PENN STATE FOOTBALL MEDIA DAY: CATCHING UP WITH ASSOCIATE HEAD COACH AND LETTERMAN TERRY SMITH ’91

Letterman Terry Smith ’91 is one of several former Nittany Lion players on James Franklin’s staff for the 2021 season.
Image Credit: Penn State Athletics/Mark Selders

As Penn State gears up for another season, where stars like Jahan Dotson and Jaquan Brisker will look to cement their legacies in Penn State history, there is also plenty of that history on the Nittany Lions’ coaching staff in the form of former lettermen.

Players who spent their college careers suiting up for the blue and white, running out of the same tunnel Dotson, Brisker, and the rest of the 2021 team will go through in a few weeks for the home opener against Ball State. 

James Franklin has built a staff from his connections from all over the college football world, but he’s also recognized the importance of Penn Staters who have a deep connection to the program from their time as players. 

Former lettermen on Franklin’s staff include Terry Smith (associate head coach/cornerbacks coach), Ty Howle (tight ends coach), Deion Barnes (graduate assistant), Wendy Laurent (assistant offensive line coach) and Alan Zemaitis (assistant recruiting coordinator). 

Going into his eighth season as a member of the coaching staff, Smith was of course a standout receiver for the Nittany Lions from 1988-91.  

I caught up with Terry at the team’s Media Day on Saturday to talk about the importance of having Penn State lettermen as a part of the staff, what he learned going through the COVID-altered 2020 season, and more. 

As always, thanks to Terry for taking the time to chat. 

What did you learn about yourself as a coach going through such an altered season last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic? 

TS: “You just had to learn to do things a different way, to teach a different way. Whether that was Zoom or just teaching at a distance like we’re talking right now. It really helped me realize that you don’t have to do things a certain way just because that’s the way you’ve done them your whole life. I think that helped our program change some things and do some things a different way. That’s going to help us advance in the future.”

Does the team’s process of preparation have to change at all knowing your opening up the season against a Big Ten opponent? 

TS: “No, our process is the same. Each week we’re trying to go 1-0. That opponent who is first, they’re the most important part of our focus. Training camp right now is to make sure we have a foundation set for the season. Whether it’s Wisconsin or someone else, all our focus is going on 1-0 to start things off.” 

How would you assess the cornerbacks group that you’re working with this season? 

TS: “I feel really good about the whole back end of the defensive backfield. With the corners, I feel like I have a lot of depth. There’s six guys that have played a lot of college football, including Johnny Dixon, who played at South Carolina. I’m excited for the competition this camp and we’ll let the field sort through all of that. Especially excited for Tariq Castro-Fields, who’s played a ton of football here and has been successful. Joey Porter had a breakout year last year. Daequan Hardy is our returning starter at the star spot. There’s a lot of guys competing to get back on that playing field. No job is given. They all have to earn it.” 

Image Credit: Penn State Athletics/Mark Selders

How important is it to have guys like yourself, Deion Barnes and Ty Howle on staff, who have been a part of this program as players and might understand what it means to play here just a little bit more? 

TS: “It’s essential. We’re former Penn State lettermen. Who knows this program better than us? We played on this field at Beaver Stadium. We walked those same paths in the hallway and the locker room. We can tell players what Penn State can offer from personal experiences. I like to give my testimony: my dad went here and is a ’68 grad, I’m a ’91 grad, my son was an ’07 grad, my daughter Haley is here in the WorkLink program, my nephew (sophomore running back) Tank Smith is on the team. Penn State is a great place and my family is a testimony of how great Penn State is. When you come to Penn State, it’s a 40-year decision, not just a four-year decision.”

You mentioned Tank, what’s it like to have him a part of the team and getting to be around him as he gets his own experience within Penn State?

TS: “My nephew, he’s doing a great job over there (on offense). He knows his role on this team and understands it really well. He’s a major contributor for us. I’m happy for him and happy he’s here.”

Welcoming the newest Nittany Lions

The Penn State Alumni Association was the presenting sponsor for the football team’s Signing Day ceremony this week. The team’s three-hour live stream featured messages from notable alumni and an interview with CEO Paul Clifford, welcoming the signees to the Penn State family. (Image by Penn State Athletics)

Have you ever wanted to help Penn State in recruiting?

We’re guessing the answer is yes, and in many ways, alumni and fans have been doing that for years. Every time you attend a game, every time you rep Penn State gear or clothing, every time you shout “We Are” to a fellow Nittany Lion — whether in State College or across the country or someplace across the globe — you’re having an impact.

And people within the football program notice. People, for example, like Andy Frank. He’s the director of player personnel for Penn State football, which is to say he’s at the forefront of the team’s recruiting efforts, which have geographically expanded significantly since James Franklin and his staff arrived in Happy Valley.

This week’s Signing Day ceremony is a really good example of the power of the Penn State alumni network, which the team has always leveraged. Now, those efforts are increasing.

This year, the Penn State Alumni Association was the presenting sponsor for the football team’s National Signing Day, with a three-plus hour live stream celebrating the signees Wednesday morning. The live stream features an interview with Alumni Association CEO Paul Clifford (1:37:20 mark) and a pre-recorded video from Alumni Association President Randy Houston (2:00:00 mark).

