When Perfect Wasn’t Enough: Museum celebrates – and rekindles debates about – Penn State teams that were Unbeaten & Uncrowned
Imagine being perfect at something. Maybe it’s our job, our appearance, creating a piece of art, or cooking a dish that is just perfect. No flaws, no errors, no mistakes. Simply perfect.
And then imagine that being perfect, that doing something perfectly, was seen as not being good enough. That someone else’s perfection was somehow recognized as being better.
In the world of sports, being perfect usually goes hand-in-hand with being recognized as the best. When a team goes through an entire season and doesn’t lose a game, that perfection is rewarded with a championship.
Well, not always – certainly not in major college football, and certainly not when the team is Penn State.
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Before this modern era of the College Football Playoff, Penn State fielded 11 football teams from 1894 to 1994 that went undefeated yet weren’t generally recognized at the time as national champions. The Penn State All-Sports Museum this spring opened an exhibition that looks at those teams and what happened in those seasons. Unbeaten & Uncrowned: 11 Teams, 100 Years will be shown in the museum’s changing exhibition space through spring 2021.
“In thinking about future exhibit ideas, several individual undefeated seasons were put forward as potential topics. Rather than cover each separately, this approach allowed us to address them all at one time,” museum director Ken Hickman says. “We hope that fans are able to relive some great memories from seasons they may have seen, but also learn about some of the earlier teams whose accomplishments are on par with, and in some cases, surpass their successors.”
A memorable snub
The timing for the exhibition seems appropriate since 2019 marks the 25th anniversary of the last Penn State team that went unbeaten and uncrowned, and the one most Nittany Lions fans will remember.
The Lions were playing their second season in the Big Ten in 1994 and had an offense that broke numerous records. Led by quarterback Kerry Collins, running back Ki-Jana Carter, and one of the best offensive lines in program history, Penn State averaged 47.8 points and 520.2 yards per game.
The Lions started the season ranked ninth in both the Associated Press poll and the USA Today/CNN poll. They became the top-ranked team in both polls following their 31-24 win at No. 5 Michigan on October 15 that put them at 6-0. Two weeks later, the Lions thumped Ohio State, 63-14, but Penn State went to No. 2 in the AP poll behind Nebraska. They then fell behind the Cornhuskers in the USA Today/CNN poll after Indiana scored two late touchdowns that turned a Penn State rout into a seemingly close 35-29 win on November 5.
Penn State never regained the top spot in either poll. With Nebraska’s Big 8 title locking it into the Orange Bowl and Penn State going to the Rose Bowl by winning the Big Ten, the two teams couldn’t meet. Nebraska beat Miami in the Orange Bowl on January 1, 1995. The next day, Penn State beat Oregon in the Rose Bowl. In the end, both major polls put the Cornhuskers as No. 1, giving them the mythical national title.
In a 2011 interview with Town&Gown, Jeff Hartings, an All-American guard on the 1994 team, said he remembers watching Nebraska’s Orange Bowl win from his hotel room in California.
“I knew we didn’t have a chance of winning the national championship [after that],” he said. “I think even on the TV they put ‘Nebraska – national champions.’ I don’t harbor any bad feelings toward anyone or anything.”
Many other Penn State fans and followers, however, still have strong emotions about that season.
“The Nittany Lions of 1994 should have had a share of the championship,” Penn State sports historian and author Lou Prato says. “I am still frustrated the team didn’t receive a share of the title that year.”
Penn State was chosen as the national champion by The New York Times.
Three other undefeated and uncrowned Penn State teams also received recognition as national champs from some selectors.
The 1911 Lions went 8-0-1 and were declared co-champions with Princeton by the National Championship Foundation. But the Helms Athletic Foundation and two other selectors retroactively recognized Princeton as the champions.
Led by three future hall-of-famers in Shorty Miller, Pete Mauthe, and Dex Very, Penn State went undefeated again in 1912, going 8-0-0. Again, the National Championship Foundation honored the Lions as co-champions along with Harvard, but several other organizations named the Crimson as the only champions.
“This is a team that conceded only six points all season, giving them perhaps the most effective defense ever fielded by a Nittany Lion team,” Hickman says of the 1912 team. “Additionally, this is the team that famously led 37-0 at Ohio State and had the Buckeyes walk off the field claiming that Penn State was ‘unnecessarily rough.’”
The 1969 Lions – featuring Charlie Pittman, Franco Harris, and Lydell Mitchell – also were the second of back-to-back undefeated teams. They did receive championship recognition from Rothman-FACT and Sagarin, but it was Texas that was given the national title by the majority of selectors – thanks in part to President Richard Nixon, who famously (or infamously) proclaimed that the winner of the December 6, 1969, matchup between No. 1 Texas and No. 2 Arkansas would be the national champion.
Hickman, however, says that Penn State needs to bear some responsibility for not winning the title.
“Penn State’s fate was largely self-inflicted – by a decision that made complete sense at the time,” he says. “Sitting at 8-0, No. 5 Penn State fielded bowl invitations from the Orange and Cotton bowls. The latter would have seen the Lions square off against either Texas or Arkansas. As it was expected that No. 1 Ohio State would win out, it did not appear that either option would have national title ramifications. Taking those factors and problems with the racial atmosphere in Dallas into account, the Penn State players voted to return to the Orange Bowl. [Bowl games were usually locked up two to three weeks before the end of the regular season.] … While logical in the moment, it turned into a nightmare when Ohio State was upset by Michigan. This moved Texas to No. 1, Arkansas to No. 2, and Penn State to No. 3.”
Prato says Penn State was “defamed for ‘ducking’ Texas by voting to go back to the Orange Bowl.”
‘Little State College’
The exhibition features other stories such as how after the 1894 team blew out Gettysburg and Lafayette by a combined score of 132-0 in its first two games, Penn, Virginia, and Princeton canceled their games against “little State College.” The team went 6-0-1. Yale, with its 16-0-0 record, was retroactively named the national champs by organizations such as the Helms Football Foundation and National Championship Foundation.
The famous 1947 team also is featured. Led by halfback Wally Triplett, who would become the first African-American player to be drafted and play in the NFL, Penn State went 9-0-1. Notre Dame finished No. 1 in the AP poll with its 9-0-0 record, while Michigan, which went 10-0-0, was picked as champion by other organizations.
Perhaps most interesting about the 1947 team is that it did not come up with the “We Are Penn State” chant, though many think it did. The exhibition explains that the chant actually was developed in the late 1970s by Penn State cheerleaders after looking at the cheers used at other schools.
Penn State’s lone Heisman Trophy winner, John Cappelletti, led the 1973 undefeated and uncrowned team that actually finished fifth in the polls, while a one-loss Alabama team was named No. 1 by the United Press International poll, which issued its final poll before the bowl games were played. The Tide’s loss came in the Sugar Bowl to Notre Dame, which finished No. 1 in the AP poll.
The introductory panel of the sports museum’s exhibition reads that while many of the undefeated and uncrowned Penn State teams “played before systems were in place to honor them and others received recognition years after, some have simply been passed over. While a few of these oversights are understandable, others still cause controversy and fire the passions of the fans and alumni.”
The controversy and passion may only grow or be rekindled for those who visit Unbeaten & Uncrowned.
“This exhibit offers an opportunity to recognize those [earlier] squads – which include some of the greatest that Penn State ever produced,” Hickman says. “For the more recent teams, the exhibit offers a chance to relive the memories of those seasons and reengage in the debates that surround them.”
David Pencek is a freelance writer in State College.