Wednesday, November 25, 2009

#134: Penn State Book Review

---Complete Illustrated History---

This is my first (and probably last) entry with specific regard to the Penn State Nittany Lions.

As a youngster, one of my favorite collegiate football teams was the Jimmy Johnson-led Miami Hurricanes. Joe Paterno's Lions defeated that team in January of 1987 in the Fiesta Bowl for the National Championship. That game, in addition to my already-present favoritism for the Pitt Panthers, turned me against the PSU program for good and all.

Or so I thought.

Nearly 23 years later, I caught my first whiff of Blue and White fever courtesy of a complimentary copy of "Penn State Football: The Complete Illustrated History" from MVP Books.

I am not a fast reader. I am easily distracted and, when I am able to focus, I comb over each word, trying to process all the details. Never mind that prior to cracking the cover, my only interest in Penn State football was whether the Ohio State Buckeyes beat 'em.

Yet, in the course of two evenings (while working board op duty at WMBS radio), I was able to complete the book.

In so doing, I acquired a greater knowledge of the program and a much deeper appreciation for Joe Paterno.

Next year will mark JoePa's 60th year on the PSU coaching staff (he spent the the first 16 as an assistant to Rip Engle). In all that time, he has continued to instill in his players the old-fashioned values of arriving early for meetings, showing respect, maintaining a neat appearance, and excelling in both academics and athletics.

When you look at some other coaches and programs across the collegiate spectrum, you realize how rare these qualities are.

Granted, the book is designed to be a "rah-rah" display, skimming over the rough patches in the program's 122-year history in order to focus on the teams that were legitimate contenders for national recognition and national championships. Still, it's written and constructed in a fashion where the reader is sufficiently aware of the difficult years so that there is a distinct contrast when reading about the team's years of achievement.

"Penn State Football" takes the reader in chronological order from the program's first game (a 9-0 victory over Bucknell) through its 38-24 loss to USC in the January 2009 Rose Bowl. Recruiting the players of tomorrow, the challenges of playing in an independent league, breaking the color barrier, "Linebacker U", JoePa's sideline injury... The book covers it all.

Throughout are wonderfully-selected photographs, many pulled from the Penn State University Archives, that (true to the book's full title) illustrate how the game grew in State College, Pennsylvania.

It also introduces the reader to (or reacquaints the reader with) some of the personalities that defined the teams of that era, like Joe Bedenk, a lineman from the early 1920s who helped lead the Nittany Lions to their first Rose Bowl, then later joined the coaching staff; Wally Triplett, a running back in the late 1940s who became the first African-American draft pick to play in the National Football League; and Jim Garrity, Joe Paterno's first recruit, and whose son, Gregg, made perhaps the most important catch in the school's history.

The book also makes mention of some of the school's black marks - a dirty style of play that made the Ohio State Buckeyes leave the field following a brawl with 9 minutes to play during a 1912 contest; an infamous snowball fight in the stands, during which PSU fans even booed Paterno when he admonished them for their shenanigans; and the increasing difficulty Paterno has had in the last few years of trying to keep his players out of legal trouble...and then suffering the fallout when they didn't.

"Penn State Football: The Complete Illustrated History" is packed with statistical information (particularly in its appendix), historical photographs, and even a few emotional punches (a summary of Heisman Trophy-winner John Cappelletti's acceptance - and dedication - speech, for one).

If I - pretty much a life-long anti-Penn Stater - can get engrossed in this work, I can only imagine what feelings it will evoke in those who bleed Blue and White.

("Penn State Football: The Complete Illustrated History" is available in bookstores and online booksellers or from


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