Unbeaten, Unstoppable, Uncrowned
An Oral History of the 1994 Penn State Football Team
Part 2 kicks off with the ’94 Citrus Bowl, where an upset of Tennessee hinted at the success to come; after an offseason of cohesion and commitment, Penn State opens the ’94 season in dominating fashion; and a closer look at the diverse cast of characters who make up the Lions’ all-time-great offensive line.
Chapter 5: The Springboard
With a mostly successful Big Ten debut under their belts, the Lions prepared to close out the ’93 season with a trip to Florida. The destination: Orlando, home of the Citrus Bowl. The opponent: Tennessee, which came in with a 9-1-1 record and the nation’s No. 6 ranking. As always, Joe Paterno looked to balance fun and focus on a bowl trip; his players would tell you there was an emphasis on the latter.
BRADY: That might have been the first year Joe had that new mentality, where bowl practice was almost like another spring practice.
ENGRAM: We would always go down two weeks early, and Joe laid it out: The first week was basically a week of training camp.
CONLIN: We went down on December 20 for a January 1 game. We had Christmas Eve and Christmas Day off, I believe, and that was it. And the old man had it right: How many bars are open Christmas Eve and Christmas Day?
ATKINS: That first week, we would go to an offsite facility, and it was two-a-days. We were down there to work.
ARCHIE: We felt like if we wanted to make a mark on what kind of team we were going to be the following year, this was the time to do it. I remember those practices. Coach Paterno was a little bit more animated. He really worked us hard.
PITTMAN: It was a fun trip, but man, did we work hard.
CONLIN: Those first four or five days, Joe beat the tar out of us. It was cutthroat. It was preseason practice all over again, twice a day for four days. It was brutal.
ENGRAM: That was probably the best week of practice I remember. Guys were just getting after it.
BRADY: Some guys think of a bowl trip as a vacation, but it was anything but fun that first week. For a solid five days, we went out and hammered each other. After that, we had this attitude that we’re going to go hammer somebody else.
“We’re going to go hammer somebody.” To Brady and his teammates, by New Year’s Day, 1994, the Volunteers looked an awful lot like a nail.
PITTMAN: We had a little bit of a chip on our shoulders. We got off to a good start that year, and everybody was like, “What’s going to happen when they play Michigan and Ohio State?” Well, we lost to both of them. When we got a chance to play Tennessee, a lot of people in the media said, “OK, is this team really that good?”
SCOTT: I don’t think any of us really knew how good we were, or how good we could be, until the Citrus Bowl. We knew the talent we had, and you just want to have a good showing. You want to be competitive.
GREELEY: People didn’t think we belonged in the same bowl game as them.
CARTER: Everybody was talking about SEC speed, and Penn State’s not going to be able to handle it.
ENGRAM: We had plenty of team speed. We were just coming into our own.
PITTS: It was the same “SEC is the best, you’re just some Big Ten school, and we’re going to roll right over you.” We had a point to prove.
CONLIN: A couple of years later, I was playing with a guy from that Tennessee game, and he said, “Big man, I’ll tell you what: We knew we were gonna get beat. You guys were coming in from practice all muddy and bloody, and we were just coming in from the night before.”
Just like they’d done against the Vols two years earlier in the Fiesta Bowl, the Lions got off to a slow start in Orlando. Down 10-0 early to Heisman runner-up QB Heath Shuler and Co., Penn State took its first lead just before the half, then pitched a shutout after halftime en route to a resounding 31-13 win. As John Black wrote in the Jan. 3, 1994 edition of The Football Letter, “…the Nittany Lions took control of the line of scrimmage both ways, a much maligned Kerry Collins out-dueled the overhyped Shuler, and Bobby Engram outgained everyone with 184 all-purpose yards to capture the MVP award.”
