Thursday, April 29, 2010

Great defensive players: Greg Buttle

Joe Paterno has defined Old School football for so long that no one can remember when he was just School. Through the first ten years of his head coaching tenure in State College his Nittany Lions enjoyed the nation’s best overall record. Better than Woody Hayes’ Buckeyes, or Bob Devaney and Tom Osborne’s ‘Huskers. Better even than The Bear’s Crimson Tide. Because no one could ever argue with Paterno’s result they never criticized his methods either. The no-name, plain-uniform program still has a behind-the-times feel today, even in the almost universally stodgy Big Ten. But Paterno wasn’t any more up-with-the-times in 1975 — except that he won, and winning is cool.

Penn State did not have an athletic dorm. Paterno always worked hard first and foremost with all his recruits to sell the school and the collegiate experience. He told one Sport’s Illustrated reporter that he considered a home visit by a football coach to be “just about the worst” reason to select which university to attend. When young men visited campus Paterno often sent them out to wander around campus alone, and always insisted on academic meetings with faculty members in their prospective departments. Paterno wanted boys to want to attend Penn State, but not in the way that most football coaches want boys to attend their school. Joe Pa cared, and still does care, that his players truly sucked the marrow out of college life. For that reason he was outspokenly opposed to the NCAA’s 1972 decision to repeal its prohibition on freshman eligibility. Paterno’s view of the injustice of that move sounded out-dated and wildly idealistic even then, having more the ring of English professor than head coach about it:

“There's so much besides football. Athletes who come to Penn State shouldn't be tied down to a football program. These should be the four greatest years of their lives. I tell them, 'Enjoy yourselves.' I consider football an extracurricular activity, like debating or the band. It should never be removed from that context. More than 90% of our players graduate on schedule.”

Still enjoying it...

That was always Paterno’s way. Somehow his Nittany Lions won ball games without cheating, cutting class, or showboating. The “noble experiment” Joe Pa began in 1966 worked — spectacularly. And it worked not only because Paterno believed everything he said about fun, the college life, learning, attitude, and a host of other subjects, but also because he loved winning football games as much as any peer. Whatever he told reporters.

The archetypal Penn State football player would be workmanlike, diligent, unassuming, intelligent, well rounded, and quietly effective on the field. And he would surely be a linebacker. Call him Greg Buttle.

If Joe Pa’s offenses opened few eyes and his philosophy on college life seemed almost medieval, his defenses made up for it by setting plenty of trends. Penn State was one of the first college programs to run a 3-4 base defense and the four-man linebacker corps at the unit’s center was characterized by remarkable lateral mobility. Big enough to come up and crush the healthiest of running games, smart enough to read offenses on the fly, and fast enough to drop into coverage in an instant; Penn State’s linebackers seemed to simply emerge in an unbroken line of succession from a single mold. Unsurprisingly for a man who sixty years after his graduation is still tied for the all-time interception record at his alma mater, Brown, Paterno has always had an eye for defensive talent. And character. Penn State coaches didn’t just retool their linebacker unit year after year with the previous fall’s most highly touted prep all-American. They frequently converted players from other positions. They also insisted that recruits pass the attitude test. Current players reported back to coaches on recruits after visits and scholarships were often withheld solely on the strength on a player’s opinion that a prospective recruit would not fit the program.

That screening process produced five consensus all-America selections for Penn State linebackers through Paterno’s first ten seasons: Dennis Onkotz twice in 1968 and ‘69, Jack Ham [a High School Offensive Guard] in 1970, John Skorupan [a former receiver] in 1972, and Greg Buttle [another former receiver] in 1975. Some of Paterno’s great ‘backers were bigger than average, some smaller. Some had played the position before, some hadn’t. That didn’t really matter. Joe Pa himself seems a misfit. An Ivy League literature student who has consistently refused pay raises in an era of ever-escalating coaching salary arms races and used no small amount of the money he has earned to partly fund the school’s library [which appropriately bears his name.]

In a profession dominated by maniacal type-A personalities Paterno is a relative renaissance man. It is quite fitting therefore that the defenses that carried his teams should have been built around young men like Greg Buttle. In addition to his outstanding football prowess Buttle was also an active Barber Shop Quartet singer and a sufficiently successful ocean rower to eventually earn enshrinement in that pastime’s Hall of Fame. For all his accomplishment, Buttle remained the consummate Penn State man and never developed an inflated ego. Paterno used to encourage his players to call him “Joe.” Like most of them, Buttle couldn’t bring himself to do so. He continued to bashfully call the living legend “Coach Paterno.” Joe Pa jokingly responded by routinely addressing his all-America linebacker as “Player Buttle.” Shortly before entering the NFL as a third round draft pick by the Jets in April 1976 Buttle joked to a reporter that he had been overwhelmed by his head coach as a young player.

