Unbeaten, Unstoppable, Uncrowned
An Oral History of the 1994 Penn State Football Team
Part 5: The Grandaddy of Them All; dreams of a 1-2 matchup for the ages; memories of the Joe they knew; and 20 years later, a team that looks just as perfect as it did in the fall of ’94.
Chapter 16: Roses
After closing out the regular season with convincing wins over Northwestern and Michigan State, the undefeated Big Ten champion Nittany Lions traveled to Pasadena, California, to face Pac 10-champion Oregon in the Rose Bowl. It was the perfect end to a perfect season. Well, except for one thing.
PITTMAN: I think all the way up January 1, 1995, watching Miami and Nebraska, we felt we could still make our case.
GREELEY: I remember being disappointed with the way it was presented on TV, talking about the Orange Bowl as if it was the national championship. I mean, there’s still a pretty good team that has to play tomorrow.
HARTINGS: The night before our game, Nebraska winning, and them putting “national champions” up there… Deep down in my heart, I felt they were favorable to giving the championship to Tom Osborne, who’d never won a national title.
PITTS: We had our team meeting that night—say it was 9:15, and on Joe time, if you came in at 9, you were late. But everybody stayed in their rooms and watched the game. Everybody kind of came slumping into the room afterward—everybody was late. Joe didn’t say anything.
CIRBUS: The despair… that room was dead silent when we got together after the Nebraska-Miami game.
With the Huskers’ win over Miami deemed convincing enough for voters, the Lions went to bed that night knowing that their best wouldn’t be enough to reclaim the No. 1 ranking. How they dealt with that reality was up to them.
CIRBUS: Joe’s whole approach to the Rose Bowl was, “You work your whole life for something like this, you better be excited.”
PENZENIK: Joe did a good job of telling us to worry about what we could control. All we could control was what we did in the Rose Bowl. We couldn’t control anything else.
GREELEY: Our goal was to go out and show how good we were, and to go undefeated—to have that opportunity to say, “Here’s our case for a national championship.” And let’s face it, we were playing in the Rose Bowl, for god’s sake. It was still an unbelievable opportunity. I still remember thinking, “I’m not going to let voters or a computer dictate how I feel about this team. If I’m going to be bitter and angry, they’re taking away from what we did.”
ARCHIE: Kerry and Bucky kept pounding into our heads: “Remember what we set out to do. Remember what we set out to accomplish.” At that point, we didn’t care how the voting was going to go.
FORBES: We lost a lot of steam, but we were able to regenerate, because Oregon was talking a lot of junk. They were saying they were overlooked, they were saying we were over-hyped. I don’t remember us going back at them during the week, but…
CIRBUS: It was all business when we got on the field.
There was no better field, and no better occasion, to lift the Lions’ spirits than the pristine surface and postcard surroundings of the grand old stadium nestled into the San Gabriel Mountains. This was the game they had worked all season to reach. They had one more game to win.
GANTER: Just the excitement of being in the Rose Bowl, that was something special.
ENGRAM: It was an unbelievable experience. Everything out there was first class. Being in that historic stadium, the granddaddy of them all.
STEWART: I woke up with a 103-degree fever. I wanted to crawl up into a ball and disappear, but I said, “This could be the last game of football I’ll ever play in my life,” so I went out and played.
CONWAY: I remember bits and pieces, like what the grass looked like and smelled like. I remember walking into the locker room, being kind of disappointed, like, “Where’s our big beautiful locker room? My locker is a hook on the wall.” And thinking later, some of the greatest players in history, their locker was a hook on that wall.
KILLENS: It was a little different from other bowl games, a little more traditional. We were coming off the Citrus Bowl, doing an orange juice squeezing contest, that kind of tuff. I remember the Rose Bowl experience being kind of stiff, but the game was amazing.
PITTMAN: The Rose Bowl is the Rose Bowl. I joke with my wife: Even though we have two kids, it was all downhill from there. (laughs) It was an experience like nothing else. The atmosphere was just crazy.