DIEHL: Right before halftime, we’re at the 20-yard line or whatever, and we have no time outs. Franny calls a play to go to the end zone, and Joe stops it and says, “No, we’re gonna run a draw to Ki-Jana.” And Franny’s like, “You’re nuts. If he gets tackled, we’re done.” And Joe’s like, “They’re not going to lay a hand on him.” My job at the time was to hold Franny’s headset cord, so I’m listening to this whole conversation. They called the play, Ki-Jana went untouched, right into the end zone, and we never looked back. Right after that, going into the locker room, Franny gave me his headset, and I looked right into his eyes and said, “Nice call.”
GANTER: Most of the good ones were his. (laughs)
COLLINS: The Citrus Bowl was a real confidence booster for us. They were ranked in the top 5, they had Heath Shuler and all those guys, and we didn’t care. We just went about our business and took control in the second half.
CONLIN: Kerry gained so much confidence from that.
PENZENIK: Shuler was one of the top players in the country, just a stud, and we needed to have a great game to shut him down. And we did. Not only did our offense dominate, but our defense dominated, too.
CARTER: We put a nice little whooping on them.
ARCHIE: After that game, we came into the locker room, and Coach Paterno said, “We’re only losing about 12 seniors off this team.” He said, “I promise you, if you guys work your tails off in the summer, do the things we ask you to do, you guys can do something really special next year.” When he said that, we believed it.
BRADLEY: That’s when they started to think, “You know what, we’re pretty good.” There was a good feeling after that game, and it just kind of carried over.
BRADY: It was almost like those bowl practices were preparation not only for the game, but also for the next season. It was setting the table for that ’94 team—that attitude, the attention to detail.
GANTER: Well, that never entered my mind. I think the coaches were thinking, “We’ve gotta beat Tennessee.” When that game is over, we’ll set our sights on next season. But coming out of that game, we knew were going to the start the next season with a great nucleus of kids.
KILLENS: Going into ’94, we knew we had the talent to play against anybody in the country.
COLLINS: That game was really a pretty good preview of what ’94 turned out to be.
Chapter 6: A Team on the Verge
Back on campus in the winter of ’94, Penn State’s returnees immediately knew they had a rare thing—a chance for greatness—in their collective grasp. It was time to go to work.
PITTMAN: After we beat Tennessee, we felt like, if we work hard this offseason, we can be a force to be reckoned with.
CARTER: Just about our whole offense was back. We knew it could be a special season.
BRADY: I can only imagine in their meetings that spring, the coaches understood what they had, and that the sky was the limit.
GANTER: When you look at the pieces of a puzzle, I can’t imagine a piece we were missing. We had a big-time guy at all the most important positions, and at most of those positions, we had two guys. We had all the pieces.
ENGRAM: Everybody on that team was going to be a year older, and we’d added some top recruits. We knew we had a chance to be really good if we held each other accountable.
STEWART: We get back from the bowl game, we’re the seniors, so we have a talk with the team: “This what we’re going to do, these are the rules.” And then we policed those rules. That’s how it went.
FORBES: I remember spring ball—it was like, “We can’t wait to go, man.” Everybody wanted to work.
PITTMAN: It’s a tradition now that spring drills are held really early in the morning. We started that whole thing—5:30 a.m., get up and go work out. I think that was a sign of how serious we were.
PENZENIK: Every work out, every time we got together, it was intense. There was no letting off. There wasn’t a whole lot of “Hey, man, you gotta pick it up.” You see the guy next to you going all out, you either drop off, stay with them, or beat ’em. We didn’t need to be told what to do.
Part of that accountability was knowing which players could handle a lighter load that spring.
CARTER: I ran track that whole spring. I didn’t play football.
GANTER: Ki-Jana and a few guys went to Joe and asked if they could run track. And I know the track people were hoping to get a couple of those guys.
PITTMAN: A lot of the fifth-year guys, we didn’t even practice in the spring—we had so much depth, we didn’t want to get anybody hurt, and Joe knew the older guys would take care of themselves and be ready to play. He knew he could trust us.
United and focused, the Lions approached the summer of ’94 as the next step on their way to a lofty goal.
