As he took a visitor on an early-summer tour of the new $13.8
million Louis E. Lasch Football Building, Penn State's venerable
72-year-old coach, Joe Paterno, played the dual roles of proud
papa and disdainful curmudgeon. He beamed as he passed through
the palatial entrance hall and stuck his head in the doorway of
the amphitheater that will serve as the team's meeting room. He
cringed when he passed the bathroom and shower in his sprawling
new office. "I need this stuff like a hole in the head," Paterno
muttered. "I'm afraid my office is a little out of my comfort
zone." The 90,000-square-foot building, which opened on July 1,
will house all parts of the Penn State football program. It's a
living monument to Paterno's 33 years as head coach, a tenure
that includes 307 victories and two national championships. It's
also a practical bit of planning. "All this is for the next
guy," Paterno said. "So when I do decide to give it up,
everything will be in place."
The building is more than a little like the team Paterno will
send out to play the 1999 season: glittering but cause for the
coach's customary suspicion. "We're going to be good," Paterno
says. "How good, I don't know." But some of Paterno's actions
betray a belief that this could be a championship year. To begin
building unity, he allowed the team to elect captains for the
coming season during spring practice. (Senior quarterback Kevin
Thompson and senior linebacker Brandon Short were chosen.) It's
the first time in more than a decade that the Nittany Lions have
strayed from their practice of naming captains for each game,
then electing team captains before their bowl game. Paterno also
snapped up the chance to open the season in the Pigskin Classic
against a strong Arizona team and has been more vigilant than
usual in enforcing his policy that players live on campus. "Joe
knows this can be a special year and doesn't want anything to
mess it up," says one player.
Paterno won't go nearly that far. "All we've got right now," he
said, "is a lot of good players."
The Nittany Lions' defense, which didn't allow a single opposing
running back to gain 100 yards last year, has nine starters
back. Four of them--junior outside linebacker LaVar Arrington,
senior defensive end Courtney Brown, senior cornerback David
Macklin and Short--are likely first-round NFL draft choices.
Brown could go in the top five, and so could Arrington if he
gives up his final year of eligibility. The 6'5", 270-pound
Brown is a humble force who was unblockable by the end of last
season. He finished with 11 1/2 sacks and 23 tackles for losses,
yet he ends interviews by softly saying, "God bless you."
Macklin craves man-to-man coverage, no surprise from someone who
claims to have played Allen Iverson to a stalemate in high
school basketball games in Virginia. Arrington and Short combine
with steady senior Mac Morrison to form a trio that restores the
good name of Linebacker U.
It is a glut of talent that rivals that of the Penn State
offense of '94, when tailback Ki-Jana Carter (first),
quarterback Kerry Collins (fifth) and tight end Kyle Brady
(ninth) were all taken early in the first round of the draft.
"Teams are going to have to shut us out to beat us," says
Arrington. The defense will get a small slice of extra
motivation in playing for Paterno's longtime defensive
coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, who has announced that he will
retire from coaching at the end of the season, his 32nd in Happy
Much like that '94 team, which went 12-0, won the Rose Bowl and
finished second to Nebraska in both major polls, one side of the
ball is an answer and the other a question. In losses last year
to Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin, Penn State scored a total
of 12 points. Most of the blame for the offense's failure fell
at the feet of quarterback Kevin Thompson, now a senior,
although Paterno also got heat for not giving more playing time
to then sophomore Rashard Casey.
Thompson completed only 53.5% of his passes and threw two more
interceptions (eight) than touchdowns (six). As a captain he's
expected to be the starter. "He's ahead of Casey, but if Casey
comes on, I'll play them both," says Paterno. Judging by
Thompson's performance in season-ending wins over Michigan State
(8 of 16, 103 yards, no interceptions) and Kentucky in the
Outback Bowl (14 of 27, 187 yards, one touchdown, no
interceptions), he could be a more mature, productive player
this season. "I feel 10 years older than I was last year," says
Thompson. "I had to mature, and I did. I heard some cheers, but
I heard a lot of 'You suck.' That made me stronger." Thompson is
just three credits short of his degree in kinesiology, which
means that for his last autumn in Happy Valley he'll have little
to distract him. "It's football, mainly, for this year," he says.
