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What It Means to Be a Nittany Lion: Joe Paterno and Penn State's Greatest Players

What It Means to Be a Nittany Lion: Joe Paterno and Penn State's Greatest Players

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by Lou Prato

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What It Means to be a Nittany Lion: Joe Paterno and Penn State's Greatest Players by Lou Prato and Scott Brown explores what seems to be a simple question - What does it mean to be a Nittany Lion? One person or one phrase cannot answer that question because so many emotions encompass the true Nittany Lion spirit.


What It Means to be a Nittany Lion: Joe Paterno and Penn State's Greatest Players by Lou Prato and Scott Brown explores what seems to be a simple question - What does it mean to be a Nittany Lion? One person or one phrase cannot answer that question because so many emotions encompass the true Nittany Lion spirit.

Editorial Reviews

When Joe Paterno accepted an assistant coaching job at Penn State in 1950, he envisaged it as a brief stop before entering law school; but he has been there ever since, leading his Nittany Lions to 2 national championships, 5 undefeated seasons, and 20 bowl victories. What It Means to Be a Nittany Lion presents the story of one of the most beloved coaches in football history.

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What It Means To Be A Nittany Lion

Joe Paterno and Penn State's Greatest Players

By Lou Prato, Scott Brown

Triumph Books

Copyright © 2006 Lou Prato Scott Brown
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61749-029-3


The Thirties and Forties

Years of Change

1930s — 1940s

They're almost all gone now. They were the hardened men who played football for Penn State in the decade of the 1930s.

The country was emerging from a depression, and life was tough where they came from. Their fathers and uncles worked deep underground in the dirty, dimly lit coal mines or sweated profusely in the heat and grime of the steel mills.

Without their skills on the high school football fields of Pennsylvania, they would have been there, too, just like some of their brothers and cousins. Most of them were the first in their families to attend college. And it wasn't easy.

If they wanted to play football and get a degree, they had to wash dishes in the fraternities that they could not join. Or clean up at the downtown stores where they couldn't afford to buy anything or at the rooming houses where they lived. Or do one of the other menial jobs set up for them. That paid for most of their room, board, and tuition because there were no scholarships.

Athletic scholarships for incoming freshmen had been eliminated in 1928, and so they had all ended by 1930. A football team comprised of everyday students was fine, the administration declared, but education is the priority. Many alumni were not happy, particularly some former teammates of Coach Bob Higgins, who had been a two-time All- American end before and after World War I. The Hig's friends were the ones who conceived of the work program and an innovating fund-raising scheme to circumvent the administration's idealistic policy.

The effects of the policy were almost immediate. Penn State had one of the nation's best teams in the previous two decades, even playing in the 1923 Rose Bowl game against USC, but after the last scholarship players graduated, the football program plunged into near disarray. A 2 — 8 season in Higgins's second year, 1931, and a 2 — 5 record the next year was too much for the coach's one-time classmates and friends. They developed a resourceful plan for subsidizing players and they went to work.

They scoured the coal regions of northeastern and western Pennsylvania and the mill towns across the state. They found kids with names that were sometimes hard to pronounce: Cherundolo, Mikelonis, Stravinski, Gajecki. By 1940 Penn State was back in the limelight, with a 6 — 1 — 1 record that almost got them into a postseason bowl game.

Of all those dozens of determined young men who wore the blue and white in that decade, two epitomize what it means to be a Nittany Lion — Jim O'Hora and Sever "Tor" Toretti. That's because they not only played at Penn State but they returned years later to help coach the players who turned the Nittany Lions into a national powerhouse. No one was more loyal to Penn State or as dedicated to the team. Their names are mentioned frequently by many of the players in this book, and their influence has been immeasurable.

Both were sons of coal miners. O'Hora was from Dunsmore and played center from 1933 to 1935. Toretti, from Monongahela, followed O'Hora, starting at guard or tackle from 1936 to 1938. They also were coaching colleagues, with O'Hora's tenure as defensive line coach or defensive coordinator from 1946 to 1976, while Toretti was there as offensive line coach, chief recruiter, or assistant athletics director from 1949 to 1979. Toretti died in 2000, and O'Hora passed away in 2005. If still alive, both would have told their own stories of what being a Nittany Lion meant to them.