COLLINS: I remember that offseason, just feeling like, “This is my team. I’m going to show these guys that they can count on me.” We had bunch of guys there over the summer, guys who stuck around, put in the work.
ARCHIE: There were 90, 100 guys that stayed for the summer. Everybody stayed. That’s when it became special.
DIEHL: It was voluntary, but they were all up here. That was led by the seniors. I stayed up here that summer to work in the equipment room, and I knew right away how special it was.
PITTS: It was not only everybody staying up for the summer, but working our tails off.
MAZYCK: It was unbelievable how guys were working.
ARCHIE: Every Tuesday and Thursday, we went out there and worked out on our own. It was Kerry and Bucky, and we had the defense out there—Brian Gelzheiser, Willie Smith, Brian Miller, all those guys—and we worked out all summer. The national championship, in our eyes, was won in the summer, not in the fall.
FORBES: We did a lot of stuff that was really for track runners. And it wasn’t just the skill players: Wayne Holmes would be out there, 350 pounds, running 200s. Then, 3 o’clock, everybody’s in the IM building playing basketball, having dunk contests.
NOBLE: It was the offseason stuff, the summer workouts, the bonding—that group did everything together. It was a really special group of young men. I’ve never found that anywhere else. There was a tremendous amount of respect for each other, but we enjoyed hanging out. A football team’s like a dysfunctional family. That group truly got along, worked together, and we were willing to sacrifice. That was one of the most fun summers. Such a great group.
MAZYCK: The defense would go hiking through the mountains—me, Brian Gelzheiser, Vinny Stewart. It created a special bond with that team. The brotherhood with that team, the camaraderie… We all had the same burning desire to be a champion. We wanted to win.
August in Happy Valley: heat, humidity, and the start of a memorable preseason camp.
COLLINS: We get to training camp, and we were hungry and ready to go.
GREELEY: We had that confidence through spring ball and into preseason camp. Everybody progressed and developed like we expected them to. And the o-line, we knew, we’re going to be the strength of the team. Nothing bad is going to happen to this team because of this unit.
ARCHIE: The coaches knew how how hard we had worked, how many kids had stayed up for the summer. I think if you had asked Coach Paterno going into the season, he would’ve gone “Ahhh, they’re really not that good. Let’s see what they’re made of.” But I think he knew, deep down. I think Coach Ganter said this was the most committed he’d seen a team in preseason. I think they were excited. I think they knew we were ready.
CARTER: I was reading all the publications, and they had us third or fourth in the league behind Wisconsin, Ohio State, Michigan. I just had a chip on my shoulder. I felt like we were disrespected. We knew we had a good team. Our first meeting, the first day of camp, I walked down in front of the team before the coaches got there, and I just stated talking. I said, “Guys, look, we got a special team. And those two losses last year left a bad taste in my mouth…”
HARTINGS: I remember one scrimmage at the end of long week of two-a-days, and we didn’t play well at all. Ki-Jana brought us together after that practice, kind of gave a pep talk to the offense, said “We’re better than this, we can be something special.” For me, that’s where it clicked. Like, if Ki-Jana has this much confidence…
COLLINS: I remember Ki-Jana being the vocal guy, having that bravado. It was good. Guys like myself, Bucky, Kyle, we weren’t going to say a whole lot. I never have been—I tried to show up day in, day out, prepared and focused, set the tone. Ki-Jana brought the swagger that all great teams have.
Carter’s talent and confidence were emblematic of the entire offense, a rare group in Joe Paterno’s tenure that entered the preseason well ahead of a defense that was untested by comparison. Recognizing this, Paterno and his staff set out to test—and toughen—their deep and versatile offense in preparation for the challenges to come.
CONLIN: Historically Joe’s defenses always beat the tar out of his offenses. But that defense just got beat down. Some of the defensive coaches would tell Joe, “Just slow them down.” Joe would be like, “What do you want me to do?”
