Oral history recounts Nittany Lions' undefeated 1994 season

Twenty years ago this fall, in just its second season of conference play, the Penn State football team put together one of the greatest seasons in Big Ten history. On Saturday (Sept. 6), that team will be honored in Beaver Stadium at the 2014 Nittany Lions' home opener vs. Akron.

In a five-part series, the Penn State Football Letter, published by the Penn State Alumni Association, recounts the story of the 1994 campaign. From the recruiting classes of 1990 and 1991 that formed the foundation of the undefeated team through the Lions' 38-20 win over Oregon on Jan. 2, 1995 in the Rose Bowl, team members and coaches tell the story of the perfect season.

Following is an excerpt from writer Ryan Jones' "Legends of 94: An Oral History." As the team went through spring and summer of 1994 and the new season dawned, players and coaches recognized the potential for a special year.

The entire series can be read here

A Team on the Verge

The Nittany Lions capped the 1993 season with a New Year’s Day blowout of SEC power Tennessee in the Citrus Bowl. Back on campus that winter, Penn State’s players and coaches saw the talent and experience that was set to return and immediately knew they had a rare thing—a chance for greatness—in their collective grasp. It was time to go to work.

TONY PITTMAN: After we beat Tennessee, we felt like, if we work hard this offseason, we can be a force to be reckoned with.

KI-JANA CARTER: Just about our whole offense was back. We knew it could be a special season.

KYLE BRADY: I can only imagine in their meetings that spring, the coaches understood what they had, and that the sky was the limit.

FRAN GANTER: When you look at the pieces of a puzzle, I can’t imagine a piece we were missing. We had a big-time guy at all the most important positions, and at most of those positions, we had two guys. We had all the pieces.

BOBBY ENGRAM: Everybody on that team was going to be a year older, and we’d added some top recruits. We knew we had a chance to be really good if we held each other accountable.

VINCENT STEWART: We get back from the bowl game, we’re the seniors, so we have a talk with the team: “This what we’re going to do, these are the rules.” And then we policed those rules. That’s how it went.

MARLON FORBES: I remember spring ball—it was like, “We can’t wait to go, man.” Everybody wanted to work.

PITTMAN: It’s a tradition now that spring drills are held really early in the morning. We started that whole thing—5:30 a.m., get up and go work out. I think that was a sign of how serious we were.

CHUCK PENZENIK: Every work out, every time we got together, it was intense. There was no letting off. There wasn’t a whole lot of “Hey, man, you gotta pick it up.” You see the guy next to you going all out, you either drop off, stay with them, or beat ’em. We didn’t need to be told what to do.

PITTMAN: A lot of the fifth-year guys, we didn’t even practice in the spring—we had so much depth, we didn’t want to get anybody hurt, and Joe knew the older guys would take care of themselves and be ready to play. He knew he could trust us.

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United and focused, the Lions approached the summer of ’94 as the next step on their way to a lofty goal.

KERRY COLLINS: I remember that offseason, just feeling like, “This is my team. I’m going to show these guys that they can count on me.” We had bunch of guys there over the summer, guys who stuck around, put in the work.

MIKE ARCHIE: There were 90, 100 guys that stayed for the summer. Everybody stayed. That’s when it became special.

KIRK DIEHL: It was voluntary, but they were all up here. That was led by the seniors. I stayed up here that summer to work in the equipment room, and I knew right away how special it was.

STEPHEN PITTS: It was not only everybody staying up for the summer, but working our tails off.

CHRIS MAZYCK: It was unbelievable how guys were working.

ARCHIE: Every Tuesday and Thursday, we went out there and worked out on our own. It was Kerry and Bucky, and we had the defense out there—Brian Gelzheiser, Willie Smith, Brian Miller, all those guys—and we worked out all summer. The national championship, in our eyes, was won in the summer, not in the fall.

FORBES: We did a lot of stuff that was really for track runners. And it wasn’t just the skill players: Wayne Holmes would be out there, 350 pounds, running 200s. Then, 3 o’clock, everybody’s in the IM building playing basketball, having dunk contests.

BRANDON NOBLE: It was the offseason stuff, the summer workouts, the bonding—that group did everything together. It was a really special group of young men. I’ve never found that anywhere else. There was a tremendous amount of respect for each other, but we enjoyed hanging out. A football team’s like a dysfunctional family. That group truly got along, worked together, and we were willing to sacrifice. That was one of the most fun summers. Such a great group.

MAZYCK: The defense would go hiking through the mountains—me, Brian Gelzheiser, Vinny Stewart. It created a special bond with that team. The brotherhood with that team, the camaraderie… We all had the same burning desire to be a champion. We wanted to win.

