By David Harry
Take a drive through Central Pennsylvania...
Photo courtesy Penn State
"Road to Number One" author Ridge Riley was many things: a lifelong Nittany Lion, a thoughtful administrator, a passionate supporter of Penn State football and a masterful writer.
Thanks to his writing, Penn State fans everywhere have the chance to relive some of the best moments in Penn State's history, as though they were happening right now. Riley possessed a dynamic style that transformed football games into captivating, high energy, larger than life experiences, and on many fall Saturdays, that’s exactly what they were.
Riley, a 1932 Penn State graduate, chronicled Penn State’s rise to a national power in college football in his well-titled book, “Road to Number One.” He certainly had a front-row seat to the Nittany Lions’ meteoric rise over the collegiate gridiron landscape, as he created The Football Letter in 1938, and then authored the publication until his death in 1976.
Riley served as the executive director of the Alumni Association for two-plus decades and occupied a seat on the Board of Trustees, but it isn't just his leadership people remember him for. His weekly account in The Football Letter endeared him to generations of Penn Staters.
Through meticulous research—he often had only scant press clippings to go off on in the program’s early decades—Riley makes you believe you were prowling the sideline next to head coach Hugo Bezdek or standing in the huddle with quarterback Milt Plum.
Although decades separated these two Penn State football leaders, and the former preceded Riley’s days, you wouldn’t know it thanks to the way Riley weaves together nearly a century’s worth of storytelling, all through the lens of an ardent blue-and-white supporter.
That’s the whole point of Riley’s writing.
You’re not getting a hastily written account from someone on deadline, motivated by website clicks. Rather, a fellow Penn Stater is inviting you into the press box, tapping you on the shoulder, and saying, “Here, let me show you just great it was to watch the Nittany Lions through the years.”
We easily could have created a list of 100 memorable anecdotes gleaned from his book. Instead, we’ll share 10, knowing that once you've had a taste of the remarkable stories held in its pages, you'll want to pick up a copy and revisit Penn State's exciting past yourself. The book, and photos from The Football Letter, are available through University Libraries, and you can also buy a copy of Riley’s masterpiece online.
Here’s our list, and we hope you enjoy discovering (or re-learning) these pieces of Penn State trivia as much as we did.
“Wish, Wack—Pink, Black” (1887)
Penn State’s first officially recorded football game occurred in 1887, following an invitation from Bucknell. Even then, Riley noted, the young team “sensed the historic importance of the occasion and accepted Bucknell’s challenge zealously.” School spirit and camaraderie easily followed for the players and students, all of whom lived in Old Main and developed what Riley termed “a family unity.” Leading up to the game, students tried to create a cheer, and after several rejections, came up with this gem:
Yah! Yah! (Pause) Yah! Yah! Yah!
Wish, Wack—Pink, Black!
P! S! C!
Pink and black, for the original school colors, and PSC, short for Pennsylvania State College, the university’s name at the time. You can undoubtedly tell that Riley writes with great admiration for everyone associated with Penn State, though he humorously summarized the situation by saying, “Both the colors and the yell had a mercifully short life.” As for the game, the Nittany Lions collected a 54-0 victory, then defeated the Bisons again the following week in State College, finishing their inaugural season at 2-0.
An early rival and an early arrival back home (1902)
Today, there's a lot of discussion surrounding who Penn State’s current rival is, something that was much clearer 100-plus years ago. While Bucknell represents one of the earliest opponents that Penn State faced, Dickinson, another small-town college in the commonwealth, swelled to be “the game,” according to Riley. The two squads matched against each other on Thanksgiving Day in 1902, with Penn State entering the game with only two losses, to Yale and Penn—the two Ivy League schools were early national powers. Fans traveling to the game met on College Avenue and marched three miles away to the train station in Lemont, with large “State” banners awaiting them. After a brief stopover in Harrisburg, the crowd reached its destination in Carlisle, where Penn State won by the surprising wide margin of 23-0. Fans arrived back in Lemont at 1 a.m., and made the cold return trip to town, by foot. If nothing else, this story proves Penn State fans have always been a passionate bunch.
Penn State’s inaugural first-team All-American, featuring an unusual nickname (1906)
William T. Dunn owns the distinction of being Penn State’s inaugural first-team All-American, as Walter Camp named the center and team captain to his 1906 squad. That season, Dunn led Penn State to an 8-1-1 record, featuring eight shutout wins. Riley described him as “probably the heaviest, tallest and oldest member of his class,” and Dunn worked in a Youngstown steel mill for several years to earn money for college. When he was a freshman, he guided several other first-year students across campus, prompting an upperclassman to remark, “There goes Mother Dunn leading his chickens.” The nickname stuck, and Penn State’s original first-team All-American was called “Mother Dunn” from that point on.
Hugo Bezdek—(perhaps) Penn State’s first great coach (1918-29)
Hugo Bezdek guided Penn State to consecutive undefeated seasons (7-0-2 in 1920 and 8-0-2 in 1921) and to a sterling 7-1 campaign in 1919. He also coached the Penn State baseball team from 1920-30 (129-76) and the hoops squad in 1920, finishing with an 11-2 record. When he coached Penn State in the 1923 Rose Bowl, it was Bezdek’s second time on the Rose Bowl sideline. He had previously led Oregon to the prestigious contest in 1917, when the Ducks defeated Pennsylvania—Penn, not Penn State. Also noteworthy is this tidbit that Riley included: When the Phillies were trying to lure him away from Penn State—Bezdek had already coached the Pirates prior to coming to Penn State—the students created this slogan that’ll sound familiar to fans from the 1970s: “Don’t Hu-Go Bezdek.”