ARCHIE: I remember one scrimmage—and if you ask a defensive player or coach, they’d probably say no—but we went into this scrimmage, and it seemed like we could do nothing right. They were kicking our tails the whole scrimmage. And I think they scripted it that way.
GREELEY: I’ve told this stories over the years: I’m convinced there were times in training camp where they stacked the deck against us—times where the defense knew the play, to try to humble us.
CONLIN: Bucky would be in the huddle—he was an analytical guy—and he’d say, “The old man’s stacking against us right now.” They had to start backing us off to give the defense some confidence.
GANTER: Joe was sometimes rougher on his best teams. And those guys, they wanted to be challenged. Any big-time athlete, that’s what they want.
BRADY: Joe tried to do everything he could to make things difficult on us, to create pressure situations, to try to get us to crack. I remember one scrimmage, he was just tearing into us; I’m sure it was planned to some degree, because he knew how much potential we had. There was a maturity about that team, and we knew why Joe was doing it. He was doing it because he saw what was on the table…
Somewhere in that preseason, when Joe was trying to put that pressure on us, Kerry started doing this symbol, where he’d hold up his right index finger at chest level, where we could all see it in the huddle, and sort of rotate it in a circular fashion. I don’t even know how it originated; it just meant that there’s no amount of pressure we couldn’t handle with what we have right here. We would be in situations over the course of that season—at Michigan in the Big House, out at Illinois—and Kerry would do it just like he did in the preseason when Joe was riding us. It was just a reminder, that we had everything we needed right here.
That on-field focus would soon become legendary. The Lions’ off-field commitment was no less impressive, and no less vital.
STEWART: My senior year, the seniors made a pact—we all lived on campus. The younger kids knew: We’re here, we’re around. We were all in Nittany Apartments. I lived with Kerry and Kyle, Bucky lived across the hall. Bobby and Ki-Jana were there. There were maybe two people that lived off campus. It came down to helping each other do the right things. These are kids, 19, 20 years old, and you have to stay focused. So we’re going to remove the ability to be unfocused. Guys aren’t going to go out anymore during the week. We’re only going to go out after a game, and only after a win. It became a snowball effect of everyone doing the right thing.
PITTMAN: We had so many fourth-year, fifth-year guys, guys who had to wait a while to play. There was just a collective mentality that we’ve put too much into this to not get all we can out of it. It was a pretty mature group that new how to handle its business.
CONLIN: I’m not going to lie to you: We had our fun. Trust me. But the guys who, earlier in our careers, we’re going out on Wednesday and Thursday nights, we made commitments that we wouldn’t go out during the week. Saturday night was literally the only night we went out.
FORBES: Thursday night was critical, to be rested for Saturday. So we would check with each other. It was like, “It’s Thursday night—keep the noise down.” Friday nights, we weren’t usually around.
BRADY: We were kind of a self-policing unit, which I think coaches love. Not only on the field, but even off. Guys do some dumb things sometimes, but we had a high degree of accountability with each other about those things.
PITTS: Joe trusted us on the field, and he trusted that we would take care of each other and do the right things off the field.
NOBLE: At the time, I didn’t realize how odd that was. There was a group of guys that liked to have a good time, but they were focused. They knew what they wanted to do, and they made sure the rest of us came along. As a coach, you’re not going to let just anybody handle that. You’ve gotta know that you can trust those guys.
RIVERA: It’s not like we needed one guy to lead by example—it was everybody: Kyle Brady, Kerry Collins, Jeff Hartings, myself, Ki-Jana. Each one of the guys in that locker room knew their responsibility. Nobody needed to be told.
PITTS: Between our class and the class above us, to quote Joe, there really were no shenanigans. (laughs)
Chapter 7: Statements of Intent
The ’94 season arrived, and questions remained. The offense looked good, but how good? The defense was green, perhaps fatally so. And even some very good recent Penn State teams had followed strong starts with midseason stumbles that killed any championship hopes. Would this team be different?
ARCHIE: By the time the season rolled around, we were clicking on all cylinders.
