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Santa’s Best Gift to Coaches’ Kids: A Bowl Game

by on December 15, 2017 9:09 AM

Of all the Penn Staters who will travel to the Fiesta Bowl, who is going to have the most enjoyable experience at that Dec. 30 football game?

The players?  Perhaps, if they defeat the Washington Huskies and make some positive impressions on NFL scouts. The coaches? Maybe, if they can match wits with Washington’s super-creative head coach Chris Petersen and his staff. The alumni? Possibly, if they can forget this season’s two painful losses long enough to appreciate the Nittany Lions’ performance.

But I already know the type of people who will most enjoy their trip to Arizona. And they’re not from any of those groupings.  

I’m talking about the coaches’ children. I’m certain they’ll have more fun than anyone else in the Penn State delegation.

Some of the coaches’ kids from the 1960s and 1970s were my friends as we attended State College area schools. Even four or five decades after going to bowl games with their parents, they still bubble over with exciting memories. No wonder. These “kids” were in a thrilling environment and they were still too young to take it for granted.

“THE COOLEST THING”

“It was so much fun, such an adventure,” says Peggy McMullen DeCastro, daughter of Joe McMullen, an assistant coach from 1963 to 1969.

“It was the coolest thing, absolutely,” adds Patty Toretti, daughter of Sever “Tor” Toretti, an assistant coach from 1949 to 1963 and later an assistant athletic director.  

And Jim O’Hora, oldest son of Penn State’s long-time assistant coach and defensive coordinator Jim O’Hora, Sr., agrees with them. “The bowls were exciting, they were thrilling,” he says. “We left Black Moshannon (Mid-State Airport) for the Gator Bowl, and when we landed (in Jacksonville), it was like 75 or 80 degrees, fruit on the trees. It was kind of nice.”

According to my friends, good weather and good football were always accompanied by other special touches. O’Hora’s younger sister, Peggy, still remembers the unique measures used by bowl committees to entertain the teams and their official parties.  

“I remember we’d go on buses to the game or whatever and we’d have police escorts,” says Peggy O’Hora Robison. “That was always really cool. It made you feel special. And then once we had the chance to ride on the Goodyear Blimp.”

UNFORGETTABLE ORANGE BOWL

Of course, the entire bowl experience took on more excitement for the coaches’ kids when the football team pulled out a victory. Asked to name her favorite bowl, Patty Toretti offers an immediate answer. “Absolutely the Orange Bowl with Kansas. It was the last part of the game. Hoping, hoping, praying… it was an emotional roller coaster.”

Younger Penn State fans may not know about the stupendous ending to the Orange Bowl on Jan. 1, 1969, but if they don’t, they ought to do themselves a favor by watching a short clip (just 2:17) on YouTube. For now, let’s just summarize it this way: Trailing 14-7 with just 1:16 left in the game, Penn State blocked a punt and got the ball near midfield. Then, Chuck Burkhart, an excellent leader as quarterback but not too special as a passer, threw a 48-yard completion to running back Bobby Campbell. Penn State scored a touchdown just three plays later—with 15 seconds remaining—and then Coach Joe Paterno disdained the possibility of a tie, choosing to attempt a two-point conversion. Burkhart’s pass fell incomplete, but the sting of defeat lasted just a few moments. To everyone’s amazement, Kansas was penalized for having 12 men on the field. The Nittany Lions won when Campbell found the end zone on the Lions’ second try for two points.

“That was unbelievable,” says Peggy DeCastro, who was watching beside Peggy Robison. “Of course, we were sitting with all the wives and all the family members. It was a giant whirlwind of excitement. When we thought we lost, some of the wives started crying. And then when we won, you can’t even imagine the excitement—everyone was hugging and jumping up and down.”

It was nearly a perfect trip to the Orange Bowl for both Peggys, but not quite. It seems the State College High School students had wanted sunnier weather than Miami provided during their visit.

“We were determined to get a tan before we went home, just to show off,” says Peggy DeCastro. “We were in the warmth; nobody else was. I remember putting on that ‘QT’ stuff that we used to use. That stuff was one of the very first paint-on tan things, and it was horrible. So we looked kind of orange. It was the Orange Bowl and we were orange!”

CHRISTMAS AWAY FROM HOME

As I talked to my friends whose fathers had coached for Penn State, I wondered if any of them ever missed being at home during the Christmas holiday when they “had” to go to Florida for a bowl.  

