A star-studded group of former athletes and coaches will enter the Centre County Chapter of the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame this weekend. Amid an impressive backdrop of local luminaries—including Olympic swimmer Jane Brown, track star Steve Gentry and football icon Mike Condo—one stands out in my mind.
Mike Archer was a three-sport star at State High who played strong safety for the University of Miami and ultimately served as head football coach for LSU and linebacker coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
That’s not to mention that Archer also coached at his alma mater and at Virginia, Kentucky and North Carolina State. Or that he served as defensive coordinator for the Toronto Argonauts when they captured the Canadian Football League’s Grey Cup in 2018. Or that he’s raring to go as linebacker coach when the Tampa Bay Vipers begin play on Feb. 9 in the new XFL.
But to me, Archer is more unforgettable for his unique personality than for his accomplishments. I played baseball with him for at least six seasons (Pony League, Centre County Junior League, State College High School), and I’ve never met anyone quite like him. Mike always knew the situation and the strategy, but he also had the appropriate wisecrack to keep everybody loose. Mike is a talker, and he’s seen some things that are worth talking about. No wonder it was so much fun to sit down for a Corner Room breakfast with the 1971 State High graduate just a couple days before his hall of fame induction. Here are edited portions of our wide-ranging conversation:
You’re being inducted into the Centre County Sports Hall of Fame this weekend. What does that mean to you?
Archer: Number one, the people… many of the people that have been inducted in previous classes. Obviously Jim Williams was very close to me. He was my high school coach, one of my mentors. (Williams passed away on Oct. 9.) Barry Parkhill and Bruce Parkhill… Barry was two years older than me, so we were involved in basketball in State College. And there were guys in previous classes who were coaches here in Centre County. So I looked up to them because they were coaches at Bellefonte or Bald Eagle or Penns Valley. I think the thing that stands out is you realize how important sports is to the fiber of this county.
But of course, a lot has changed. When I was growing up, you know, Bald Eagle, Bellefonte, State College, they were all on the same level. We all know that it's changed in football in particular. We (State High) were known as the professors’ kids. You know, everybody used to beat the pants off the professors’ kids. Until Jim Williams got here, and then the whole mentality changed. We were no longer the professors’ kids. I mean, we became the Big Bad Apple, the ones that beat everybody. And nobody wanted to play us after a while.
Mike Archer and his wife, Barbara, have made numerous moves during his career in NCAA, NFL, CFL and XFL. (Photo by Bill Horlacher)
Is there any particularly powerful memory when you return to State College these days?
Archer: This is where I was raised… I was raised by a bunch of females [his mother, grandmother and older sister] after my dad passed away. My mom didn't even drive a car when he died, so she had to learn how to drive. I think it was two to three days before my 10th birthday when he passed away, and I’ll always remember that. I was watching a Little League baseball game. And when I got home that night, I just remember there were a lot of cars at our house and that was unusual. And my mom was crying, and my Uncle Jack and my Uncle Elmo pulled me aside saying, “Your dad died of a heart attack this evening.” And I just couldn't understand. I had no idea.
What would you say to your father if he could be present at this hall of fame induction?
Archer: The sad part, Bill, is I don't remember much about him because I was so young, and I only wish he could have seen some of the things that have happened. That’s a good question… uh, I don't know how to answer that. I guess I’d tell him, “Thank you for bringing me into this life and giving me some of your athletic ability.” Because my dad was a really good athlete; he was a big man. My dad was bigger than me, he was six foot-three and 230 or 240 pounds. But… he also smoked two packs of cigarettes a day.
But you never smoked?
Archer: No. My mom smoked for a little while afterwards and she stopped because of what had happened to my dad. In my mind, that's what killed my dad-- his cigarettes. It made an ingrained impression in my life and I never wanted to.
What about your mom? What would you say to her if she could be present on Sunday afternoon?
Archer: Well, “Thanks for being the person that you were,” because she took a family of three and raised us. She had to learn how to drive, and she had never worked. So she took a job. She started working in the athletic ticket office (at Penn State) for Steve Garban. She worked there until she took a job at the engineering library at Hammond Building. I think the biggest thing that I would take out of that is how strong she was.
She told the people (media) this when I was at LSU—she said sports saved me because I could have been off doing other things that weren't very good. But I did things that were sports-oriented. She would take me to those things or other parents would take me. And those things kept me active and kept me out of trouble.
And everybody knows you've got a mischievous nature.
Archer: There's no question. I have a mischievous nature. That's true.
So you probably would've gotten in trouble…
Archer: No, there’s no real question in my mind. I was a prankster in class. I mean to the point where Sandra Welsh [wife of George Welsh, then an assistant football coach at Penn State] used to slap my hand with a rule. Cause I wouldn't shut up in class, you know.