“In my freshman year I never talked to him. I saw him in his shorts one day. I thought, Joe Paterno in shorts. It was like seeing a god in shorts.”

That was typical Penn State — humble, appreciative, respectful. But on the field Buttle had a legacy to maintain and showed his opponents respect only by never giving them a play off. One down at a time through his four-year career Buttle hunted down ball carries and punished them. His 165 tackles as a junior on a team that finished ranked 7th at 10-2 remain the school’s single-season record; as does his single-game high tally of 24 vs. West Virginia on October 26th 1974. His career tackle total of 343 stood as the school’s all-time record for three decades until Paul Posluszny surpassed the figure, reaching 372 in 2006 [after playing slightly more games.]

The 1974 West Virginia game typifies the spirit of Joe Pa’s greatest defenses. Standing at 2-3 Bobby Bowden’s Mountaineers were not the greatest team the Nittany Lions faced all year, but Morgantown is never an easy road trip and Penn State was never in the habit of giving opponents an easy ride whatever their record. In a hard-fought contest Paterno’s team eventually came out on top, 21-12. Three PSU linebackers kept West Virginia quite by racking up an incredible sixty-five combined tackles. In addition to Buttle’s record twenty-four, Buddy Tesner notched twenty-one while pinch-hitting backup Jim Rosecrans added twenty. It is an outstanding achievement that Buttle reached 343 career tackles on a unit in which he constantly shared stats with fellow all-conference selections and second-string youngsters capable of making twenty tackles in a game. Little wonder that he went on to a successful nine year pro career with the New York Jets. Or that the once over-awed student of Penn State’s own renaissance-man-come-football-coach should invest his time and energy after his pro career as a national spokesman for United Way.

It is utterly impossible to single out any great Penn State linebacker from the host of others. Unassuming, hard-nosed defenders made twenty tackles-a-game before Buttle in State College, and plenty have done it since. Any one of Penn State’s all-America linebackers could stand for all of the others; which I suppose is exactly why Paterno has produced so many.

One line in the PSU fight song goes: “We’ll hit that line, roll up the score…” Neither during Joe Pa’s first decade or in the nearly three full decades since has Penn State been known for rolling up scores. But Nittany Lions of the Buttle mold have hit the line down after down like no one else.

Linebacker U: search and destroy

(Sources: Keith Mano, SI; Wiki; Larry Keith, SI; ESPN Big 10 Encyclopedia; USA Today CFB Encyclopedia)

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Great defensive players: Ricky Hunley

When Larry Smith, a Bo Schembechler disciple, took over as head football coach at the University of Arizona in 1980 he inherited a program that had earned only two shared conference titles since WWII (both in the WAC), had never won a bowl game, and had finished in the AP poll only twice. Smith was not a high-profile candidate. Through the first three of his four seasons at Tulane he had won only seven games. But then, Arizona was not a high profile job. Preparing for its third season in the newly expanded Pac-10 Conference Arizona had been invited for its size, geographical location, and perhaps its basketball program. Smith’s mandate was for solid, steady progress. He approached that mandate with a passion for the game, wearing his heart very much on his sleeve. He became emotionally invested in the University, eventually retiring in Tucson even after several subsequent head coaching stints elsewhere. Smith also invested in his players.

After his death in 2008 former Arizona linebacker Lamonte Hunley told the USA Today that Smith was extremely careful to listen to parents on recruiting visits. He spent time discussing the family’s goal for their child and whether Arizona was a good fit for those goals. He also promised to make football in Tucson fun; a promise Hunley believed he invariably kept. That approach allowed Smith to recruit a slightly better class of talent than previous ‘Zona coaches had managed. And with that talent he fulfilled his mandate for steady progress, improving his team’s record in each of his seven seasons. The Wildcats progressed from 5-6 in 1980 to 9-3 and the school’s first ever bowl win in 1986.

Smith worked hard recruiting players from across the West and nationally. Most were a modest upgrade for the program. Some were genuine first-class athletes such as slot back/punt returner Vance Johnson who was NCAA Long Jump champion in 1982. But in seven seasons of impressive progress Smith produced only one true great and consensus all-American — Lamonte Hunley’s older brother Ricky.