We do have the words of both men, taken from newspaper articles their families had saved over the years and the special Sports Archives collection at Penn State's Paterno-Pattee Library. We think these chapters not only speak for O'Hora and Toretti but for all the other assistant coaches who spent most of their life's work molding callow, unsophisticated young men into proud, industrious, and worldly Nittany Lions.

Jim O'Hora


1933 — 1935


1946 — 1976

In Memoriam

When I first came to Penn State [to play football], it was a down time for us. Scholarships had been abolished [in 1928], and there was a feeling that the bottom had fallen out of the football program. The coaches were discouraged because there weren't any blue-chip athletes around.

Bill Griffiths, Casey Jones, [Jim Gilligan], and some other alumni got interested in bringing football back to where it had been. That was the start, and each year it got better.

I never played or coached on a losing team at Penn State. We had a losing record when I came here as a freshman, but we didn't have any losing seasons the three years I played under Bob Higgins and we haven't had one since I've been here coaching.

[As a player, O'Hora had the misfortune of playing center at the same time as one of Penn State's greatest players of the era, Chuck Cherundolo, who later spent 11 years in the NFL. Following graduation, O'Hora coached high school football and returned there after his service in World War II, before Higgins hired him in 1949.]

I remember when I came back as an assistant coach [in 1946], we needed to find somewhere for many of the players to eat. Earle Edwards, Al Michaels [two other assistant coaches], and I went around to the fraternities. We'd sell the idea that they'd be helping football players of renown like [Sam] Tamburo and [Elwood] Petchel. Most houses turned us down right away. A few agreed to feed a player or two. The players would have to go around at 6:30 and eat anything left over. When Rip Engle came, we had scholarships. He set up a training table during the season in the dormitories, and the players would eat with the females.

When I first came here [in 1946] I thought I'd stay a few years to get some experience and then coach at some small college. Gradually, I began to see great growth possibility here. I said to myself, "How high is up?" I looked at what I saw ahead for Penn State and decided that's how high I wanted to go.

I've kind of raised Joe. When he first came to Penn State [in 1950], he lived with my family. He was one of us. [Paterno was a bachelor and still living with the O'Horas 12 years later.] It was in 1962, I think, when I talked to him.

My parents had come to this country from Ireland and later were joined by cousins. They would take them in. After the relative became settled down, financially able to take care of themselves, my father would say, "Now it's time for you to go out and find a place of your own."

I knew it was a time at which Joe was getting to the age where maybe he had to have a change. So I told him the story of my father and his relatives. Joe said, "I got the message." He moved out and, less than a year later, was married.

I always saw Joe as one of the outstanding coaches in the game. He was ahead of his time and all he needed was the chance to prove himself. I think Joe and I get along so well because we respect each other's ability as well as respect each other as persons.

I wanted to be a head man back earlier in my career. Later, I began to feel there was no better situation, so I stopped thinking about it. I've enjoyed my association with the coaches and the others in the athletic program, but for me, the real joy was working with the kids, seeing their courage, their enthusiasm. Most of the time, I couldn't wait to get to work.

In looking back at our great players, at defensive end it's almost impossible to eliminate Dave Robinson. Jack Ham has to be the top outside linebacker. The down people that are the most memorable are Mike Reid, Glenn Ressler, and Mike Hartenstine. The best inside linebacker would have to be Dennis Onkotz. And the best secondary man is Neal Smith.

Lenny Moore was an outstanding defensive back. And I'd have to put Richie Lucas up there, too. We've had so many great inside linebackers, people like John Skorupan and Eddie O'Neil, but the one I would have to put next to Onkotz is Danny Radakovich. And I would rate Sam Tamburo just a bit higher than Bob Mitinger at the other defensive end.

A defensive lineman must have the willingness, the desire to hit. He can't be satisfied to just tackle his opponent. He must want to destroy the opponent's usefulness. Rosey Grier loved to have a play come his way. He would smile and say, "lovely, lovely," after the tackle.

He was good on offense, too. I'll never forget that 20 — 20 tie we had against Purdue at Beaver Field in 1952. We were down on their 6-yard line late in the game when a play was called to Rosey's side. He destroyed his side of the Purdue line.