The quarterback will benefit from playing behind an experienced
offensive line and from being able to hand the ball to sophomore
running back Eric McCoo, who led the team in rushing with 822
yards, the most for a true freshman at Penn State since D.J.
Dozier ran for 1,002 in 1983. Backing up McCoo is senior Cordell
Mitchell, a starter until he missed the last four games of the
season with a pinched nerve in his right shoulder. Receivers
Corey Jones and Chafie Fields combined for 52 catches a year
ago, but both suffered when reliable senior wideout Joe Nastasi
was injured and defenses focused more on them. "Wideout is our
biggest area to get better," says Paterno.
It's a nitpick, of course. Penn State hasn't had a better team
since '94, and this one has more balance. The schedule is
perfectly suited to a national title run, with the opener
against Arizona, a tough nonleague road game at Miami on Sept.
18 and Ohio State and Michigan visiting State College.
Expectations are deservedly high. Of course, JoePa needs those
like a hole in the head.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN GRIESHOP/SCHWARTZMAN SPORTS Three for the show Short (right), along with Arrington and Morrison, will restore the good name of Linebacker U.
1998 record: 9-3 (5-3, 5th in Big Ten)
Final ranking: No. 17 AP, No. 15 coaches' poll
1998 Averages Scoring Rushing Passing Total
Yards Yards Yards
OFFENSE 26.5 187.9 169.0 356.9
DEFENSE 15.4 97.3 197.3 294.5
Coach: Joe Paterno
34th year at Penn State (307-80-3); Career Division I-A record:
WR Chafie Fields Sr. Name pronounced SHAW-fee
LT Kareem McKenzie Jr. Imposing 6'7", 320-pounder
LG Gabe Tincher[*] Sr. Avid bass angler started 2 games
C Rich Stankewicz[*] Sr. Three-time Academic All-Big Ten
RG Eric Cole Sr. Durable: took over 500 snaps
RT John Blick Sr. Lost job; got it back last 7 games
WR Corey Jones[*] Sr. 27 receptions led team
TE Tony Stewart[*] Jr. 7 catches all season, 7 in Outback
QB Kevin Thompson Sr. Struggled: 6 TD passes, 8 int.
RB Eric McCoo So. 822 yds., 6.5 avg. as a rookie
FB Mike Cerimele Jr. Powerlifting champ as a schoolboy
K Travis Forney Sr. Big Ten record 5 FGs vs. Mich. St.
LE Courtney Brown Sr. 11 1/2 sacks; 86-inch wingspan
LT David Fleischhauer Sr. Unsung runstopper on flashy D
RT Imani Bell Sr. Hamstring injury slowed progress
RE Justin Kurpeikis[*] Jr. One of two nonsenior starters on D
OLB LaVar Arrington Jr. NFL can't wait to get him
MLB Brandon Short Sr. '98 Butkus Award semifinalist
OLB Mac Morrison Sr. Career-high 12 stops at Michigan
CB David Macklin Sr. 6 int. tied for Big Ten best
SS Derek Fox Sr. Impressive 40-inch vertical leap
FS Askari Adams[*] Sr. 30 tackles, 2 interceptions
CB Anthony King Sr. 11 tackles, 3 takeaways in Outback
P Pat Pidgeon Sr. 17 punts inside 20-yard line
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are from 1998 season.
Schedule strength: 14th of 114
Aug. 28 vs. Arizona
A strong opponent with national respect comes to Happy Valley.
The perfect start to a championship run for the Nittany Lions.
Oct. 16 vs. Ohio State
In a few short years this has become one of the marquee
rivalries in the Big Ten. The loser exits with little shot at
the national title.
The Bottom Line
If Thompson is anything better than adequate at quarterback,
Paterno's dominating defense will send the Nittany Lions to the
Sugar Bowl on Jan. 4 for a shot at his third national