SCOTT: It was our second year in the Big Ten, and a lot of us knew we were starters at that point. We knew the season would be whatever we made it. But we still had some questions.
HERRING: I don’t know about running the table, but I think we started out knowing we were really good.
PITTMAN: I think we felt like, if things went our way, we would be hard to beat. But I’ll be completely honest with you: I never went into any year thinking, “OK, we’re going to go 12-0.”
The Lions opened the ’94 season at Minnesota, a conference road game against one of the league’s lesser teams. Still: It was a conference road game, by definition never an easy thing in the Big Ten. Well, so much for that. Penn State rolled up nearly 700 yards of total offense, including 210 for Carter on just 20 carries, and Collins completed a hyper-efficient 19 of 23 passes for 260 yards and three touchdowns. Of the Lions’ 56-3 win, John Black wrote in The Football Letter, “A summer’s worth of anxious anticipation… was relieved in spectacular fashion.”
GREELEY: We’re warming up in the end zone, and their fans are yelling at us: “You guys are small! You guys are D3! You’ll never last in the Big Ten! You’ll get crushed!”
MILNE: I do remember the crowd. And I remember the turf being really hard, for some reason.
CARTER: We heard the fans: “You guys suck!” I was pissed. I was like, “These guys are disrespecting us. I’m not going to let this ride today. These guys are gonna pay.”
HARTINGS: We went in with some uncertainty, and then we pretty much dominated them. We were basically unstoppable.
KILLENS: That was one of those games where the offense just exploded.
GREELEY: I don’t think we thought we were going to go in and roll. But after that first series, we kind of knew what we had. Everything that’d been preached to us—about pushing the pace, being in shape, being in the right position, digging down, making the other team say “ouch”—it all happened on the first drive. We crossed the 50-yard line, and they’d already started rotating people in. Their defensive guys were already gassed—hands on hips, hands on knees. We just kept pushing the pace. After we scored two or three times in a row, we didn’t hear from those fans anymore.
BRADY: It was very loud, but it got quiet very quickly.
NOBLE: That was the first football game I played in at Penn State, so to me, it was a whirlwind. There was a lot of anticipation about our offense. You see it in practice every day, and it’s not necessarily that you grow numb to it, but when you see it live—see it happening to someone else—it’s like, “Man, this is my offense.”
SCOTT: It was like, “Wait a minute—this is even better than we anticipated.”
PITTMAN: I remember being surprised by how good our offense was. We played all offseason against them, so we knew these guys were pretty good, but I remember saying, “Wow—these guys are very good.”
COLLINS: I think we were a little surprised, but not totally—not shocked. That’s the thing about the beginning of the season: You don’t know how good you are. We got a pretty good indication right off the bat, but it’s one game. You don’t know if you’re going to be able run the ball and throw the ball consistently, day in and day out.
BRADY: It kind of spoiled you a little bit. We had so many easy drives.
HARTINGS: I didn’t really think that could happen with a Big Ten team.
CARTER: I was done at halftime. Of course you didn’t think that was going to happen.
PITTS: You think, “Are they just that bad, or are we just that good?”
GANTER: Sometimes, games like Minnesota, they worry you if it’s too easy. You want to make sure the guys understand that they can’t let up, can’t get too big-headed, can’t feel like they’ll be able to do that every week.
ARCHIE: The coaches had to deal with, “OK, how do we keep them from getting over-confident and complacent?” But I think Coach Ganter would probably tell you, after that first game, he knew we had something special.
Back in Happy Valley a week later, Penn State welcomed USC to Beaver Stadium. The Trojans came in ranked 14th in the country, meaning the home opener figured to be a much tougher test. “The Lions had dazzled their fans with a runaway win over Minnesota,” John Black wrote in The Football Letter, “but some skeptics still weren’t sure whether that was a result of Penn State’s strength or the Gophers’ weakness… No one doubted the quality of Southern Cal.” After four quarters, 534 yards of total offense, and another huge day from Carter and Collins, the skeptics were hard to find. Leading 35-0 at halftime, the Lions “settled” for a 38-14 win.