But you loved her to death…
Archer: Oh I did. And her husband was a Penn State football coach, so in my eyes that was neat. She would say, “Do you ever shut up?” And then when I went to Virginia to work for George [Welsh had become head coach at University of Virginia], I'm like 35 years old. So the first night we’re there, Barb [his wife] and I go to their house and Sandy walks in. I give her a hug and she says, “I hope you don't talk as much as what you did when you were in my eighth grade class.” She was awesome.
Jim Williams was another important person in your life. What would you say to Jim if he could be here this weekend?
Archer: I came up here in July to do the video for this [the hall of fame] and to bring some of my memorabilia. So Tim Curley [former Penn State athletic director and a State High teammate] had a little get-together at his house with guys that were in my high school class. So we're there and all of a sudden who comes walking in the door but Jim. And it was really sad because he didn't look very good. But we got to spend about two hours with him. I thanked him and told him that none of us would be where we are right now if it wasn’t for him… He brought a sense of toughness to our school that wasn’t there earlier. As we left, Tim said, “I hope he can make it to your induction ceremony in October.”
Mike Archer and State High friends gathered in July. Front row, from left: Tim Curley, Bruce Ellis, the late Jim Williams, Archer. Back row, from left: Larry Suhey, Pat Little, Allen Potter, Mike Morse, Terry Loesch, Steve Brackbill and Angie Montovino. (Photo provided by Mike Archer)
During your high school days, Bruce Ellis was your receiver, and when you coached for the Steelers, Joey Porter was your linebacker. How does it make you feel to see their sons (Keaton Ellis, Joey Porter Jr.) as freshmen cornerbacks for Penn State?
Archer: It makes me feel old, to be honest.
What would you say about those two guys and their potential?
Archer: I think they'll be better than their dads. Both of them. They didn't fall far from the tree as they say. Having played with Bruce, I know how talented Bruce was — he could do many things, not just in football but in basketball too. And Bruce was extremely intelligent, extremely intelligent. Joe’s son has a tough road to go because his dad was an All-Pro linebacker, but he obviously has the genes to do it. And I know he's got the parental guidance from his dad, and Joey coached after he finished playing.
Let’s talk a bit about Penn State football. What do you notice about this year’s team that a typical fan wouldn't pick up?
Archer: What I see at Penn State is what I see in college football. The game's changed dramatically. It's fast break basketball, it's played in space, it's rapid fire. Fundamental football, defensive football, has suffered in my opinion. Now I'm a defensive coach, so I have a one-sided opinion. But it's hard for me to watch college football now because of how poor the tackling is. And I attribute that to the pace of offenses. You know, the ball's being snapped every 22 seconds. So you're limited in what you can do defensively. Your guys get tired. And so Penn State is doing the popular thing to do. They're spreading the field, and they've got athletes and you know this kid [KJ] Hamler is exciting. He can go the distance. The game is not played in the tackle box anymore. Everything is on the perimeter. So you have to have athletes in space. If you don't, you lose. And Penn State has athletes in space — offensively and defensively — which is why they're one of the top teams.
What do you think about State High playing a game at Beaver Stadium?
Archer: It’s about time. It’s about time. Why would they never be allowed to play up there? I would have loved to play at Beaver Stadium and I think, you know, they should rotate it around and let different (schools) play there. The grass is grass. Let it grow. It’s not gonna tear it up. It should have happened 25 years ago, 30 years ago.
What would you have thought if you could have played there?
Archer: That would've been the greatest thrill of all for a kid growing up here. I used to sell Cokes in the stadium, and I would sell programs in the parking lot. I never missed a Penn State game, but I never played there… I coached there when I was at Miami—we won there twice and got beat once. So I've been in the press box, I've been on the field, all those things. But I never got to play there.
I want to ask you about the coaching carousel. Not many people have coached in the NCAA, the NFL, the CFL and now the XFL. How do you feel about all those leagues and locations?
Archer: I've been very blessed because that's what I've chosen to do. I’ve retired a couple of times and gone back into it. I was retired and then Mark [Treastman, former head coach for the Argonauts and current head coach for the Vipers] and called me and asked me. If I didn't enjoy it, then I wouldn't do it. Because I don't have to do it. But to me, coaching is about meaningful relationships. There’s nothing like a winning locker room.
You know, people ask me, “Where’s the best football?” And I’ve never really answered that because I'm not going to voice my opinion. But I've been very blessed because I grew up here. I watched Penn State football when I was a kid, and I watch it from a distance now. I was head coach at LSU and an assistant at Kentucky, so I coached in the SEC. And I coached in the ACC. I've coached in some of the greatest venues in the world. I've been to Japan, I've been to Spain, I've been to Mexico coaching. And I had never been on an airplane until I took my first trip to Miami… I've coached all over the world, and I’ve coached some of the greatest athletes in the world. So I've experienced it. Not many kids coming out of State College get that opportunity.
Mike Archer is known for his sense of humor, but he’s all business during practice. (Photo provided by University of Virginia)