One of the games I remember was beating Ohio State 7 — 6 in 1956. We noticed in scouting that their No. 64 [on offense] positioned his hand and feet wherever the play was going. [Assistant coach Tor Toretti was the scout who helped Penn State upset the heavily favored No. 5 Buckeyes at Columbus.]

The 1969 team was one of our best, but the one I remember the most was our 1964 team. That season really stands out. We had hard luck early in the season, but we went from 1 — 4 to 6 — 4. The Ohio State game that year stands out in my mind. [The Nittany Lions upset the No. 2 Buckeyes at Columbus, this time 27 — 0.] We had some people who knew adversity but came back to be as good a team as there was in the country. That was as good a team as I've been around and it was thrilling and satisfying to be a part of it.

I know I'll miss coaching — that's natural — but the physical demands of the game today [in 1977] are great. It's a different game today. It's a young man's game. Football has become so much more complex. The teaching today is specialized in each area so that the player with potential can come closer to reaching it. Every aspect of his game is brought forward. [But] it takes more out of an individual to coach. The demands on your time on and off the field have increased tremendously.

I've enjoyed my years here. When I see the kind of kids we have here now, I'm glad I never left.

Credits: Jim O'Hora's words were taken primarily from articles written by Ronnie Christ of the, Harrisburg Patriot-News Frank Bilovsky of the now defunct Philadelphia Bulletin and the Centre Daily Times, with additional material from Beaver Field Pictorial and a personal interview with the editor.

Jim O'Hora never had a winning or losing season as a player because when he played center from 1933 to 1935 Penn State finished with three straight records at .500. Before joining the Bob Higgins coaching staff in 1946, he had been a high school coach and naval officer. O'Hora began to make his name as the defensive line coach for Rip Engle and later as the man in charge of the Nittany Lions' outstanding defensive teams of the early Paterno era. When he retired in 1977, an award was created in his honor that now is presented annually after spring practice to a defensive player for exemplary conduct, loyalty, interest, attitude, and improvement.

Sever "Tor" Toretti


1936 — 1938


1949 — 1979

In Memoriam

When I came to Penn State I had to work for my room and board. I worked at the Rathskeller for my meals and made beds in the dormitories. A lot of the fellows worked as waiters and dishwashers at fraternities. We didn't have the dining hall set-up we have now [in 1979]. You have to give credit to the fraternity system for the help they gave us.

[As a senior, Toretti played on the 1938 team that set four NCAA defensive records — including one that was still unbroken in 2005 — but wound up with a losing record of 3 — 4 — 1. After one year as a graduate assistant, he went into high school coaching and returned there after his air force service in World War II. In 1949 Joe Bedenk took over as head coach from the retiring Bob Higgins, and Bedenk, who had been Toretti's line coach as a player, hired Toretti for the staff vacancy.]

We didn't even have grants-in-aid. I asked Joe Bedenk what kind of grants he had, and he told me none. Oh, we had a fund for athletes; we raffled off a car, and we'd take care of a kid's tuition or something like that. But no full rides. I used to hate that, having to sell [raffle] tickets for that car [every year at the Pitt game].

We went to Sam Hostetler, who was the controller, and proposed a program [similar to Notre Dame's] where they got the football players jobs as dormitory monitors. Sam was a businessman and he knew what we needed. I call him the father of Penn State football.

They were rebuilding Beaver Field. Steel for 35,000 seats was a big chunk of cash, and we needed a winning team to keep those seats filled. Sam took our proposal to the Board of Trustees meeting in Harrisburg in January. When he got back, he called us and said our proposal had been turned down flat.

Hostetler said, "However, they are aware that aid is important because they do feel that a young man cannot participate in high-pressure athletics, do well academically, and hold down a job, too." He said the Board authorized 30 full grants-in-aid per year, authorized 15 more the following year, and 15 more the year after that, so we eventually had 60.

This program began to move when Rip [Engle] came here in the spring [of 1959]. It had become evident to him and those of us on his staff that if we were really going to get the program going, we had to have men who would stay here for four years. Prior to that we had been on a treadmill of sorts. We had a certain academic mortality rate.

