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50 Years of Town&Gown: Sports, Part II — Penn State

by on August 31, 2015 2:21 PM

As Centre County residents picked up the first issue of Town&Gown magazine in January 1966, a record Rec Hall crowd of 7,600 watched Gene Wettstone’s defending national championship men’s gymnastic team open its new season by beating Springfield by a mere five-hundredths of a point.

On the last Saturday of the month, Rec Hall was rocking again. In the afternoon, 7,400 fans cheered for John Egli’s men’s basketball team in a 76-73 victory over Temple. In the evening, 7,300 were there to see Wettstone’s gymnasts defeat the Air Force Academy, 188.95-168.50.

That same snowy, freezing Saturday night at the Hetzel Student Union, football head coach Rip Engle and his 1965 team were being honored at the annual team banquet sponsored by the State College Quarterback Club. Despite a frustrating 5-5 season, Engle told the group “wait until next year.”

Four weeks later to the day, Penn State football had a new head coach named Joe Paterno, and the university’s athletic program has never been the same.

Perhaps it was coincidence that the birth of the now popular Town&Gown magazine marked the end of an era in Penn State’s athletics. That January also marked the passing of two legendary Penn State head coaches, soccer’s Bill Jeffery, who coached the Lions from 1927 to 1952, and Pop Rutherford, who coached the golf team from 1922 to 1949. In the same month, Engle’s predecessor, Joe Bedenk, the football coach in 1949 and baseball head coach from 1931 to 1962, was elected in the first class of the College Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame.

What’s also significant is that Town&Gown emerged just as women’s sports were evolving at Penn State. Is it another coincidence that a woman, Mimi Barash, founded Town&Gown, and in the next 50 years, she was one of the leading proponents of the university’s women’s athletics program?

During the academic year of 1965-66 that Town&Gown was born, enrollment at University Park campus was 20,800. There were 13 official varsity sports operating under the athletic department’s budget of less than $1 million — but they were all men’s teams.

Penn State now celebrates 1964 as the beginning of varsity sports for women, with the first teams in golf and field hockey. However, the official records from the fall of 1964 through the spring of 1967 included all women’s teams as part of the Women’s Recreation Association that was lumped in with intramurals. We now know it was a subterfuge designed by Penn State President Eric Walker and athletic director Ernie McCoy to enable the transition of varsity women’s sports into the athletic department despite the sexist politics on campuses across the country opposing women’s varsity programs.

The school yearbook, LaVie, referred to women’s varsity teams for the first time in its 1968 edition with a clear rewriting of the past official history: “The women’s varsity program has grown by leaps and bounds since its inception four years ago. Today, our Lady Lions possess varsity status in such varied sports as field hockey, bowling, fencing, basketball, gymnastics, golf, tennis, rifle, and softball. Although their program is only four years old, the Lionesses have begun to make a name for themselves ….”

The academic year of 1967-68 also was the turning point for Paterno, whose first season as head coach was a mediocre 5-5. In the now famous 1967 season, Paterno overhauled his squad in the second game of the year at Miami with a plethora of sophomores, including several future All-Americans. By the end of the season, Penn State had its best record in six years at 8-2-1, a No. 10 ranking in the polls, a 17-17 tie in the Gator Bowl, and the start of what would become a school record 31-game undefeated streak that is still intact.

There’s no doubt that Paterno and the success of his football teams from 1967 onward was the prime basis for the expansion and success of the entire athletic program in the next 50 years. If one has to select a single momentous event in the last 50 years that changed Penn State’s athletic program forever, it has to be the university’s entry into the Big Ten in 1990. Yes, the women’s pioneering varsity teams was historic in 1964, but the later passing of Title 1X would have forced a similar end result. Giving up 103 years of independence to join the Big Ten was revolutionary.

Not only did Penn State’s athletics change forever but so also did college athletics. The Nittany Lions’ move to the Big Ten was the catalyst for the radical transformation of the college athletics landscape that continues to this day.  