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August in Happy Valley: heat, humidity, and the start of a memorable preseason camp.

COLLINS: We get to training camp, and we were hungry and ready to go.

BUCKY GREELEY: We had that confidence through spring ball and into preseason camp. Everybody progressed and developed like we expected them to. And the o-line, we knew, we’re going to be the strength of the team. Nothing bad is going to happen to this team because of this unit.

ARCHIE: The coaches knew how how hard we had worked, how many kids had stayed up for the summer. I think if you had asked Coach Paterno going into the season, he would’ve gone “Ahhh, they’re really not that good. Let’s see what they’re made of.” But I think he knew, deep down. I think Coach Ganter said this was the most committed he’d seen a team in preseason. I think they were excited. I think they knew we were ready.

CARTER: I was reading all the publications, and they had us third or fourth in the league behind Wisconsin, Ohio State, Michigan. I just had a chip on my shoulder. I felt like we were disrespected. We knew we had a good team. Our first meeting, the first day of camp, I walked down in front of the team before the coaches got there, and I just stated talking. I said, “Guys, look, we got a special team. And those two losses last year left a bad taste in my mouth...”

JEF HARTINGS: I remember one scrimmage at the end of long week of two-a-days, and we didn’t play well at all. Ki-Jana brought us together after that practice, kind of gave a pep talk to the offense, said “We’re better than this, we can be something special.” For me, that’s where it clicked. Like, if Ki-Jana has this much confidence…

COLLINS: I remember Ki-Jana being the vocal guy, having that bravado. It was good. Guys like myself, Bucky, Kyle, we weren’t going to say a whole lot. I never have been—I tried to show up day in, day out, prepared and focused, set the tone. Ki-Jana brought the swagger that all great teams have.

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Carter’s talent and confidence were emblematic of the entire offense, a rare group in Joe Paterno’s tenure that entered the preseason well ahead of a defense that was untested by comparison. Recognizing this, Paterno and his staff set out to test—and toughen—their deep and versatile offense in preparation for the challenges to come.

KEITH CONLIN: Historically Joe’s defenses always beat the tar out of his offenses. But that defense just got beat down. Some of the defensive coaches would tell Joe, “Just slow them down.” Joe would be like, “What do you want me to do?”

ARCHIE: I remember one scrimmage—and if you ask a defensive player or coach, they’d probably say no—but we went into this scrimmage, and it seemed like we could do nothing right. They were kicking our tails the whole scrimmage. And I think they scripted it that way.

GREELEY: I’ve told this stories over the years: I’m convinced there were times in training camp where they stacked the deck against us—times where the defense knew the play, to try to humble us.

CONLIN: Bucky would be in the huddle—he was an analytical guy—and he’d say, “The old man’s stacking against us right now.” They had to start backing us off to give the defense some confidence.

GANTER: Joe was sometimes rougher on his best teams. And those guys, they wanted to be challenged. Any big-time athlete, that’s what they want.

BRADY: Joe tried to do everything he could to make things difficult on us, to create pressure situations, to try to get us to crack. I remember one scrimmage, he was just tearing into us; I’m sure it was planned to some degree, because he knew how much potential we had. There was a maturity about that team, and we knew why Joe was doing it. He was doing it because he saw what was on the table...

Somewhere in that preseason, when Joe was trying to put that pressure on us, Kerry started doing this symbol, where he’d hold up his right index finger at chest level, where we could all see it in the huddle, and sort of rotate it in a circular fashion. I don’t even know how it originated; it just meant that there's no amount of pressure we couldn't handle with what we have right here. We would be in situations over the course of that season—at Michigan in the Big House, out at Illinois—and Kerry would do it just like he did in the preseason when Joe was riding us. It was just a reminder, that we had everything we needed right here.

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That on-field focus would soon become legendary. The Lions’ off-field commitment was no less impressive, and no less vital.

STEWART: My senior year, the seniors made a pact—we all lived on campus. The younger kids knew: We’re here, we’re around. We were all in Nittany Apartments. I lived with Kerry and Kyle, Bucky lived across the hall. Bobby and Ki-Jana were there. There were maybe two people that lived off campus. It came down to helping each other do the right things. These are kids, 19, 20 years old, and you have to stay focused. So we’re going to remove the ability to be unfocused. Guys aren’t going to go out anymore during the week. We’re only going to go out after a game, and only after a win. It became a snowball effect of everyone doing the right thing.

PITTMAN: We had so many fourth-year, fifth-year guys, guys who had to wait a while to play. There was just a collective mentality that we’ve put too much into this to not get all we can out of it. It was a pretty mature group that new how to handle its business.

