Simply put, Wally Richardson represents the best of Penn State football.
A record-setting quarterback from 1992–96, Richardson ’96, ’03g went 20-5 in two seasons as a starter for the Nittany Lions, including a pair of bowl victories. He was also a three-time academic All-Big Ten pick and the recipient of an NCAA Postgraduate Scholarship and a National Football Foundation Scholar-Athlete Award.
After stints with the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens and the now defunct XFL, Richardson returned to State College in 2001 to complete his master’s degree and work in the Morgan Academic Support Center for Student-Athletes. He left in 2007 for a similar role at the University of Georgia, and in 2011 he took a job in academic support at UNC-Chapel Hill.
A state champion and Parade All-American during his high school days in South Carolina, Richardson wasn’t in a hurry to leave his native South. But following the retirement in February of Football Letterman’s Club director Fran Ganter ’71, ’73g, Richardson’s name came up as an obvious replacement, and he jumped at the chance. As Bill O’Brien told us earlier this month, “He’s a great ambassador for Penn State football, and he bridges a lot of eras. He’s established a lot of great relationships with not only guys that played in the ’90s and the 2000s, but also guys that played before him. He was a guy that came highly recommended.”
In June, Richardson, began his new gig as FLC director, serving as a vital link between the program’s past, present, and future. We caught up with Richardson recently at his office adjacent to the Letterman’s Lounge in Beaver Stadium, where he looked back at his playing days, and looked ahead to his new role.
* * *
TFL: First off, welcome back. Were you looking for a chance to get back up here, or was this an unexpected opportunity?
Richardson: I wasn’t thinking about getting back up here at the time. When Franny retired, I got a call from one of my teammates up here who said, “Wally, there might be an opportunity for you.” My name was passed on to Justin Kurpeikis ’01, who is the current FLC president, and he mentioned my name to Coach O’Brien, and Coach said, “Tell him to call me.”
It made a lot of sense for me. I know a lot of guys from working around here before, just being around town—guys that are younger than me, guys that are older than me. Living in State College, there were guys I was able to meet, interactions with some of the guys on the old coaching staff who played here themselves, so they would introduce me to more guys. And I think I’m pretty agreeable and easy to get along with. I just try to treat people the way I want to be treated, and that’s taken me a long way.
TFL: Among other things, you’re sort of the game-day host for players coming back to meet up in the Letterman’s Lounge. What’s the vibe here like on game days?
Richardson: It’s pretty nice. Guys will come in here during halftime—you can buy buffet dinners, sit with your family or your guest, have a good meal, get yourself ready to go for the second half. I think I’m probably going to be all over the place. Just knowing the amount of people that I do, people saying, “Hey Wally, come over here, get something to eat.” I’m going to really have to watch myself, because I don’t want to balloon.
But it’s nice to see all the different guys, from the ’50s to the second decade of the 2000s, come up here and integrate. A lot of guys have heard names of other guys from different eras, or know who they are, but they haven’t actually met them. There have been cases where my teammates have said, “Wally, is that such and such?” And I provide an introduction. It’s neat to be able to do that. Like I said, I know a lot of folks, and I can kind of connect ’em. I think that’s a really great aspect of being up here on game day.
TFL: We always hear former players talk about how Penn State football is a family—this is where the family comes together.
Richardson: It’s definitely a gathering place. Some of the stories and experiences that guys had playing here, there’s a consistency there. That’s always neat to hear—things that happened 25 years ago still happen. It’s a pretty good dynamic.
TFL: You mention that consistency, and it speaks to what Coach O’Brien is doing to make sure his players appreciate the history of the program. Can you talk about what you’ve seen of that?
Richardson: He understands the history and how important that is—that a lot of former players left a lot of blood, sweat and tears around here. There’s certain things that were ingrained in them, things that were carried over and helped shape our beliefs and how we went about our business. He respects that. At the same time, he’s the head coach now, he’s got a program and a vision, and he’s got to do his best. But I think that everything he has done has been respectful of the past. Coach is somebody who believes in out-toughing the next guy, playing a hard brand of football, being able to run the football, all those things. So he’s a really good fit. And I don’t know if anybody outside could’ve done what he did last year. He’s really done a great job of establishing his identity and being the leader of the football program.