Additionally, notable alumni such as Keegan-Michael Key, Lara Spencer, John Colaneri, and Ken Frazier. It was a coordinated effort to emphasize that each signees’ decision to attend Penn State doesn’t end when they graduate. That connection lasts forever, and the Alumni Association’s role as a conduit motivated the meaning behind the partnership.

Penn State cornerbacks coach and defensive recruiting coordinator Terry Smith knows all about the alumni network. Smith starred as a wideout with the Nittany Lions from 1988-91, and is in his seventh season on the Nittany Lions’ coaching staff. Smith joined The Football Letter Live program this week to discuss the impact of alumni support in recruiting. (Photo by Penn State Athletics)

“It’s really special to see how much people care about this place and what that means for people down the road, the connections, the job opportunities, just that fraternity of Penn State, and the parents gravitate to that because they understand,” Frank told reporters Wednesday, hours after the signees officially became Nittany Lions. “As a high school kid, you don’t know what it’s going to be like to be 40, you don’t know what it’s like to be 30 and looking for a job, but your parents do because they went through that.”

Frank called the Penn State Alumni Association “the largest and most powerful in the world,” which plays a role not only as players graduate, but also when they choose Penn State in the first place. “Kids that usually pick a place like Penn State, they’re looking at more than just the football field,” Frank added.

Lettermen also figured prominently in Wednesday’s ceremony, with Nittany Lions-turned NFL standouts such as Allen Robinson, KJ Hamler, Adrian Amos, and Jason Cabinda welcoming the signees. That message hits home, literally. Both Robinson and Hamler starred for the same Detroit-area high school in Michigan. They welcomed twin brothers and Penn State signees Kobe and Kalen King, who both also excelled at linebacker and defensive back, respectively, for a different prep school in Detroit.

“That’s something that we sell a lot. We talk about our alumni base, the power of our alumni base, not only in numbers but in the power of the individual as well … I know it was really special for some of our Michigan guys to have Allen Robinson and to have KJ Hamler (welcome them),” Franklin said Wednesday. “There’s a lot of resources here, and you’ve got to be willing to take advantage of them. On a year, today, where these guys were missing out on so many of their normal traditional recruiting experiences, we’re trying to be creative and think outside the box and have some fun with it. I thought it went well. I was happy to see the parents’ faces light up and the signees’ faces light up as we went through the process and tried to make it as special as we possibly could, again, under unusual circumstances.”

Alumni support will become even more critical in the future, with Frank mentioning today that the NCAA’s ruling on name, image, and likeness will impact recruiting moving forward. In short, the NCAA decided in April of this year that student-athletes can earn compensation for their name, image, and likeness, previously prohibited. You can find more info on the NCAA’s website, with the changes expected to happen no later than the 2021-22 academic year.

In short: The more powerful the connections that exist at a school, with lettermen, fans, and alumni, the more attractive that school will be for the highest-ranked recruits in the country. In some ways, that’s always been true, though the ruling brings each University’s alumni network sharper into focus.

For the Nittany Lion football program, that’s a good thing, to state it mildly. Most, if not all, Penn Staters want to help, want to give back, want to feel what they’re doing has an impact.

Now, they just need to be ready.

“In terms of our ability to recruit kids, we’ve got a great setup here for it, but at the same time, we can’t rest on our laurels (and think) just because we have this huge network, it’s just going to automatically work for us,” Frank said. “We’re going to be calling on the alumni to help us throughout this process and help us recruit kids.”

To hear more about the football team’s Signing Day event, the newest class, and the impact of alumni support in recruiting, visit the Alumni Association’s Facebook page to see this week’s episode of The Football Letter Live, which features an interview with cornerbacks coach, defensive recruiting coordinator, and Penn State alumnus Terry Smith.

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.

From The Archives: Penn State V. Ohio State (2008)

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Lydell Sargeant (10) rushed to recover the fumble caused by Mark Rubin in the fourth quarter of the 2008 game at Ohio State. NaVorro Bowman recovered the ball, igniting the Nittany Lions to a 13-6 victory over the ninth-ranked Buckeyes. Photo credit: The Football Letter/Steve Manuel

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.”

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Anthony Scirrotto celebrated with fans after the third-ranked Nittany Lions seized the moment and claimed their first win at The Horseshoe since beginning Big Ten play. Photo credit: The Football Letter/Steve Manuel

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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For more on the The Football Letter, including online archives (requires Alumni Association member log-in), click here.

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All in the Family

Organized, enthusiastic, and relentlessly dedicated, the Penn State Football Parents Association provides quiet but invaluable support for the Nittany Lions—and for each other.

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The tradition started about a year ago, a few hours before last season’s game against Minnesota.

We’ll let Larry Buchholz tell the story:

“Before every game, my wife gives our son a hug before the team goes into the stadium. So we’re there by the south entrance, and there’s Coach Franklin. Usually he’ll high-five a few people and shake hands with recruits, and we happened to be standing right there. So I just reached out with open arms and said, ‘Hey, Coach,’ and we gave each other a big hug and a kiss.”

If you remember how things turned out, you’ll understand why Buchholz’s pregame smooch and embrace became a weekly necessity. Continue reading

Letter Perfect

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The quality of the photo—shot on an iPhone in a dimly lit hotel conference room—doesn’t do justice to the quality of the moment.

The moment came Thursday night in Pittsburgh, on the final stop of the first full week of the Penn State Coaches Caravan. Continue reading