PITTS: We were expecting a top-notch USC team to come in and be competitive, at the least.
COLLINS: They had a good quarterback in Rob Johnson, and some good players on the defensive side of the ball. You got the sense they were going to be an athletic team, probably talent-wise up there with us. We knew it was going to be a test.
GREELEY: They had a very good team, a lot of future NFL players. That was one where, they’re a traditional power, this could possibly be a Rose Bowl preview. And we just laid it on them.
ENGRAM: What a great day for football. Perfect temperature, prefect weather, and it was unbelievable, man, how things just clicked. Everybody touched the ball.
COLLINS: I think that game was the indication of, “Hey, we’re probably a better team than a lot of people give us credit for.” I don’t know how good they were, but we made them look pretty bad.
CARTER: We’re beating them 35-0 at halftime. I was like, “Woooo.” The year before it was 21-20, very close. When we came out the next year and blew ’em out, I knew.
DIEHL: Halfway through the third quarter, I was running balls on the USC sideline, and John Robinson said to me, “Could you please tell Coach Paterno that we don’t want to play the fourth quarter?” I said, “Well, Coach won’t run the score up.” He said, “I know Joe won’t run the score up. But we can’t stop you.” Their guys had no idea we were that fast, that our offensive line was that strong. That was a fun game to be on the sideline with the other team.
ARCHIE: There was one series where we got a three and out, and Bucky came to the sideline, called the whole offense over, and he said, “They did nothing to stop us. We stopped ourselves. The mistakes, the mental errors, we have to stop those things. If we do, nobody can stop us.” From that day on, that was the mentality the whole rest of the year.
KILLENS: That’s when I think the confidence started picked up on our offense as well as on defense.
ATKINS: They were huge across the offensive line, and Tony Boselli was their left tackle, probably one of the best tackles ever, so it was a personal challenge for me. I think ended up having two sacks. We didn’t have a bunch of superstars on defense, but that game showed us what we could do if each guy comes out and takes care of his responsibilities.
CONLIN: They got caught up in a buzz saw. I played with a guy from that game a couple years later at the Senior Bowl, and he said, “That was literally the worst day in my life.”
GANTER: I really never thought that we had it made. I ran scared. I was always nervous: “Geez, that was easy. Are they that bad? Are we that good? Are we going to continue to get better?”
ARCHIE: It was like, “If we played Southern Cal like this, what else can we do?”
Chapter 8: Immovable, Invaluable
Collins, Carter & Co. were understandably getting most of the attention, but anyone paying attention in the Lions’ early games knew they were winning where it mattered: in the trenches. Penn State’s starting offensive line of center Bucky Greeley, guards Jeff Hartings and Marco Rivera, and tackles Keith Conlin and Andre Johnson was a tough, veteran group; by all accounts, it was a unit blessed with a position coach perfectly suited to its talent.
GREELEY: If I had to point to one person who took us to the next level, it was Craig Cirbus. He’s extremely intelligent. A lot of what he taught us was how to think—to not only execute physically, but mentally, to know what we needed to do.
MILNE: He didn’t look like a line coach.
CONLIN: If you put 100 people in a room, Craig’s 101. But he was unbelievable. A great coach, and so smart. There was nothing anybody could’ve thrown at us that we hadn’t seen. The games were slow motion to us, because physically and mentally, we were so well trained and so well coached.
CIRBUS: Something we had in our meeting room that was sort of quirky, in the corner of the blackboard, we had two things: Missed assignments and sacks. It was the sin of the world if your name was up there. They picked on each other mercilessly. There was no way this group was going to have sacks attributed to them, and missed assignments were unheard of. It was something they took a great deal of pride in.
GREELEY: He would break down film, and give guys minuses on plays if they were in an unbalanced stance, or if we lost a block five years downfield. We’d be like, “Coach, it was a 25-yard gain!” He’d go, “Yeah, but 26 might’ve made the difference there.”
