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The Foundation: 50 years ago, Penn State’s undefeated Orange Bowl champs built a legacy of greatness

by on August 31, 2018 1:08 PM

The year 1968 is considered by many to be one of the more turbulent of the 20th century for the United States. One could argue that events such as the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, and the election of Richard Nixon as the 37th president set the trajectory for America for the remainder of the century.

On a much smaller scale, it could easily be argued that the trajectory of Penn State football, and perhaps college football in general, changed forever 50 years ago, in 1968.

That year, Beaver Stadium had a capacity of 43,989, with an additional 2,295 that could be added thanks to temporary bleachers. When one looks at today’s Beaver Stadium that seats more than 106,000, it’s what happened to the Penn State football program in the late 1960s that helped make that growth possible.

Under third-year head coach Joe Paterno, the 1968 Nittany Lions went a perfect 11-0, including a 15-14 win over Kansas in the Orange Bowl. The team would go undefeated again the next year, and the program was on its way to becoming a national power under Paterno, eventually winning two national championships – in 1982 and 1986.

“The 1968 team was the first of Paterno’s great teams,” says Penn State sports historian Lou Prato, who covered the Lions during the 1968 season for Channel 11 in Pittsburgh. “It set the foundation from which all other Penn State teams were judged and evolved.”

Of course, the fact that neither the 1968 team nor the 1969 team won a share of a national title was a sign that Penn State, along with eastern football in general, faced a perception problem and didn’t gain the national respect Paterno and others thought it deserved.

“Joe was on that platform,” says Jack Ham, the Hall of Fame linebacker who was a sophomore on the 1968 team. “Every chance he had, he was touting Penn State and eastern college football, so people around the country would know that there was a darn good football team in State College.”

Prato adds that Paterno’s “aggressive defense of eastern football irritated a lot of folks in the national media, and many responded with more criticism, but he never wavered. I’m not sure it changed the perception of eastern football because he had to prove it over and over.”

The school itself struggled for identity as many thought Penn State was actually the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia. Prato had to convince his boss to cover Penn State. “He agreed because the other stations concentrated on Pitt and virtually ignored Penn State,” Prato says.

The foundation for the 1968 season was actually set during the 1967 season. After a 5-5 campaign in 1966, Paterno’s first season as head coach, Penn State lost its opener in 1967 to Navy, 23-22. The head coach decided it was time to allow his talented sophomores to take over and sit his experienced seniors.

The Lions played in Miami, and Paterno started inserting the likes of defensive tackle Steve Smear and linebacker Dennis Onkotz. Penn State defeated Miami and went on to win seven of its final eight games that season. It ended the year with a 17-17 tie against Florida State in the Gator Bowl.

Penn State’s defense had started to become a dominant unit. For the 1968 season, it added Ham and tackle Mike Reid, who had missed the 1967 season with an injury. The pieces were in place.

“When you look at it on paper going into the year, we felt there was no question that our defense would be a dominating defense for the next couple of years,” says Ham, who now handles color commentary for Penn State football games on the Penn State Radio Network. “I’m of the age where I forget a lot of stuff – I don’t forget too much about that football team.”

Penn State’s defense ranked third in the country in 1968 and held six of its opponents to less than 10 points. Only twice did a team score 20 or more points.

“I think there were three really good defenses in the 1960s,” says Smear. “You had Notre Dame in 1964, Michigan State in 1964 and 1965, and there was us.”

Paterno, however, always made sure to keep egos in check.

“Joe was always on the field screaming,” Smear says. “He’d come over and say, ‘You guys are fat heads. You better be careful. Someone is going to knock it off.’”

Ham says he sees similarities between the Penn State defenses he played on in the late 1960s and the Pittsburgh Steelers units he was a part of in the 1970s that led the franchise to four Super Bowl wins.

“The chemistry was there on both teams,” he says. “The thing I will always remember personally was I had a great defensive line in front of me. At Penn State, we had Steve Smear, Mike Reid, and John Ebersole. In Pittsburgh, we had Joe Greene, Dwight White, L.C. Greenwood. It’s great to be a linebacker when you have those types of players in front of you.”

Penn State’s offense wasn’t devoid of talent, either. It included All-American tight end Ted Kwalick, running backs Bobby Campbell and Charlie Pittman, and quarterback Chuck Burkhart.

The Lions entered the season ranked eighth in the Associated Press preseason poll. Similar to 1967, they opened the season against Navy, only this time Penn State crushed the Midshipmen, 31-6. The defense lived up to its preseason expectations, intercepting five passes and recovering four fumbles. Penn State jumped to fourth in the rankings.

Penn State faced adversity the next week when it trailed Kansas State at halftime, 9-7. On the first play from scrimmage in the second half, Campbell ran for 56 yards, but separated his shoulder on the play. Five plays later, Pittman scored on a five-yard run to give Penn State the lead for good. The Lions won, 25-9.

After defeating West Virginia, 31-20, the Lions avenged their other loss from the previous season when they traveled to Los Angeles and defeated UCLA, 21-6. After a week off, they won at Boston College, 29-0, and then eked out a 28-24 victory over Army on Homecoming.

The Lions cruised the rest of the regular season, defeating their last four opponents by a combined score of 174-41.

In the Orange Bowl, the Lions played Big Eight co-champion Kansas in one of the most memorable games in Penn State history. The Lions trailed, 14-7, with 1:16 remaining. A pass from Burkhart to Campbell helped the Lions reach the Jayhawks’ 3. Burkhart then faked a handoff to Pittman and ran into the end zone for the first touchdown of his career.

Paterno decided to go for two and the win. Burkhart attempted a pass to Campbell, but the ball was knocked away by two Kansas defenders. The Jayhawks had seemingly won the game – but Kansas was called for having 12 men on the field, giving Penn State another chance. This time, Campbell ran around the left side and dove into the end zone for the two-point conversion.

Penn State completed its perfect season with a 15-14 victory.

“That was a wonderful memory,” Reid said in a 2010 interview with Town&Gown. “There was just this youthful jubilation after we won. Most people live their whole lives and never have a moment like that.”

Prato says, “There have been many exciting endings to historic Penn State games … but the thrilling last-seconds win over Kansas in the 1969 Orange Bowl with its unique 12-man on the field penalty will always be part of the legacy.”

As for the legacy of the 1968 team, it ushered in the start of Penn State’s impact on the national college football scene. It also was the beginning for Paterno becoming a national coaching figure. Shortly after the win over Kansas, he turned down a job offer from the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“And one more thing people have forgotten: After that Orange Bowl victory, Paterno not only got a small raise of $30,000, but also received academic tenure as a full professor, saying he was an educator first and a coach second,” Prato says. “Now that is a legacy the players on the 1968 team should truly appreciate.”

It’s a legacy that future teams at Penn State should continue to appreciate.

“I assume we made a big impact and started things going,” Onkotz says. “I’d like to think so.”

 

David Pencek is a freelance writer in State College.

 



David Pencek is editor of Town&Gown magazine, Town&Gown's Penn State Football Annual, and Town&Gown's Penn State Winter Sports Annual.
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