Whoever thought in 1966 that 50 years later Penn State and two of its regional rivals, Rutgers and Maryland, would be in the Big Ten, along with Nebraska? Or that three other eastern foes, traditional rivals Pitt and Syracuse along with Boston College, would be in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and another, West Virginia, in the Big 12?

All of that might not have happened if Paterno had succeeded in his 1980 attempt to form an all-sports eastern conference. He was then the athletic director for a short time as well as head coach. His efforts failed, and the reasons are still shrouded by controversy. What is known is that in early 1981 Paterno quietly made inquiries about affiliating with the Big Ten.

When it finally occurred nearly a decade later, it wasn’t simply because Paterno wanted it. It was the culmination of a lot of work behind the scenes by a lot of high-level people at Penn State and in the Big Ten. Yet, one cannot help but wonder if the Big Ten affiliation would have had become a reality if Paterno’s football teams did not have their ultimate success in the 1980s — winning two national championships and losing another on the field.

In 1966, Penn State and the other eastern football teams were stagnate. The East had not had a team in the AP top 10 since 1963, and Penn State had barely escaped losing seasons from 1964 to 1966 with records of 6-4, 5-5, and 5-5. Starting in 1967, and for the next 20 years, Paterno’s Nittany Lions missed the top 10 just five times and became the dominant team in the region —  nicknamed “The Beast of the East” — and a national power. That’s the Penn State that enticed the hierarchy of the Big Ten.

And it all started in the late winter of 1966.

In 1966, Penn State had 13 men’s teams recognized by the NCAA and 10 unofficial women’s teams that were disparaged by the NCAA and others as a minor step up from intramurals. Even with the firm push by the federal government’s Title IX legislation, it was not until 1981 that the NCAA grudgingly accepted women’s varsity sports into their bastion. Today, Penn State’s combined 31 men’s and women’s teams, with an operating budget that has escalated to more than $112 million, fall under the umbrella of the NCAA.

In 1966, the Nittany Lions had won a combined 13 NCAA team championships in gymnastics (8), cross-country (3), boxing (1), and wrestling (1). They also had earned 16 other national titles in soccer (11),  boxing (4), and wrestling (1) from recognized peer organizations before the start of the NCAA tournaments in those sports. 

As of the end of the 2014-15 season, Penn State had accumulated an additional 32 NCAA men’s and women’s team championships in fencing (14), women’s volleyball (7), men’s volleyball (2), wrestling (4), and men’s gymnastics (4), and another six national titles from the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) that supervised the female tournaments from 1978 to 1981. And that doesn’t count the two treasured football championships in 1982 and 1986 determined by the national polls, or the 1979 National Collegiate Bowling Championship sponsored by a beer company.

Of all the changes in the athletic department in the last 50 years, it’s the facilities that are the most visible.

In 1966, Penn State’s athletic facilities were basically in five locations. Beaver Stadium’s seating capacity was 46,284, with a running track inside and adjacent fields for baseball, soccer, track, tennis, and lacrosse, with limited bleacher seats for spectators. The men’s basketball, gymnastic, and wrestling teams played in Rec Hall, the school’s indoor sports facility since 1929. The women’s varsity and club teams continued to use the much smaller White Building, which was constructed in 1938 specifically for women’s sports and other extracurricular activities. Swimming competition took place at an indoor pool in downtown State College. The 18-hole golf course across from Rec Hall had hardly changed since it had opened in 1922.

Rec Hall and the White Building are still there today, but the teams who call those facilities home have changed. Beaver Stadium has expanded several times over the decades and is now the second-largest stadium in the country with its 106,572 seats, including luxury private suites and a VIP club. Basketball, baseball, and soccer each have their own modern stadiums close by and so does Penn State’s newest varsity sports — men’s and women’s ice hockey.