ATKINS: I still tell people, that was probably the perfect day. Huge crowd, weather was perfect, field was perfect. When you pick your perfect day to play football, that was it.
It certainly started that way for Penn State. Taking over on a punt after the Ducks’ opening drive stalled around midfield, the Lions started at their 17-yard line. The first-down call was a pitch to Carter, running right out of the backfield. He nearly went down at the line of scrimmage. Very nearly.
HERRING: That first play? Ki-Jana? We were like, “Oh, we got this game.”
MILNE: Bucky looked at Ki-Jana in the huddle and said, “Why don’t we take it all the way?” And Ki-Jana said, “I’ll see you down there.” I looked at him, I looked at Bucky, I was like, “Oh boy, here we go.” 80 yards and a cloud of dust.
CARTER: Bucky said, “Let’s take it to house.” I said “I’ll meet you there.” Just like that.
GANTER: Unbelievable. We didn’t even block the play right.
CARTER: I didn’t really think about it at the time—I’d done that before in pee-wee, scored on the first play. But now, the folklore, I hear about it all the time.
FORBES: That first play set the tone. It just deflated them right away.
As it happened, the Lions were far from perfect that January afternoon. Facing an overachieving Oregon team playing with a chip on its shoulder and nothing to lose, the Lions were less than their usual precise selves, and when the Ducks tied the game at 14 late in the third quarter, the outcome was very much in doubt. But then they remembered what got them there, putting together a string of what John Black, writing in The Football Letter, called their “patented lightning scoring drives.” A 24-0 run in the late third and early fourth quarters turned a tight game into a route. Final score: Penn State 38, Oregon 20.
PITTS: I’m not going to say it was a halfhearted effort, but I think a little bit of the wind had been taken out of our sails.
COLLINS: They’re moving the ball up and down the field, and offensively, we really didn’t click, but we did what we had to do.
JACKSON: We couldn’t move the ball all that well, and at one point Joe got four guys together on the sidelines and said, “Hey, what do you think we should do?” That’s how good a coach Joe was. In a big game, he wouldn’t just go to the assistants, he would go to the players.
FORBES: I don’t think we played our best game that day, but it was just like, “This team is not beating us.”
PENZENIK: To every one of us on that team, until somebody beat us, we were the number one team in the country. There was no doubt in our mind.
Penzenik’s confidence seems especially appropriate for a guy who, on the final day of the season, became the Lions’ least likely star. The redshirt freshman defensive back picked quite a time to have the game of his life.
PENZENIK: We had a lot of talent at safety, but a lot of guys were getting dinged up as the year went on. I was like fifth, maybe sixth off the bench during the season. I played a lot of special teams. When I got to the bowl game, I was still a cornerback, but on our first day out there, Greg Schiano said, “We’re going to give you a chance to start at free safety.”
The free safety position was basically the quarterback of the defense—you’d call the defense in the huddle. The mental part was a lot harder than the physical part. Until then, all I’d had to do was read and react. I’d never had to tell people what to do. After practice, I spent hours on end with Coach Schiano, looking at film, and day by day I got a little bit better at it. A day or two before the game, they told me I was going to be starter. I called my family and said, “Hey, guess what?”
The two interceptions, it was just going out and playing football, I didn’t think too much about it at the time. It actually started sinking in in afterwards, in the locker room, when they gave me the game ball—defensive MVP. It was surreal. It was incredible.
The first one was right place, right time. The second one, I made a nice read on an end cut, stepped in front of the receiver to intercept it. That’s the one I ended up almost returning for a touchdown. I still kick myself I didn’t get in the end zone—I ran out of sideline. After I got tackled and pushed out of bounds, the entire sideline mobbed me; everybody was excited, because they knew that might be the dagger. I was mobbed on the sideline, so much so that the referee never came to get the ball from me. I ended up giving the ball to a buddy of mine on the sideline, and it’s an Oregon-stamped ball. I still have that ball. That’s one I don’t let my kids play with.