Ricky was no surprise as a collegiate star. His multi-sport performances as a Prep athlete in his hometown of Petersburg, Va. earned him attention from baseball scouts and he was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates. But as Hunley grew bigger and stronger it became increasingly clear that his best chance for a successful athletic future lay with football. At the time Virginia’s state schools were hardly successful football powers. Playing outside of the home turf of college football’s great programs Hunley did not garner quite the attention he might have received growing up elsewhere. This allowed Smith to pull off his greatest coup as Arizona head coach and bring Ricky to Tucson.

Hunley lettered four years as a bruising Inside Linebacker in Arizona’s 3-4 base defense. He entrenched himself permanently in the starting lineup only part way into his freshman season with a fourteen tackle performance versus UCLA, four behind the line of scrimmage. Standing at 6’2” with a playing weight of around 230 lbs Hunley was not freakishly big or even outstandingly quick for a college athlete. But his natural athleticism, ability to read the game, and continual desire to learn enabled him to rise above other players with similar or greater physical gifts. By the end of his junior season Hunley had amassed 224 career solo tackles and 166 assists, becoming his school’s first ever all-American in 1982.

As a senior Hunley added ninety-nine more solo tackles, seventy-seven assists, ten tackles for loss, five interceptions, five forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, and repeated as a consensus all-America selection. Hunley terrorized opposition backfields and earned all-conference honors in each of the three years he started. After graduation Hunley was taken seventh overall in the 1984 NFL draft by the Cincinnati Bengals. When the young star’s agent presented a thirty-page proposal listing contract demands the organization felt were excessive a hold-out ensued. Eventually the Bengals traded Hunley to Denver for first and third round picks in the 1986 draft and a fifth round pick in 1987. Hunley’s starting deal of $1 million over four seasons, a $1.75 million signing bonus, and $60,000 of incentives caused enough of a splash to initially alienate several less well-paid Bronco veterans. But he eventually proved a sound investment, leading a solid defense that more-than supported John Elway’s offense en route to consecutive AFC championships in 1986-87. [Elway was certainly much happier watching Hunley from the sidelines as a Bronco than he had been running from him in Stanford’s backfield as a collegian.]

The Wildcat team he led as a senior started the season an unprecedented #14 in the AP poll and climbed to #3 after a 4-0 start — still the highest spot the school has ever reached. After reaching 5-0-1 three straight losses sent ‘Zona crashing out of the polls before two wins to finish the season salvaged some respect. Commentators believed the team failed to handle unfamiliar pressure at the business end of the polls. That was doubtless part of the 1983 Wildcats’ problem. But more importantly the position Smith’s team reached in week five was probably about as high as a team can reach with only one true all-American on the field. Defense is supremely important in football, though defensive stars are too easily forgotten. The fact is that an otherwise only modestly good team can achieve just about anything short of major championships with a 120 tackle-a-season linebacker like Ricky Hunley between the hash marks.

(Sources: USA Today, Larry Smith obituary; SI, 1983 Pac-10 preview; CFB Hall of Fame; USA Today CFB Encyclopedia; Bob Hill, Miami Sun-Sentinel;;

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Great defensive players: Charles Smith, George Webster, and Charlie Thornhill

On a chilly, hostile November afternoon in East Lansing at the end of the 1966 season Coley O’Brien walked toward the ball at his own thirty-yard line. With a minute remaining, a keenly anticipated meeting between unbeatens No.1 Notre Dame and No. 2 Michigan State was tied at 10-10. Offensive mistakes on both sides had given opportunities that imposing defenses had staved off, including a first quarter Spartan fumble on their own four-yard line that produced no points for the Irish. With sixty seconds to play and seventy yards to go the football gods had given Notre Dame one last chance, but Ara Parseghian decided controversially not to take it. The Spartan defense lined up expecting a deep ball. When O’Brien handed off for two consecutive short-yardage running plays without any apparent urgency reality dawned on the now disgusted Michigan State players. As a cacophony of boos rained down from the stands Spartan defenders added their own insults and taunts.

Senior Defensive End Charles “Bubba” Smith yelled: “Come on, sissies.”

Linebacker George Webster shouted across the line of scrimmage to the Irish players in their huddle: “You’re going for a tie aren’t you? Get of the field, you’ve given up!”