BRADY: We were kind of a self-policing unit, which I think coaches love. Not only on the field, but even off. We had a high degree of accountability with each other about those things.

PITTS: Joe trusted us on the field, and he trusted that we would take care of each other and do the right things off the field.

NOBLE: At the time, I didn’t realize how odd that was. There was a group of guys that liked to have a good time, but they were focused. They knew what they wanted to do, and they made sure the rest of us came along. As a coach, you’re not going to let just anybody handle that. You’ve gotta know that you can trust those guys.

MARCO RIVERA: It’s not like we needed one guy to lead by example—it was everybody: Kyle Brady, Kerry Collins, Jeff Hartings, myself, Ki-Jana. Each one of the guys in that locker room knew their responsibility. Nobody needed to be told.

PITTS: Between our class and the class above us, to quote Joe, there really were no shenanigans. (laughs)

The ’94 season arrived, and questions remained. The offense looked good, but how good? The defense was green, perhaps fatally so. And even some very good recent Penn State teams had followed strong starts with midseason stumbles that killed any championship hopes. Would this team be different?

ARCHIE: By the time the season rolled around, we were clicking on all cylinders.

FREDDIE SCOTT: It was our second year in the Big Ten, and a lot of us knew we were starters at that point. We knew the season would be whatever we made it. But we still had some questions.

KIM HERRING: I don’t know about running the table, but I think we started out knowing we were really good.

PITTMAN: I think we felt like, if things went our way, we would be hard to beat. But I’ll be completely honest with you: I never went into any year thinking, “OK, we’re going to go 12-0.”

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The Lions opened the season at Minnesota, a conference road game—by definition, never an easy thing in the Big Ten. Well, so much for that. Penn State rolled up nearly 700 yards of total offense, including 210 for Carter on just 20 carries, and Collins completed a hyper-efficient 19 of 23 passes for 260 yards and three touchdowns. Of the Lions’ 56-3 win, John Black wrote in The Football Letter, “A summer’s worth of anxious anticipation... was relieved in spectacular fashion.”

GREELEY: We’re warming up in the end zone, and their fans are yelling at us: “You guys are small! You guys are D3! You’ll never last in the Big Ten! You’ll get crushed!”

BRIAN MILNE: I do remember the crowd. And I remember the turf being really hard, for some reason.

CARTER: We heard the fans. I was like, “These guys are disrespecting us. I’m not going to let this ride today. These guys are gonna pay.”

HARTINGS: We went in with some uncertainty, and then we pretty much dominated them. We were basically unstoppable.

TERRT KILLENS: That was one of those games where the offense just exploded.

GREELEY: I don’t think we thought we were going to go in and roll. But after that first series, we kind of knew what we had. Everything that’d been preached to us—about pushing the pace, being in shape, being in the right position, digging down, making the other team say “ouch”—it all happened on the first drive. We crossed the 50-yard line, and they’d already started rotating people in. Their defensive guys were already gassed—hands on hips, hands on knees. We just kept pushing the pace. After we scored two or three times in a row, we didn’t hear from those fans anymore.

BRADY: It was very loud, but it got quiet very quickly.

NOBLE: That was the first football game I played in at Penn State, so to me, it was a whirlwind. There was a lot of anticipation about our offense. You see it in practice every day, and it’s not necessarily that you grow numb to it, but when you see it live—see it happening to someone else—it’s like, “Man, this is my offense.”

SCOTT: It was like, “Wait a minute—this is even better than we anticipated.”

PITTMAN: I remember being surprised by how good our offense was. We played all offseason against them, so we knew these guys were pretty good, but I remember saying, “Wow—these guys are very good.”

COLLINS: I think we were a little surprised, but not totally—not shocked. That’s the thing about the beginning of the season: You don’t know how good you are. We got a pretty good indication right off the bat, but it’s one game. You don’t know if you’re going to be able run the ball and throw the ball consistently, day in and day out.

BRADY: It kind of spoiled you a little bit. We had so many easy drives.

HARTINGS: I didn’t really think that could happen with a Big Ten team.

CARTER: I was done at halftime. Of course you didn’t think that was going to happen.

PITTS: You think, “Are they just that bad, or are we just that good?”

GANTER: Sometimes, games like Minnesota, they worry you if it’s too easy. You want to make sure the guys understand that they can’t let up, can’t get too big-headed, can’t feel like they’ll be able to do that every week.

ARCHIE: The coaches had to deal with, “OK, how do we keep them from getting over-confident and complacent?” But I think Coach Ganter would probably tell you, after that first game, he knew we had something special.

Last Updated September 04, 2014