Chapter 17: Settle it on the Field
The record book shows unbeaten Nebraska as the 1994 consensus National Champion. Unbeaten Penn State is No. 2. There was no tie, as there had been in previous seasons when two teams with comparable schedules had finished undefeated. There was no bowl game to settle it, as there would be in the near future. There were polls, and now, for 20 years and counting, there is an argument that can never be settled.
ATKINS: It’s a shame the system didn’t allow us to play for it.
ENGRAM: We wanted to play Nebraska. That was the talk: “How can we figure out a way to play them?” We always felt like it should be handled on the field.
HARTINGS: I think everybody on that team probably has the same feelings I have: I would’ve rather lost to Nebraska and had a chance to win the national title then to go undefeated the way we did. I would never say we were a better team than Nebraska. I just feel there was no way Nebraska was a better team than us.
RIVERA: They had a pretty good team. We had a great team.
BRADLEY: I don’t think anybody would’ve beaten us. In my heart, I don’t believe anybody was better than us.
And yes, the bitterness remains.
RIVERA: They pretty much gave Nebraska the national championship.
BRADLEY: What did we beat Ohio State that year, 63-14? And we don’t get a single vote for the national championship in the state of Ohio? That’s the one thing that always startled me when the voting came out: Throughout the Big Ten, we didn’t get the votes.
ENGRAM: It was a great feeling, but an empty feeling, and one we knew we could never change. Joe got us rings that said we were number one. I keep it in a safe.
ATKINS: They weren’t allowed to put “national champs” on the rings, but Joe’s attitude was, “We beat everybody we played. Who are they to tell us we’re not?”
Chapter 18: A Question for the Ages
There’s one debate that no poll voter can ever answer, and the Lions are happy to have it: Was that the best offense in college football history? It’s hard, in this age of fast-paced, no-huddle, spread-and-attack football, to imagine a comparatively no-frills offense being able to keep pace. Or maybe it’s not so hard at all.
CALDWELL: I still have Kerry’s wristband from the Rose Bowl, and just to compare it to a wristband now, there’s 110 plays on a full wristband. You know how many plays were on Kerry Collins’ wristband? Ten.
GREELEY: You look at the numbers we put up, it’s ridiculous when you consider we were an I-formation, tight end, fullback set 90 percent of the time. There was no spread, there was no five-receiver sets, no rush-the-pace. It was a traditional offense, straight I-formation, two wide receiver set, and we still put up those kinds of numbers.
HARTINGS: You gotta give a lot of credit to the Oregons and Auburns, some of these other teams, they found a unique way to take advantage of their skill. But…
RIVERA: The type of football we played, it was good old-fashioned, hard-nosed football. We’re gonna line up, we’re not gonna do anything flashy, we’re gonna run these plays, and you guys gotta stop us. To me, that’s more satisfying than any gimmick, high-paced, try-to-run-125 plays, don’t-let-them-sub-in-their-personnel-groups thing. To me, it’s more satisfying.
MILNE: We ran the football. We dominated people. We beat ’em up. And by the third quarter, they wanted to quit.
ENGRAM: We were averaging 45 in the early 90s, in a pro-style offense. That was a plethora of weapons, in an era where you didn’t see a lot of that. It’s driven now by matchups; they’re getting the plays off so fast, they’re not allowing the defenses to get set and make substitutions. If we did that? That’s a cool thought. We might’ve averaged 65.
PITTS: To look back and know you were part of one of the best teams in college football history, and furthermore, one of if not the best offense… If Joe had been one of those coaches, who even knows what the stats for that offense could’ve been.
HARTINGS: I think it’s a great debate, great for college football. I love having that conversation: What’s the best team in the history of college football, or the Big Ten? After the Seahawks won the Super Bowl, I heard one of their guys say, “It’s just great to be in the conversation as one of the great defenses.” I would say for us, to be in the conversation of one of the best teams in Penn State history, one of the best offenses in college football history, that’s enough.
