Legendary Perspective

Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Ham has served as the team’s radio analyst since 2000. Players seek him out for advice on football and life, and head coach James Franklin shares a weekly tradition with Ham, when the two will talk for about a half hour before practice. Along with Dan Connor, the program’s all-time leading tackler who is now a defensive analyst for Penn State, Ham provides first-hand insight to the current team as a letterman. Photo credit: Steve Manuel

Spend time around the Penn State football program — even a few minutes — and you’ll run into legendary Nittany Lions. When they played is almost beside the point. Who they played for is what counts.

For example: Dan Connor and Jack Ham.

Connor, a linebacker and the program’s all-time leading tackler, returned in an official capacity earlier this year, as a defensive analyst and analytics coordinator. This was following an NFL career that spanned six seasons and three teams, with Connor having been selected in the third round by the Carolina Panthers.

At Penn State (2004-07), Connor was a force, twice earning status as a First-Team All-American (2006, 2007) and winning the Bednarik Award as the nation’s best defensive player (2007). Why didn’t he also win in 2006, you may be wondering? Teammate Paul Posluszny claimed the honor.

Connor got into coaching immediately after playing, serving posts at West Chester University, Archbishop John Carroll High School, and Widener University — all located in Pennsylvania — in the time leading up to his current role.

Head coach James Franklin heard that Connor would be interested in coming back to Penn State if an opportunity was available, and in February 2022, Connor — who totaled 419 tackles as a Nittany Lion — re-joined the program where he’s still (rightly) held in high regard.

“That guy’s a Hall of Famer, I’m going to ask him as many questions as I can,” said sophomore linebacker Curtis Jacobs, who’s tied for third this season on the team with 17 tackles, adding a pass breakup and a fumble recovery. “I want to pick his brain as much as I can, because obviously that’s an all-time great, and you don’t get a chance to talk to many all-time greats when you’re playing this game.

“So obviously, every time I have a question, just having him in the room has been really important, because even if he wasn’t a defensive analyst, I’d be bothering him with questions when he came back. You should ask Jack Ham how many questions I ask him when he comes on campus. It’s just great to have a guy like that in the room. Obviously a great dude outside of his legacy, very humble guy, and it’s just been great having him.”

That shoutout to Ham shows that Jacobs understands the legacy he’s now part of. Teammate and fellow linebacker Tyler Elsdon similarly will seek out Ham when he’s around.

“It’s awesome to have someone (Ham) like that at Penn State, and every time I see him, I really do try to talk football with him. I even talk about life with him, too. He’s a great person, and he does have a lot of insight.

“He played at a different time, but football at the end of the day, it’s about tackling and blocking. The team that tackles best and blocks best usually wins. He has a lot of great insight and he’s built relationships with a lot of linebackers on the team, and I think he’s been huge. I look forward to seeing him, and I look forward to talking with him.”

The team has a tradition of regularly sharing inspirational and motivational quotes. It’ll be written on the board in a meeting room, with the quote attributed to the person, usually well-known or even famous. Franklin said sometimes players of this current generation won’t always know who the person is, though he said they’ve talked about Ham and his time at Penn State and in the NFL.

Ham is one of only two Nittany Lions who’ve been inducted into both the College Football Hall of Fame and NFL Hall of Fame — lineman Dave Robinson, who played at Penn State in the early 1960s, is also in that illustrious category — and Ham’s stayed connected over the years as the team’s radio analyst, serving alongside play-by-play announcer Steve Jones since 2000. And when walk-on redshirt senior Drew Hartlaub was awarded a scholarship last year, Ham made the announcement in the locker room, in an inspiring scene that the team shared on its Twitter page.

Franklin and Ham have a weekly tradition, when the Hall of Fame linebacker will stop by on Thursday and ask Franklin questions during a 30-minute walk before practice. Franklin joked that Ham took all of his material recently, when the broadcaster took all the answers from the coach and shared them last week on The Penn State Coaches Show right before Franklin followed him on the weekly broadcast.

That level of banter and mutual respect is one example of how Franklin has bridged the gap between himself and guys who played for the Nittany Lions prior to his arrival in 2014. Hiring Connor, and several other lettermen, is another. At a tradition-rich program like Penn State, making those connections is critical. And Franklin’s done that.

“He’s been great, as you can imagine,” Franklin said in describing Ham’s impact. “Both (him) and Steve Jones, they do a phenomenal job for us just all the time.”

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From The Archives Penn State V. Ohio (1969)

All-time great linebacker Jack Ham (33) was a standout player for the 1969 Penn State Football team / Photo Credit: The Daily Collegian

The 1969 Penn State Football season will go down as one of the best in Penn State history, regardless of the controversy that surrounded its culmination.

The Nittany Lions finished 11-0, marking the second-consecutive unbeaten and untied season for Joe Paterno’s program.

Penn State was led by captains Tom Jackson, Mike Reid and Steve Smear, alongside standout linebacker Jack Ham and a trio of excellent rushing threats in Charlie Pittman, Franco Harris and Lydell Mitchell.

One of those 11 wins came against the Ohio Bobcats, with the Nittany Lions pummeling their MAC opponent, 42-3 in front of a sold-out crowd of 49,069 at Beaver Stadium on Oct. 25.

There were also wins over Navy, Colorado, Kansas State, West Virginia, Syracuse, Boston College, Maryland, Pitt and NC State.

Somehow, that undefeated mark and a 10-3 Orange Bowl win over No. 6 Missouri were not enough for Penn State to even be considered for a national championship in the eyes of then U.S. President Richard Nixon.

The president had remarked ahead of the Dec. 6 matchup between Texas and Arkansas — for which he would be in attendance — that he would award the winner of the game with a special plaque and the designation of national champions. The Longhorns would win the contest, 15-14, thus earning that designation from Nixon.

In line with the president’s proclamation, college football’s voting pool at the time named Texas the unanimous national champs less than a month later after the Longhorns defeated Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl Classic.

While Penn State was named co-national champions by the Foundation for the Analysis of Competitions and Tournaments (FACT) and the Sagarin Ratings, it’s hard to feel like the Nittany Lions were unjustly wiggled out of the consensus national title race.

Paterno later famously at Penn State’s 1973 commencement ceremony that “I’ve wondered how President Nixon could know so little about Watergate in 1973 and so much about college football in 1969.”

You can watch more on this unique event in college football history through the 2014 ESPN Documentary: “Nixon’s National Champs,” which took a closer look at Nixon’s decision to award Texas the national champion honor. The documentary can be found on WatchESPN.

Best in the Booth

Photo by Steve Manuel

Photo by Steve Manuel

Good friends and consummate pros, Steve Jones and Jack Ham bring insight, history, and a commitment to excellence to their roles as the voices of Penn State football. By John Patishnock ’05

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Walk through an open gate on the west side of Beaver Stadium, stroll under a canopy, and step into a nearby service elevator. Push the button for the second floor, exit and take a dozen or so steps to the left. Arrive at door No. 210, marked “Penn State Sports Network.”

If you want to reach the broadcast booth that Steve Jones ’80 and Jack Ham ’71 have occupied together since 2000, this is the route you take. Continue reading