For Peggy DeCastro, State College was a nice place to spend Christmas during the years when Penn State failed to reach a bowl. She still recalls the simple joys of walking through town in the snow (“It was gorgeous!”), singing Christmas carols with her faith-filled parents and sisters, going caroling with the youth group at St. Paul’s Methodist Church, and serving as a babysitter for the Paterno children when Joe and Sue attended a Christmas party.

But even with all those positives, the youngest daughter of Joe McMullen makes it clear that the Gator Bowl and especially the Orange Bowl were her favorite holiday locations. “I don’t remember if we exchanged gifts before we left—without my dad—or after we got home,” she says. “I don’t remember because the Orange Bowl kind of took over. Nothing else was as exciting.”

As for Patty Toretti, she says, “We always looked at it as a vacation opportunity. We didn’t feel any particular loss in not being around State College at Christmastime.”

THE SANTA SUBTERFUGE

Being dislocated for Christmas did bring some small challenges for the Torettis, however, and Patty remembers one from the 1961 Gator Bowl. Her little brother, Mike, was just four or five years old at that time. Knowing that the family would be away from home on Christmas Day, Mike worried that Santa Claus would be unable to make delivery of his presents.

“So we had to have some subterfuge,” says Patty. Being a helpful older sister, she talked to Mike and offered him some hope. “We’ll make sure to write a letter to Santa Claus,” she said to her kid brother, “and we’ll let him know you’re going to be someplace else.”

And then, of course, Santa wrote a letter back to Mike which Patty read to him on Christmas morning. So what did Santa say? “I didn’t have room to bring all your presents here (to Florida), but they’re waiting for you at home.”

Meanwhile, just at the Torettis dealt with Santa concerning a necessary change of venue, the O’Horas often shifted their schedule for celebrating Christmas. “In many cases,” says Jim O’Hora, “Christmas was disrupted because of the trip.  So we would have it on maybe December 23 because we were leaving on the 24th for the bowl game. We had Christmas; it just might not have fallen on Christmas Day.” 

MOMS AS HEROINES

With the coaches working long hours on game preparation, it was the moms who handled the many family adjustments made necessary by bowl travel. It was a lot of work, but it seems they rarely complained. Just maybe, they were as excited as their kids about the chance to visit a warm weather site in late December. At any rate, they managed the holiday scheduling, the packing, and even some special training for their kids.

“Before going to a bowl,” says Peggy Robison, “Mom would always talk to us about manners. I remember her saying, ‘Now when we introduce you to someone, you offer your hand and say hello to them.’ And we were always dressed up. We looked like we were going to church all the time.”  

And it wasn’t as simple as one might think to arrange the clothing for a bowl-bound family. After all, as Mrs. Robison points out, there was no Internet in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and State College had limited shopping opportunities. “We lived in State College,” she says, “and Danks (the small department store that once occupied the northwest corner of Allen Street and Beaver Avenue) probably didn’t have warm weather clothes at that time.”  

So Betts O’Hora came up with a brilliant solution, although her husband, Jim O’Hora Sr., never quite embraced it. “My Mom used to keep what was called a ‘Bowl Box,’ says Peggy. “At the end of summer, Mom would pack our warm weather clothes in a box. But my dad would never like to see the Bowl Box because the football season hadn’t even started yet. She would put it in a certain place, and if Dad would see it, he would shudder.”

Of course, Jim O’Hora wasn’t opposed to his wife’s planning and preparation — those are precious values to a coach. Rather, he was slightly ruffled by Betts’ violation of another key coaching value. Penn State hadn’t even played one game, and she was already looking ahead to a bowl. According to Peggy, her dad who died in 2005, was nearly as devoted to the idea of “one game at a time” as James Franklin is today.   

So they both did what their jobs required. Betts O’Hora dutifully packed her “Bowl Box” each year, making sure her offspring were properly attired when and if Penn State flew south for a bowl game. And Jim O’Hora tried throughout the fall to ignore that box in his home’s upstairs storage area.

I have a feeling that Penn State won most of its bowls in that era because of wise coaches like Jim O’Hora. And the coaches’ kids had a fabulous time at those bowls because of wise mothers like Betts O’Hora. Here’s hoping that Penn State triumphs over Washington at this year’s Fiesta Bowl and that the coaches’ kids have a blast.  I suspect they’ll enjoy the game even more than we do.



Bill Horlacher is a native of Happy Valley, a 1970 graduate of State College High School and a 1974 graduate of Penn State (journalism). He has spent his last 30 years in service to international students, helping them with personal, cultural and spiritual adjustments to America. After 39 years of living in California, Maryland and Texas, Bill returned to State College in 2013 along with his wife, Kathy.
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