Some memories, you never forget. Just ask Lydell Sargeant.
The Penn State letterman and former defensive back for the Nittany Lions provided one of the defining moments for the Nittany Lions during their 2008 Rose Bowl season, when they won the Big Ten championship for the third time.
In the waning moments of the team’s slugfest against Ohio State, he “outleaped Brian Hartline for an interception in the end zone on Ohio State’s final play,” as John Black ’62 wrote in The Football Letter.
Asked about what continues to stand out to him about that game and if he still recalls specific details, he laughed, just slightly, in a way that suggest he’ll remember them forever.
“Oh, my goodness. I still remember plays from 14 years ago,” Sargeant said, referencing his freshman season at Penn State.
He then summarized the last drive, beginning with, “I can tell you every last thing that happened.”
Sargeant remembered Bowman tipping a pass as the Buckeyes were driving with less than a minute left: “NaVorro made a really good play up the middle. I think if he didn’t tip the pass, it would have drastically changed that drive.”
Then, Sargeant’s versatility shined through. Typically a cornerback, Sargeant would switch to safety when Penn State played nickel in the secondary. As he saw Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor’s pass sail toward the end zone, he saw he had an opportunity to catch the ball instead of knocking it down. The former was more attractive, since Sargeant didn’t want to let the receiver get in front of him.
The approach worked, as Sargeant hauled in Pryor’s lofty pass right at the goal-line to secure Penn State’s 13-6 victory.
“One thing Coach Paterno always said was, ‘Do you want your name in the paper? When it’s time to make big plays, make them,’” said Sargeant, who also broke up a pass earlier in the fourth quarter, thwarting a potential 30-yard gain for the Buckeyes to midfield.
Sargeant added: “To me, The Horseshoe is the next best thing to Beaver Stadium, with regard to their fan passion and how loud they get.”
Ohio Stadium was certainly loud for the Nittany Lions’ visit in the 2008 season, when Penn State (No. 3) and Ohio State (No. 9) met in a battle of Top-10 teams.
It was the first victory for Penn State in The Horseshoe since beginning Big Ten play, and the Nittany Lions shut down Pryor, explosive Buckeye running back Beanie Wells, and their offensive teammates. Ohio State scored 30-plus points in six other games that season, and 40-plus on four occasions.
“We had a rock star defense,” Sargeant said, pointing out teammates and future NFL stars such as NaVorro Bowman, Jared Odrick, Aaron Maybin, and others.
Sargeant was perhaps always destined to attend Penn State, though he had something of a circuitous route to Happy Valley. He grew up in Pittsburgh, and then moved to California in 10th grade, a result of his father serving in the military.
He returned to Pittsburgh the next few summers for a month or so, working out with childhood friend (and future teammate) Justin King, along with current Penn State cornerbacks coach Terry Smith, who was coaching Gateway High School at the time.
There’s a lot of connectivity with that trio. Smith is King’s stepfather, with Sargeant and King serving as ball boys for Smith going back to his days at Duquesne University in the late 1990s. Sargeant originally committed to Stanford (Oregon was his other top choice, along with Penn State), before transferring.
As Sargeant tells it, he and King looked at each other and said, “Hey, do you want to play together?”
The incoming recruiting class helped elevate Penn State out of one of the few down periods in Joe Paterno’s coaching career, with Sargeant saying that guys like Derrick Williams and Sean Lee, who played AAU basketball with Sargeant, also played important roles in the process.
After graduating, Sargeant signed with the Buffalo Bills as an undrafted free agent, though retired from the NFL a few years later because of an injury. Then, he returned to Penn State for an internship that was facilitated by longtime offensive coordinator Fran Ganter, who transitioned into an administrative role after coaching.
Ganter mentored Sargeant, as the former defensive back learned what he was most passionate about in athletic administration. Sargeant earned his master’s in sports management studies from California University of Pennsylvania, then worked at Utah Valley University and Marquette University in development roles.
Currently, Sargeant serves as an assistant athletic director at UCLA, one of the most accomplished and impressive athletic departments in the country. UCLA is second overall in all-time national titles, with 118.
Even though he’s on the other side of the country, Sargeant returns to Happy Valley twice a year, for the Blue-White game and Homecoming. Additionally, he sits on the board of the Football Letterman’s Club and still is tight with King and Smith. He talks every day with King, who earlier this year accepted the position of manager of football operations for the startup XFL after previously working with Penn State football as a recruiting coordinator.
And Smith is as connected as ever to the program as cornerbacks coach after playing as a wideout for Joe Paterno in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
Sargeant speaks passionately about his days at Penn State, and asked some questions of his own out of curiosity for how things are going back at his alma mater. Like Smith and King, he has an affinity for Penn State that’ll likely last a lifetime.
He cares, and he has a recognition for the importance that Penn State has played in his life, both during his playing days and now as he helps to oversee one of the most prestigious athletic departments in the country.
“I say all the time: nothing about what Coach Paterno taught was about football,” Sargeant said. “It’s fascinating, because he’s the most winningest coach in college football, and everything he emphasized were things outside of the game.
“As you get older, you start to realize he’s basically giving you the code to society. That shapes you, and you start to understand how successful Penn State guys are and how they’re able to navigate the professional world. There’s less of a deer-in-the-headlights look when you no longer have football. Coach Paterno was a huge factor in preparing us for life beyond football.”
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