Paterno’s first recruiting class set tone for program
Joe Paterno’s first Penn State recruiting class came to learn some fundamental facts about football and life.
The players learned a few things about their new coach, too – that he was a fanatic about preparation and that he abhorred missing class, unruly behavior off the field and subpar effort on it.
They also learned this: Paterno had a thing for socks. Not just his own trademark white socks, but his players’. Socks were a must, always to be worn in public regardless of footwear or fashion statement. He could not bear the sight of bare ankles.
“He was wild about that,” former defensive tackle Steve Smear said. “He thought (going sockless) was like the worst thing in the world.”
As with similar edicts on hair, both length (short) and facial (none), it was all part of Paterno setting an immediate tone and establishing standards for doing things the right way . That is, his way.
An assistant for 16 years, he was quick to assert his leadership after replacing Rip Engle in February 1966. It has continued for 45 years, to the brink of 400 victories.
Paterno can become the first major college coach to reach the milestone with a victory over Northwestern at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Beaver Stadium.
Even though freshmen were ineligible to compete then, the first batch of players who came to State College to play for Paterno were quickly informed how things were going to be. The message never changed. Former guard Dave Rakiecki recalled later in his career a 2 1/2-hour drive with Paterno to a speaking engagement.
“The whole time, he talked about life and the need to constantly work harder to get better,” Rakiecki said. “All he spoke about was football and how it was a microcosm of life.”
Paterno did not resemble a typical coach, if there was such a thing. He was a city kid from Brooklyn with a high-octave, high-decibel voice and a prominent nose. And of course, there were those huge, black-rimmed glasses. Some players affectionately called him “Joe the Rodent,” but his temper could be quick and a little scary.
“If you did things wrong, you heard about it fast,” former wingback and cornerback Paul Johnson said.
“We were only 17 or 18, and I think some of us were a little afraid of him,” said Wally Cerafesi, who played quarterback and defensive back. “Oh my god, our careers depended on this guy. There was some intimidation, but it was never meant to be degrading or tear you down as a person. The feeling was, this guy is a good coach.”
When that first class departed four years later, many had earned their degrees while forming the nucleus of the unbeaten 1968 and 1969 teams that won successive Orange Bowls and laid the foundation for success over the next four decades.
Big change and the grand experiment
If there was an early turning point — not just to a season but an entire program’s history — it came when Paterno, after losing to Navy to start the 1967 season, benched several veterans in favor of sophomores such as Smear and Rackieki, linebackers Dennis Onkotz and Jim Kates, and defensive back Neal Smith.
“We lost the Navy game, and Joe went out of his mind,” Smear said. “We got elevated.”
Even with star defensive tackle Mike Reid lost to injury, the Nittany Lions went 8-1-1 the rest of the way. During the next two years, they won every game.
Paterno’s first recruits also served as test cases for his “Grand Experiment,” which proved that “student-athlete” could be a viable noun and not an oxymoron.
There is an oft-told tale of Onkotz, an All-American, attending a Saturday morning chemistry class a few hours before a game. Onkotz, however, brushed it off as no big deal. “I wasn’t the only one,” he said.
“We had to go to class; we had to go to study hall every night; we had to go to the library,” Cerafesi said. “The tone was, ‘You go to class. That’s why you’re here.’ ”
Smear didn’t catch on at first, experiencing Paterno’s wrath after he ended his first semester with a 1.4 grade-point average.
“He called me up to his office and just leveled me,” Smear said. “He had promised my mom I was gonna graduate, and he was all over my case. He was very disappointed in me and told me in no uncertain terms. He said I was making a gigantic mistake in my life. … After that, I was fine academically.”
“He made me appreciate and value life a little differently,” said Charlie Pittman, an All-American running back who later wrote a book, “Playing For Paterno,” with his son, Tony, another former Penn State running back. “He taught me there’s more to life than football.”
Back then, freshmen were forced to sing the alma mater in front of the varsity players.
But Pittman, a self-described “shy, bashful kid” from Baltimore, just couldn’t do it.
“Joe interceded and got me off the hook,” he said. “Little things like that I remember.”
Pittman also recalls how after not playing much in a freshman game, Paterno asked about his performance. Pittman glumly replied that he had only two carries for 14 yards.
“Next time,” Paterno said cheerily, “say you averaged 7 yards a carry.”
Then he heard Paterno tell someone, “That’s the guy who’s going to make me a great football coach.”
Said Pittman, “That helped me put my head up and walk with a bounce.”
As a sophomore, Pittman became the featured back, and the team never lost a game he started over the next three seasons.
As with any large group, and especially during a time of societal change, a few free spirits tested their coach’s limits. John Ebersole, a rowdy and talented defensive lineman and linebacker, was suspended for literally kicking a Volkswagen into submission.
Fullback Don Abbey, who was suspended during his senior year for sleeping through a practice, clashed frequently with Paterno over such matters as hair and socks. He was the one player who refused to wear them.
“Here was a guy who wore black pants and white socks,” Abbey said of Paterno. “To me, that was a bigger faux pas.”
Abbey caused Paterno a few headaches. But he went on to become a millionaire CEO with a deep and abiding respect for the influence of his former coach.
“I keep going back to the fact that we were nationally competitive, and we played against guys who didn’t go to class,” Abbey said. “Joe always took the high road, and that’s the greatness of Coach Paterno. You get to be 11-0, and your guys go to class.”
The inaugural class
A look at key members of Joe Paterno’s 1966 recruiting class:
Charlie Pittman, RB: Led Nittany Lions in rushing in 1968 and ’69. Never lost a game as a starter.
Dennis Onkotz, LB: Two-time consensus All-American. Ended career as Penn State’s all-time leading tackler.
Chuck Burkhart, QB: Led Lions to successive unbeaten seasons and Orange Bowl wins in ’68 and ’69.
Steve Smear, DT: Teamed with Mike Reid to provide a formidable defensive tackle combination.
Don Abbey, FB: Big, strong and fast, also did some kicking and led Lions in scoring in ’67.
John Ebersole, DL-LB: Versatile and talented, played eight years with the New York Jets.
Neal Smith, DB: All-American in 1969.
Note: Freshmen were ineligible at the time