safety for PSU).

The series has had its own bit of acrimony. The biggest came in the classic Paterno vs. Doug Garber sparring match after the 1995 game in Giants Stadium. With Penn State ahead 52-34 and a minute to play, Penn State backup quarterback Mike McQueary threw a 42-yard TD pass to Chris Campbell, a situation when most teams take a knee. Watch it here (profanity alert). The finish recently came under some scrutiny, as that score covered a big spread.

Penn State’s current roster features 15 players from New Jersey. They include starters Brandon Bell, Bill Belton, Austin Johnson, Brendan Mahon, Angelo Mangiro and Chris Gulla, as well as highly-ranked freshmen Saeed Blacknall, Jason Cabinda and Mike Gesicki.

For the first time in his 17-year college coaching career, Donovan – who was recruiting coordinator at Maryland for four seasons – believes he has an edge before he even walks into a high school, be it in New Jersey, Pennsylvania or almost everywhere else. 

“The thing about it is that Penn State is such a unique brand that you can go into any school in the country and every kid respects it. So you can be picky on who you want,” Donovan said. “We don’t have to take the questionable students or the questionable character kids. You’re in a situation here where you can take a great player who’s also a good kid and a good student.”


Donovan, as much as anyone, can appreciate excelling in academics and athletics. He holds a degree in sociology from Johns Hopkins, where he was an all-conference safety in 1996, when he led the Cardinals with seven interceptions. And he earned his masters in economics from Georgia Tech, when he was cutting his teeth on college football with Friedgen and O’Brien. 

“At Penn State you get two things,” he said. “It’s got a good academic reputation, which is unique for a powerhouse school. But kids know that’s it’s a powerhouse for football. In their mind, it’s big-time football, it’s the big stage. If you want to play on the big stage, Penn State is the big stage.”

On Saturday night, it will be a big one for Donovan as well.

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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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