GANTER: I had a picture in my office, a wide-angle shot, and I kept it on the wall straight across from my desk. It was a sprint draw pass we probably ran 100 times: You see every interior lineman, Kerry getting ready to fake a handoff to Ki-Jana, Witman is the fullback, and there’s Kyle Brady running down the field, Bobby Engram’s on there somewhere, Freddie Scott, all these great players… I probably looked at that picture 15 times a day, to remind myself how lucky I was to be around those guys.
RIVERA: Truly, in my heart, I believe if Coach would’ve just cut us loose, we could’ve put 50 points on the board every game. We would have another Heisman trophy winner at Penn State, and we would have another national championship at Penn State.
CARTER: The individual accolades come when you win. My first thing was winning. I was always team first. Now, you kind of reflect, maybe after the season, going through all the different award ceremonies, “Well, Rashaan Salaam had 100 more yards than me, I wonder, what if I would’ve played a little more than I had.” But it just feels good that I was able to be as successful as I was and the team went undefeated.
COLLINS: I probably cost Ki-Jana the Heisman. But we never once had a conversation about it. We were both just happy with the success our team was having.
SCIOLI: It was great to watch. I ended up playing on a pro team in Indianapolis that was very similar to that: Great quarterback, running backs, receivers, and line—it was built on your offense, and the defense was so-so, but would come up with plays when it needed to. Offensively, we were a juggernaut.
FORBES: My rookie year with the Bears, we couldn’t figure out how to win. I used to joke with the guys, “My team from last could beat us.”
GANTER: Offensively, it’s unmatched.
Chapter 19: Joe
Unbeaten and untied, the 1994 Nittany Lions were the fifth and final team of Joe Paterno’s tenure to post a perfect season. As the men who coached and played for him know better than anyone, that sustained success was no accident.
CIRBUS: With Joe, it was about consistency and knowing what you’re gonna get. I don’t know if there was any different approach that year philosophically than there was any other year. He was able to adapt so well to the different nuances of each team. In my 11 years there, we played for three national championships, and what I remember strongly about those years, when we started winning, it was very, very tough to lose, because Joe knew how to pull the levers. We were never a team to get caught by surprise. We were always well prepared.
SCIOLI: As much talent as we had, all the superstars, they never let the players think that way. It’s easy to do that, especially today—any good player is treated like a superstar. But the coaches at Penn State didn’t allow that to happen.
ATKINS: That was the way Joe coached all the time. He gave you the recognition, but he wouldn’t let you get too full of yourself. He always found a way to bring you back down to earth.
MILNE: Joe always said, “You’re never that good that you can take a play off.” That really resonated.
ENGRAM: He was always hard. He just drove us. I don’t remember it any different that year. It was just challenging us to be tough, physically and mentally. He always talked about a donnybrook. He wanted guys who would fight.
MILNE: There was an old Penn State promo video that I clicked on the other day, it was Joe’s voice: “You’re not tired, you can’t be tired.” It brought me to tears. There was no “tired” to coach. We’re not soldiers, but we went into battle every Saturday. That kind of mindset makes champions.
HARTINGS: His leadership goes without saying. Nobody stays in one place and wins for that long unless you’re one of the best coaches of all time.
PITTMAN: Not only did we go undefeated on the field, but you had a lot of guys who arrived there as young kids, who graduated as men on that team. We had a couple of academic All-Americans on that team. It was everything Joe wanted to see.
PITTS: I’ve talked to guys I know from other programs, and they talk about how when they get together, a lot of the guys aren’t doing well, don’t have jobs. I expect that when I see my former teammates, they’re all doing well. I’ve been a season ticket holder for years, I’m up there every game, and I see all the guys when I come up. Everybody’s doing pretty well. That’s a testament to Joe’s program.