BRADY: He was a nice guy, but he used to always yell at the linemen at practice. If there was a breakdown on pass protection, he’d yell, “Hartings, you’ve got to stay in your vector!” in this real high-pitched voice. It must have been the way he defined their passing zones. Conlin would do an impression: “Bucky! Stay in your vector!”
CIRBUS: I was one of those perfectionist types, and sometimes that blows up in your face. But that whole group was the same. They were all perfectionists.
GREELEY: He coached me how I needed to be coached.
CONLIN: He was unbelievable.
Of course, Cirbus would be the first to tell you he had a lot to work with.
CIRBUS: We lost a couple of kids from that ’93 team, Mike Malinoski and Derick Pickett. The guys coming up were all mediocre recruits. Hartings was an undersized kid out of Ohio, Marco was an undersized kid from Long Island, Andre Johnson was recruited on defense. A lot of those guys played different positions earlier in their careers. I didn’t know how good they were going to be, but I was happy to take any of them, just to have more offensive linemen.
FORBES: I think the move to the Big Ten really helped them. We had a bunch of big boys—Keith Conlin, Andre Johnson, Jeff Hartings—who kind of came into their own.
HARTINGS: Bucky had started the year before, I had started, Marco and Andre started some. So we had a lot of experience.
CIRBUS: You had a combination of the very lighthearted Keith Conlin, the very cerebral Jeff Hartings, the very personable Bucky Greeley, the very mission-driven Marco Rivera, and the very awestruck Andre Johnson. It was just the right confluence of personalities at the right time.
BRADY: Bucky was a fifth-year senior, and he was the leader off that offensive line. I think a lot can be said to for guys who just lead by example—Jeff Hartings, Marco Rivera, Keith Conlin, and I hope I was one of those guys. Bucky was more a vocal leader.
ARCHIE: Bucky for sure—he was our vocal leader, our captain.
CIRBUS: Bucky was half a coach out there.
DIEHL: Bucky, I’ll remember this forever: he never left his freshman locker.
CALDWELL: There’s a back room in the locker room; the freshmen would be back there, and everybody else made it to the big main room. Well, Bucky insisted: “I don’t want to move. I’m staying here.” He controlled the freshman class every year.
DIEHL: He wanted that locker his whole career, because he wanted to tell all the people coming through what it meant to be a Penn State football guy.
CONLIN: Jeff Hartings was just the best football player on the team. He would get grades from Craig Cirbus, and then he’d grade himself. Cirbus would have him at like a 92, and Jeff would give himself like a 58. He was so hard on himself.
CIRBUS: Jeff was such a student of the game. He was happy to have me pick on him.
BUCKY: Jeff was the All-American, and he led by example. We’d be looking at film, and you’d be like, “Did he just do that?”
CONLIN: Marco and I were roommates for four years; he was a phenomenal athlete. And Andre—he would have his hands on you, those long arms, and just drill you out of there.
PITTMAN: Andre Johnson had a tough career—they had moved him over from defense—and all of sudden he’s out there handling the best defensive ends in the country.
CONWAY: Andre was the only kind of quiet guy on the offensive line.
STEWART: They were like walking clowns, the whole pack of them. Conlin, he never shut up. He still hasn’t.
RIVERA: Keith was always cracking jokes. Everybody loved him, everybody still loves him. He was always playing tricks—I was a big trickster, too—but it was always Keith talking, keeping the locker room loose.
BRADY: We’d take the blue buses over to Toftrees on Friday nights, and that was a stand-up comedy routine for Conlin. The whole way over was Bucky and Conlin just cutting up.
CONWAY: It’s always the offensive lineman. Conlin and Rivera were definitely characters.
PITTS: Keith and Bucky and Marco, they were just clowns, man. But they were solid on the field. Bucky, the senior guy, kind of held them together.
DIEHL: Off the field, in the locker room, those guys took care of everything. There were no problems, because everybody knew those five guys would solve them. They kept everybody in check.