Parseghian calculated correctly that Notre Dame’s prestige and polling power would deliver a national championship despite the school’s policy of refusing bowl bids and a record blemished with a tie. Sports Illustrated writer Dan Jenkins led the charge of outraged journalists lobbying for pollsters to “punish” Notre Dame. Jenkins sarcastically wondered whether Parseghian had exhorted his players to “Tie one for the Gipper!” But appeals for AP voters to bestow the title upon Bear Bryant’s Alabama after the Tide dismantled Bob Devaney’s Cornhuskers in the Sugar Bowl fell on deaf eras. Notre Dame’s emotional grip on football pollsters could not be broken. That fateful game in Spartan Stadium on November 19th 1966 has been defined in football lore and memory ever since by Parseghian’s somewhat cynical and certainly ignoble calculation. The unbeaten Spartans somehow got lost in the story, playing only the role of unmemorable dancing partner to the real actors from South Bend.

The outcome of that game and its subsequent place in college football history is highly lamentable. November 19th 1966 would more rightly be remembered as the last game of two incredible seasons for the best ever Michigan State defense. Smith and Webster, two time all-Americans of outstanding pedigree, should have finished their careers in East Lansing as they had spent every preceding minute — hustling like the hounds of hell and running over helpless opponents in pursuit of victory. Instead, Parseghian’s conceit and the Big Ten’s nonsensical prohibition of repeat Rose Bowl performances forced the Spartan stand-outs to play end their years in the collegiate game on a low note of anger and frustration.

The 1965 and 1966 seasons remain the high watermark of Michigan State football history. Had the home fans known that November that more than forty years later they would still be awaiting a second performance as repeat Big Ten champion they would probably have rushed the field looking for blood. In fact the Spartans have only claimed a single outright Big Ten title and shared two more in the forty-four years since. The explanation for that all-too-brief high summer of success and the juxtaposing drought that has followed is surely the basic philosophy of the State’s head coach, and his laudable lack of racial prejudice.

Duffy Daugherty played his college ball at Syracuse without much distinction before serving in WWII. After the war Daugherty returned to Syracuse as an assistant to his former coach Clarence “Biggie Munn. Daugherty followed Munn to Michigan State in 1947 and was an integral part of a staff that coached the Spartans to successive unbeaten campaigns and national titles in 1951-52 and a shared conference title in State’s inaugural Big Ten campaign in 1953. Daugherty succeeded Munn as head coach the following year, but with the exception of a Rose Bowl victory and a second place AP finish in 1955 he largely failed to match Munn’s achievements until the mid-1960s.

Daugherty assumed a jocular persona, always having a quip on hand. Publicly he discussed his work as a coach in an almost flippant tongue-in-cheek manner. He brushed off the stresses of the job, such as the pressure to win, with whimsical cracks such as: “The alumni are always with you, win or tie.” But behind the revelry everyone knew that Daugherty took the game very seriously indeed. His ability not to take himself too seriously allowed him to see that victory did not depend upon some revolutionary system or stroke of genius he might contribute. Rather he frankly admitted:

“The reason you win is because you’ve got more good players than the next guy. Most football games aren’t won on the field. They’re won from December to September, when recruiting is done.”

If winning meant finding and fielding the best available players Daugherty didn’t care who they were or where they came from, as long as they wanted to play for Michigan State and would play hard. College football’s color barrier had been broken in the north and west long before Daugherty assembled his great teams of the mid-1960s. Ernie Davis won the Heisman playing for Daugherty’s alma mater four years before his first conference championship. But there still remained an unwritten rule at northern schools that coaches would only field a few black players. For whatever reason, coaches only played the very best black athletes on otherwise lilywhite teams. The 1966 Fighting Irish, for example, who eventually won the AP title over the an unbeaten Alabama team which eastern sportswriters unfairly associated with their state governor’s impetuous stand on the schoolhouse steps, fielded only one black player. Daugherty didn’t care if his entire team was black. His coaches scoured the south, finding young athletes barred from playing for schools in their own states and bringing them to East Lansing.

When the towering Charles Smith left Beaumont, Texas in 1962 aged eighteen he had never had what he would call a “real conversation” with any white person. He later joked that he never seen nor heard of Jews and was surprised to learn in Michigan that there were different types of white people. Regardless of any culture shock Smith felt the 6’7” 280 lb giant settled down to play probably the best defense of any player in Spartan history — he is still the highest drafted player ever from Michigan State. Smith moved his huge body with frightening speed, reaching opposing backfields with apparent ease. Coley O’Brien only saw the field for Notre Dame in that famous 1966 game because Irish starter Terry Hanratty suffered a separated shoulder early in the first quarter when Smith leveled him behind the line of scrimmage. Moving with speed and hitting with brute force Smith quickly established himself as both the anchor of State’s line and the spearhead of its pass-rush.