But we felt that unless we got a boy who was going to stay here for four years, someone who had been around, who knew the problems and would provide the leadership for the younger kids, we weren't going to get anywhere. It was tough at first because we weren't recognized as an outstanding football school and we were not getting the outstanding student-athlete.

We'd go recruiting and ask a coach about a certain boy. He would say he was saving him for Notre Dame or someone like that. I'll tell you, there were many a night when we'd come back up these hills in the middle of winter with our hearts broken. Our program wasn't built overnight. A lot of hard work by people like Frank Patrick, Jim O'Hora, and others went into it.

I figured we had arrived when it got to the point where we would go see the same coach and he'd say, "Hey, we have a good boy for you." Heck, there was a time when a lot of kids didn't even know where Penn State was. I think things really started to turn around in 1956, after we beat Ohio State 7 — 6 out there. Before that, people would say, "Penn State? Where the hell's that?"

We began to win on a national scale. We began playing people who were recognized as top powers and were able to do more than hold our own against them. We beat Alabama [7 — 0] in the first Liberty Bowl in 1959 and then went down to the Gator Bowl and beat Georgia Tech [30 — 15] in 1961. We ran into some polite snobbery in Jacksonville. People wanted to know what right we had coming down there to play an SEC power like Georgia Tech.

Of course, we've been winning key games, doing it with outstanding men who are better-than-average students. We're to a point now [in 1977] where if there is a good kid, his coach will tell him he should take a look at what Penn State has to offer before making up his mind. Now our program is recognized everywhere and we get kids from all over the country wanting to come here.

[Toretti was such an outstanding recruiter that in 1963 he was named assistant athletics director with full responsibilities for football recruiting.]

The letter of intent [introduced in 1964] was one of the best things that ever happened. There was a time when even after a prospect had made up his mind, he was not above changing at the last moment. Before the letter, you never knew who you were getting until they actually enrolled, and sometimes they'd leave after they had enrolled. You had to keep an eye on these kids all summer. We lost Mike Ditka [to Pitt in 1956] like that. We thought he was coming here and he changed his mind in August.

I remember when we were recruiting Mike Reid [in 1964]. I went down to Altoona on the first day of preseason practice in his senior year, took him aside between the morning and afternoon sessions, and told him how much we wanted him to come to Penn State. He said he already knew what he wanted to do and I sort of sucked my breath and waited for him to tell me. He said he already had decided he was going to Penn State.

Then, just as I was getting ready to go, he said he had something he wanted me to do. I thought, "Uh-oh, here it comes." Then he said, "Go out and get some good players. I don't want to play on a loser."

To illustrate the human error involved [in recruiting], there's no better case than Neal Smith. He came to us without a scholarship [in 1966]. We overlooked him in scouting for players. Neal came out for football on his own and wound up an All-American defensive back his last year in [1969].

Steve Smear came into my office one day in April of 1966 and asked what we were going do about Jack Ham, if we knew anything about him. I said, "Yeah, sure we know about him." But we didn't. [Toretti had recruited Smear from Johnstown's Bishop McCort High School the previous year. Ham was on the same team but had diverted to a military prep school with the intention of enrolling at Virginia Military Institute.] Steve told me how tough Ham was and how fast he was.


Excerpted from What It Means To Be A Nittany Lion by Lou Prato, Scott Brown. Copyright © 2006 Lou Prato Scott Brown. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Lou Prato is a veteran print and broadcast journalist who has covered Penn State football periodically since his undergraduate days at Penn State, when Joe Paterno was still an assistant coach. He is the author of The Penn State Football Encyclopedia, the definitive history of Nittany Lions football, and a contributing writer for two publications dedicated to Penn State football fans, Blue White Illustrated and Fight On State magazine. Prato recently retired after five years as the first director of the Penn State All-Sports Museum, and he and his wife, Carole, live in Centennial Hills, near State College. Scott Brown is a 1994 graduate of Penn State and is a sports writer for Florida Today in Melbourne. He has written three other books, including Miracle in the Making: The Adam Taliaferro Story, King of the Mount: The Jim Phelan Story, and Lion Kings.

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