CALDWELL: The younger guys feared them.
ARCHIE: That group was so closely knit. They were like a band of brothers. They didn’t do anything without each other.
One group activity in particular became something of a local legend: a weekly Thursday lunch date at the State College VFW.
GREELEY: It started the year before, ’93. Mike Malinoski and I were sitting in the apartment watching TV, and this commercial came on for the VFW lunch special: cheesesteak, fries, and a drink, for like $2.99. We looked at each other, like, “Hey, we need to try that out.” We went down on a Thursday, got to know the guys there, and it became a tradition. Keith took Mike’s place after he graduated, then Marco and Jeff started to come.
RIVERA: Every Thursday. We didn’t miss it.
HARTINGS: We would always get French fries and Philly cheesesteaks. Always.
GREELEY: It was open to the public for lunch, but after we started going, a couple of the guys got to know us, and we got honorary cards. I used to carry it in my wallet. My then girlfriend, now wife, her uncle’s a career Marine. He told me, “Even I don’t have a VFW card…”
I still remember, when we get to know the guys, everybody wanted to buy us a beer. It was like, “No. This is lunch, on a Thursday.” But the first time Keith and I went back—it was exam week, we didn’t have practice or a game—we went in, and I don’t think our butts hit the seat before there was pitcher of beer on the table.
Well-fed and happy, the front five set the tone for the entire offense. The skill players who benefited from the line’s dominance knew it better than anyone.
COLLINS: You look up and down that roster on offense, man, there’s no holes. But the offensive line, to me, they were the ones that made us go.
ARCHIE: Everything starts with them. We get nothing without those five guys.
PITTS: People said they were small; I didn’t think they were so small. But you talk about execution—those guys were quick, they were strong, and they certainly weren’t dumb. It was a very bright unit.
CARTER: Those were my dudes, and they treated me like I was their little prized possession. They didn’t want anything to happen to me. On Monday nights, I would take them out to all-you-can-eat pizza—that was the only thing I could afford. Every time I scored, I would bring them drinks when they came off the field. I was blessed to be able to have a great line. I knew without them, there would be no me.
HARTINGS: At end of the game, it was, “How many yards did we run for?” We definitely took pride in that. We had dominating run blockers. No offense to Ki-Jana—I love Ki-Jana—but with Kyle Brady setting the edge, and the five of us in the middle, most teams just couldn’t match up with us.
BRADY: We did a lot of combination and team blocking, and I definitely think of myself as part of that.
COLLINS: They took pride in the fact that Ki-Jana ran for 200 yards, and they took pride in putting on the tape, watching me stand back there, having nobody touch me, and coming out of the game clean.
CONLIN: Kerry got sacked three times his whole senior year.
HARTINGS: As far as the passing game goes, quite frankly, we really didn’t have to block that long. The receivers were getting open, Kerry got rid of the ball very quickly. You couldn’t blitz against us, you couldn’t not blitz against us. When you have that many athletes, and you’re all working together—that’s why it looked so easy. It was easy against most teams.
NOBLE: You look at those five, and throw Kyle Brady in there as your tight end, there wasn’t a better line at that time in the Big Ten. It was disgusting. And all of those guys played in the NFL. Playing against those guys every day in practice, that prepared me for the rest of my football career. Those guys were freaks.
GANTER: Those guys worked like dogs, they were all business, they got along with the skill guys. It was just a happy family. It really was.
CARTER: I’m still close to those guys. I think it’s one of the greatest lines of all time.
COLLINS: I was spoiled, definitely. We were all kind of spoiled.
CIRBUS: They were very, very easy to coach, and so much fun. It was just a very special group of kids.
Part 3: After yet another 5-0 start, the Lions put their championship hopes on the line—and look for revenge—against Big Ten bullies Michigan and Ohio State; an overlooked and anonymous defense answers the call; and the Lions’ historic collection of skill players finds the perfect balance.
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