Behind Smith's defensive line Daugherty built a flexible unit based on speed that looked more like modern defenses designed to stuff the spread than its Big Ten peers. At the heart of the unit was hybrid Safety/Linebacker George Webster. The 6'4" 225 lb South Carolinian was as fast as any Big Ten receiver and strong enough to single-handedly lay out any running back. Webster played with an insatiable intensity. State's defensive captain Cornerback Don Japinga called Webster the greatest footballer he ever played with or against. Japinga said of Webster:

"He literally punished every ball carrier."

Directing the Spartan Linebacker core another southerner flew to the ball with enough ferocity to earn the moniker "mad dog". Charlie Thornhill of Roanoake, Alabama would never have even found East Lansing without the intervention of the very image of Dixie's football establishment, Bear Bryant. Thornhill scored over two-hundred points as a senior running back and became the first black athlete to earn player of the year accolades from Roanoake's Touchdown Club. Thornhill was surprised and thrilled to find Bryant at the awards reception and even more surprised when the living legend asked him where he planned to attend college. Thornhill had an offer from Notre Dame, but Bryant asked him to wait on committing until he made a phone call.

That call went to Duffy Daugherty. On Bryant's recommendation Michigan State offered Thornhill a scholarship. The Bear chaffed under the frustration of his state's system of racial segregation. No one ever accused Byrant of progressivism, but he like Daugherty didn't care about anything in his players but their attitude and ability. Ever the football-obsessed pragmatist Bryant simply wanted to win. He wanted the best athlete's and didn't care whether they were black, white, or green. He eventually led the SEC toward integration in the early 70s, a process eased by the stunning effortlessness with which the USC Trojans led by Fullback Sam Cunningham ran over the all-white Crimson Tide in Birmingham to open the 1970 season.

But the Bear wasn't only a self-interested glory-hunter. Until such a time as Alabama's political climate would accept his desire to recruit black students he went out of his way to steer young men toward northern schools that would actually put them on the field. As a freshman Thornhill had a misunderstanding and confrontation with a Michigan State assistant that left him buried down the depth-chart and ended his hopes of earning a spot at running back. When Daugherty finally gave him a chance to play some downs at Linebacker in drills between the starting offense and second-string defense Thornhill made tackles on six straight plays and absolutely blew-up State's starting quarterback. Neither he nor Daugherty ever looked back.

In Smith and Webster’s junior and senior seasons Michigan State went 19-1-1, losing only to UCLA behind the stunning play of sophomore sensation quarterback Gary Beban in one of the great Rose Bowl upsets. Going a perfect 14-0 in conference play through those two seasons the Spartans gave up only 34.6 rushing yards a game and held their opponents to a combine seven fourth quarter points. Smith and Co. never tired before the guys across the line. Daugherty, like most Big Ten coaches then and since, preferred a ball-control run heavy offense and a reliable defense. Defensive players in any color didn’t come any more reliable than Smith, Webster, and Thornhill. With talent of their caliber on the field, scoring against State proved virtually impossible.

In the years since that infamous Michigan State-Notre Dame game the football gods have not smiled on East Lansing. Spartan coaches have struggled to attract the best players to State — the less storied and fashionable school in Michigan. Even as the Daugherty’s greatest team claimed its second straight Big Ten title, changes were afoot far to the south that eventually spelled the end of Sparty’s greatest era. Jerry LeVais, an undersized but speedy receiver from Smith’s own hometown of Beaumont had accepted an athletic scholarship from SMU in the spring of 1965 and became the first ever black player in Southwest Conference football history in 1966. Slowly but surely the SWC’s color barriers came down over the ensuing years. The University of Texas fielded its first back varsity football player four years later. Inevitably, as these institutions opened their doors to black players the pipeline of talent that created Daugherty’s great success dried up. If Bubba Smith were a High School standout today, the chances of him not signing to play for Mack Brown would be approximately nil.

Sources: Sporting News, CFB's 25 Greatest Teams; Dan Jenkins, "An upside down game"; USA Today CFB encyclopedia; Keith Dunnavant, The Missing Ring;; ESPN, Big Ten Encyclopedia)