Chapter 20: Memories
Twenty years. For the players on that ’94 team, not to mention those of us who were in the stands, it’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years. The moments—Bobby Engram splitting the coverage to corral a perfect pass and lean into the Michigan end zone; a sideline full of players holding hands, willing their offense down the field in the Champaign twilight; Carter in fulls stride as a flock of Ducks gave futile chase on a perfect day in Pasadena—are as clear as ever. And time has done nothing to dim the sheer quality of that team.
GREELEY: Sometimes I’m looking at old stats, or I find a clip on YouTube—my 5-year-old son found one, “Penn State-Illinois, The Drive.” “Daddy, is that you playing?” You look at the talent on that team, and it’s just like, “Holy cow man.” Sometimes it takes a few years to put that together. I think that was just the perfect storm.
ATKINS: The talent on that team was unbelievable.
FORBES: The ’94 team was everybody making plays.
PITTMAN: I feel like that team goes down as one of the best ever. People still look back and say, “Wow, that was a crazy team.” That was just a team for the ages.
CARTER: If you look at what that team did, I think we’re one of the greatest to ever play. That year was just so special, going from that first meeting in August to the culmination of winning the Rose Bowl. It was just a very blessed year.
BRADLEY: If you ask me which is the best team? I couldn’t tell you. But it was a great thrill and a great honor to be a small part of it, being with those guys.
GREELEY: We did it with probably the most dominant offense ever. And had a heck of a lot of fun doing it.
As much as the talent, that’s what stands out: A team full of characters, young men who worked their tails off, savored every moment, and defined the very idea of a team.
RIVERA: I feel like the stars just lined up for Penn State. We had great talent. Everybody came in with own story, own background, but it worked. You could have all the great athletes you want, but if you don’t have the dedication and hard work and attitude, you’re not going to be successful.
BRADY: There was a chemistry there. Everyone clicked.
CONWAY: I think that team, more than any other team I’ve ever been involved with, had the best camaraderie. It was a perfect storm of guys coming together for the greater good. I really mean that. I’ve been fortunate to be on a lot of good teams. That year, there was no selfishness. Everybody was focused on the goal.
GANTER: It was a remarkable group. Good character. We never had problems with those guys.
KILLENS: We had great leadership, a nice mix of upperclassmen. It was a fun group. We all lived together in the same area in Nittany Apartments. Everybody had an open-door policy, everybody was in and out of each other’s apartments, everybody’s families hung out after games. That was one of the most fun parts of that season.
STEWART: Fun? Forget about it. The locker room was like a standup comedy show—it was full of funny people. It was a huge family of crazy brothers, busting each other’s chops and having fun. You’d look at the sidelines, everybody would be laughing.
MILNE: Everybody hung around with everybody. It was business, but when business is good, you get that much closer.
BRADLEY: There were just a lot of good people on the team. And the thing that really stood out to me: Nobody really cared who got the credit.
ARCHIE: That team had no I. It was just we. I do a lot of coaching in youth football, and I talk about certain teams. I played on some special teams in high school, I was a part of a Super Bowl team with the Titans. But the team that I talk the most about is this one. And it’s only because of the relationships that were formed as teammates.
NOBLE: You kind of take it for granted at the time: Winning is special, and it’s very hard to do. In the NFL, I was in the playoffs one time, and then I was on bunch of 5-11 teams. So you realize how special it is.
FORBES: I didn’t know it at the time, but I was really spoiled from a football perspective.
COLLINS: I had success at times in the NFL, and it was great, but you can’t compare it to that season. It was a great group of guys, great story lines, and it came together for us. It wasn’t all easy, either. We hung together through some adversity. It was really just a special bunch of guys, a special season, at a special place.
RIVERA: We loved each other. To this day, that team is still close.
CONWAY: When we see each other, it’s just like 20 years ago—the same jokes. It’s like we never left the locker room.
STEWART: If I call any of them now, it’s like we just saw each other yesterday.
BRADY: You never know what the next year’s going to bring. And at some point, there’s this realization that this is one of those moments in life. This is something special.
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