A multisports building utilized primarily for track and indoor practice by several teams includes an outdoor track and an adjacent new lacrosse field. Across the street are an indoor football practice field and an indoor tennis arena. There’s also a stadium nearby for softball and a new and recently enlarged building that replaced Rec Hall years ago as the home for the university’s intramurals. Not far away, toward the middle of campus, are the natatorium for swimming and diving teams and a playing field for field hockey. A separate second golf course that opened in 1970 was melded with the original course in 1994 and now has a clubhouse and training area just for the university’s golf teams as well as a clubhouse for the public.

In 1966, Penn State’s most famous athletes outside of University Park were all football players, such as NFL all-pros Lenny Moore and Dave Robinson and Heisman Trophy runner-up Richie Lucas.

Before 1966, Penn State had produced 16 first-team All-Americans and three first-round NFL draft choices. Over the next 50 years, 69 more football players would be selected first-team All-Americans, 33 would be drafted in the first round by NFL teams, John Cappelletti would win the Heisman Trophy, and the school would earn the enduring nickname of “Linebacker U” for producing such linebackers as Jack Ham and Shane Conlan.

Football is still king today at Penn State, but men and women from other sports also have become well known for their accomplishments. Many became All-Americans, and some won player of the year awards in their sports, such as women’s basketball’s Susan Robinson, track’s Kathy Mills, wrestling’s Kerry McCoy and David Taylor,  and men’s volleyball’s Ivan Contreras and women’s volleyball’s Lauren Cacciamani.

And besides Paterno, some of the great coaches who have led Penn State teams to national titles over the last 50 years include Gillian Rattray in field hockey and women’s lacrosse, Russ Rose in women’s volleyball, Cale Sanderson in wrestling, Sue Scheetz in women’s lacrosse, Randy Jepson in men’s gymnastics, Mark Pavlik in men’s volleyball, and Emmanuil Kaidanov in fencing.

Success on the field is just one aspect. Academics is another.

In 1966, physical-education courses were the likely curriculum for varsity athletes. Paterno was at the forefront of change, starting with his Grand Experiment that stressed academics as well as athletic ability. Over the last five decades, hundreds of Penn State athletes were more attracted to business, economics, pre-law, pre-med, and other fields rather than physical education. Making the Dean’s List became common.

Penn State’s graduation rates for student-athletes have been among the highest in the country, as monitored by the NCAA, and more than 189 men and women have earned Academic All-American honors — third-highest total among Division I institutions — since the creation of the program by the nation’s sports information directors in 1952. Forty-five of those athletes have won NCAA postgraduate scholarships, and 17 football players have been honored with fellowships as Hall of Fame Scholars.

Paterno crusaded for an upgrade in academics across the entire university, and thanks largely to his fundraising efforts, Penn State is now one of the finest public schools in the country, attracting students from all over the world. The Paterno wing of the university library, completed in 2000, and the law school building are evidence of his success.

Until recent years, football had funded the entire athletic program. That included intramurals, club sports, and the outdoor Stone Valley Recreation Area. Nowadays, men’s basketball also is a profit center, and wrestling and hockey are on the verge of becoming self-supportive.

In the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky scandal of 2011, recommendations were made for administrative changes within the athletic department. As a result, intramurals, club sports, and the Stone Valley Recreation Area have been moved out of athletics and to the university’s student services.

Sandy Barbour, who became the director of athletics in August 2014, has reorganized and restructured the department. Football continues to be the prime revenue producer, and with the program and second-year head coach James Franklin no longer burdened by major NCAA penalties, the future looks promising.

New fundraising efforts have begun for an upgrade in facilities, not just in football but also in the revitalization of several projects delayed since 2011 for swimming, soccer, lacrosse, and the Morgan Academic Center for Student-Athletes.

How the athletic department will change in the next 50 years is anyone’s guess. Look to Penn State’s famous creamery for a hint. Just remember, in 1966 there was no Peachy Paterno or Russ “Diggs” Roseberry ice cream.



Lou Prato was the first director of the Penn State All-Sports Museum and has written seven books about Penn State sports, including his latest, 100 Things Penn State Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die.
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