An editorial and a response (1936)
Penn State experienced some lean seasons in the 1930s, partly—or mainly—because of the lack of player subsidization. The Penn State Athletic Board self-imposed directives such as “limiting varsity players to one training meal per day during the season” and requiring “coaches eating at the training table [to] pay their own board beginning with the opening of college.” After a 7-6 loss to Lehigh in 1936—which Riley called “the season’s low point”—Collegian sportswriter Charles M. Wheeler, Jr. criticized the players and accused the seniors of “letting down and provoking dissension,” according to Riley. In his editorial, Wheeler wrote:
“Squabbling among themselves like babies, and playing listless and uninspired football, Penn State’s 1936 excuse was thoroughly outplayed and beaten in Saturday’s Lehigh game … What fight there was in the team was displayed by the players mixing it up with their teammates rather than with the common foe. … When 1,600 students produce a simon-pure team (Lehigh) that can make a team of 5,000 students look bad, there is something wrong besides the breaks.”
When the players’ bus set out the following week for a road contest, Wheeler wasn't on board. In Riley’s description, “the angry seniors had ejected him.” Apparently, the sportswriter had been traveling with the team, at least until that editorial.
Record Homecoming crowd (1948)
Home crowds for Penn State have continually grown over the years, with various expansions taking place at Beaver Stadium, and also at its predecessor, New Beaver Field, so named since it replaced Old Beaver Field. Fans already know that crowds have swelled over the years. However, it’s the way that Riley described the 1948 Homecoming contest at New Beaver Field that makes this record noteworthy. Penn State and Michigan State battled to a 14-all tie, in front of a record crowd of 24,000, “although,” Riley adds, “ticket prices soared to $3.00.” With inflation leading to a rise of cost in just about everything, it’s charming to think about an era when for a handful of ones, you could watch Penn State football play at home. Those must have been the days.
Misdirection (1953 and 1958)
It’s no secret that even to this day, out-of-town visitors will sometimes confuse Penn State with the University of Pennsylvania. Trust us, it happens. And apparently, this isn’t a new phenomenon. In 1953, Texas Christian flew into Pennsylvania for the first meeting between the two teams. One problem: TCU arrived in Harrisburg, thinking that’s where Penn State’s campus was located. Fans at the airport, who Riley described as “friendly”—and also perhaps surprised—informed the team from Texas that they had about 90 more miles to go. Five years later, when Penn State hosted Furman, some officials called from the school, based in South Carolina, to inquire where State College was located. This turned out to be an important phone call, considering some members of the traveling party had already made hotel reservations in Philadelphia, the city presumed to be the home site of Penn State.
Pennsylvania-based bowl (1959 and 1960)
While Penn State played in two bowls over the first 50 years of the 20th century, the Nittany Lions’ modern bowl era began in 1959, with consecutive appearances in the Liberty Bowl—with Rip Engle as head coach and Joe Paterno as an assistant. After having been played in Philadelphia for the first five years of its existence, the Liberty Bowl moved to Atlantic City for a season, and has been played in Memphis every year since 1965. So, if you’ve ever wondered why a bowl game hosted in Memphis is called the “Liberty Bowl,” there you go. Penn State beat two national opponents, defeating Alabama 7-0 in 1959, and downing Oregon 41-12 the following year. Those two victories comprise part of Penn State’s storied bowl history, one of the most impressive in the country. The Nittany Lions rank in the Top 10 all-time in bowl appearances (48), bowl wins (29) and bowl winning percentage (62 percent, with a record of 29-17-2).
Students serenade Joe and Sue Paterno (1971)
Penn State dominated college football in the eastern part of the country throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, and claimed many impressive victories against cross-sectional teams. This was true in 1971, when the Nittany Lions finished 11-1 and clobbered Texas in the Cotton Bowl, 30-6. Penn State’s only blemish in the campaign came at Tennessee, where the Volunteers knocked off the Nittany Lions in the regular season finale—Penn State was ranked fifth nationally and Tennessee was twelfth. When Coach Paterno returned home that night, the typical postgame crowd wasn’t there at the family’s house on McKee Street. Instead, there were only a few guests, and it was unusually quiet. However, that changed when Sue heard some noise outside and opened the door. Greeting her, Joe and their guests were 50 or 60 students singing “Hail to the Lion” and the alma mater. Traveling from the other side of the campus, the students’ motivation was “to show the coach how they appreciate what he had done for Penn State football and the university and to wish him good luck in the Cotton Bowl.”
A knockout in the locker room and on the field (1974)
Penn State’s impressive run continued through 1974, when the Nittany Lions ended their regular season at Three Rivers Stadium against Pitt on Thanksgiving night. During a pre-game players meeting—which preceded the team prayer—running back Tom Donchez gave such a fiery pep talk that he closed out his remarks by throwing his helmet off the side of a locker. The helmet bounced off and hit starting linebacker Greg Buttle square between the eyes, knocking him out cold. This was problematic, perhaps mostly because Buttle called the defensive plays. When Paterno heard he couldn’t play, he was heard muttering, “Oh God, can’t we even get through the team prayer without an injury?” In a sign of the times, even though he was “wobbly and a trifle pale,” Buttle played from the start after he was “patched up like a prizefighter.” Riley wrote, “Despite his injury, Buttle was king of the linebackers,” and assistant head coach John O’Hara proudly declared after the game that Buttle never missed a signal while calling plays. This last note is even more remarkable since Buttle reported later “that the first quarter seemed to be in slow motion, like a bad dream,” and also because, at halftime, he received six stitches in a gash over his eye. Ranked No. 10 nationally going into the contest, Penn State collected a 31-10 victory over No. 18 Pitt. The Nittany Lions then capped off the season with a 41-20 victory over Baylor in the Cotton Bowl. A classic 1-2 punch.
The Pennsylvania State University, 1910s
By David Harry
Take a drive through Central Pennsylvania...
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