TFL: Specifically, he seems to really value how important you and the other lettermen are to the program.
Richardson: I think last summer, when the fear was that a lot of guys were going to get poached and leave here, he called on the lettermen to show up to the full squad meeting, and he saw the response. With that, he realized, this is big time. He wants to tap into that, because he realizes that the guys in the Letterman’s Club have a great affinity for the program, and they want to see the program continue to reach new heights. I know he feels it’s important that they are involved in that.
TFL: Did you know much about him before he took the job? Did you know him at all when he was coaching down South?
Richardson: I didn’t. The way that Bill and I are connected is really through Ted Roof. Coach Roof was a young assistant coach at Duke when I was in high school getting recruited, and he was the only reason I took an official visit to Duke. Coach Roof hired Coach O’Brien when he was head coach at Duke. I got up here in the spring, and also for the Indiana game last year, and each time I came up I made sure I went and talked to Coach Roof. And he said, “Wally, they need to get you back up here.” I’m sure he was another person who had been in Coach O’Brien’s ear about me. That’s just the type of respect me and Coach Roof have for each other. I still keep up with him, my mom still keeps up with him.
But Coach O’Brien, I know that he’s very detailed oriented. He’s got a plan. The biggest thing I was told before I took this job was that everybody has a role. He’s got an operations manual that he gives everybody, and it has everybody’s defined role. That’s the big thing: Know what your role is. I’m sure he’s taken different things from a lot of coaches he’s worked with, but that’s kind of a Bill Belichick thing. It’s very defined. I think that’s just what he expects. He’s going to tell you exactly what he’s thinking, and I appreciate that. I think it makes for a good working relationship.
TFL: You’ve sort of split your life since high school between North and South. Does Happy Valley feel like home?
Richardson: It does. I grew up in a small town, and State College is a small town. I enjoy it. My folks are still down in South Carolina, and I’ve got three nieces in South Carolina and Georgia, so I don’t get to see them as much in person. That’d probably be the one drawback to moving back up here. But I can always hop on a plane.
TFL: Looking back on your playing days, what sticks out for you now?
Richardson: That’s a hard question to answer, because there were a lot of good things that happened up here, learning experiences I had. One of the things I remember from my first week on campus, freshman year, was being late to the squad meeting. I set my alarm for 6 a.m. instead of 6 p.m., and we had a squad meeting that evening.
TFL: So you had taken an afternoon nap?
Richardson: Yeah, in between practices. It was preseason, and you know, camp was tough. One of the team managers came in and said, “Wally, y’all have a squad meeting.” So I just jumped up and ran over, opened the door to the squad room. And Joe looked up and said, “What happened to you?” I said, “Coach, I set my alarm for 6 a.m. instead of…” And he said, “You do it again, I’m going to send you back to South Carolina.” (Laughs) That was all I needed to know. I believed him. That’s one of the things I remember. I don’t like to be late for anything, and I don’t like waiting on people. Just not wasting time.
I miss the locker room more than anything else. Football had its time—I enjoyed competing, we won a lot of games, that was all great. But you never forget the memories that you have with the guys. That can’t be duplicated.
TFL: You’ve spent most of your career working with student-athletes on the academic side. Do you think you’ll miss that?
Richardson: I enjoyed the interaction with the student-athletes, because it was always interesting. You never knew what you were gonna get every day. I miss some of the interaction with the kids, and the more I’m around here, I’ll start getting to know these kids better. But I don’t miss chasing them around. (Laughs) I don’t miss that part of it.
TFL: What about this current group of Penn State players. Do these guys know about you, your passing records and all that?
Richardson: They’re probably too far removed. These folks, when I was playing, they were just born. They don’t even know film. They’ll have to be introduced.
For more on The Football Letter, including online archives (requires Alumni Association member log-in), click here.
Not yet an Alumni Association member? Click here.