0-4: Football and Life Lessons From The Last Time

With Penn State’s 0-4 start to the 2020 season the inevitable look backwards to the last time Penn State started 0-4 is to be expected. While fans are upset, it's important for people inside the program not to panic.


So as a member of that staff I felt it would be a good time to share some insight from that season. Setbacks often spark growth. From that rough season start, I learned a lesson that applies not only to football but to life and leadership. Let me state that these are not meant to be criticisms or suggestions for the current team, but rather a general sharing of lessons learned from that time.


The lesson from that season centers on a Joe Paterno coaching philosophy that I call the "Four Rs" of football. More on that a bit later.....


In 2001 we opened the season against eventual National Champion Miami. We had the next Saturday off before a Thursday night game at the University of Virginia. But the 9/11 terrorist attacks moved that game to December. So three weeks after playing Miami we returned to play Wisconsin before games at Iowa and home against Michigan.


We came out of that stretch with 4 losses to start the season before an off week.

It was a long off week of impatience as you would expect. The answering machine at my house had plenty of messages, my office voice mail was filled and letters and e-mails offered "constructive" criticism. But that came with the territory of coaching at this level.


Joe Paterno started the off-week on Sunday by telling us that he did not want anyone in the program to panic or to think that we had to blow everything up. We’d hammer improving the fundamentals and ask players and coaches to double down on the standards and program values we’d set.


Having said that, he did want to change some things we were doing with our schemes.


Then he produced a folder and a bunch of diagrams. In some of the longest meetings in my seventeen years at Penn State, he told us that the “system” on offense did not make the best use of our personnel. That can happen if coaches get too dependent on a system and lose sight of personnel capabilities.


While we were already in some spread sets along with our two-back offense Joe told us he wanted to add a three running back package and expand the option run game we had.

Using his notes and diagrams from the 1970-71 offense he went back to the future. That offense had a mobile QB in John Hufnagel and a bunch of excellent running backs including Franco Harris and Lydell Mitchell. The 2001 goal was to get our deep running back group on the field. With the complex play-action pass schemes and run-game reads for defenses that come with a three-back set he felt we’d get an advantage.


Thirty years after that 1971 offense, Joe saw a team with mobile quarterbacks, and future NFL RBs Eric McCoo, Omar Easy and NFL Pro-Bowlers Eddie Drummond and Larry Johnson. With this package we could get three of them on the field together to present misdirection and multiple threats for opposing defenses.






This is where the "Four Rs" come in. For Joe Paterno, coaching was all about getting the Right people in the Right place doing the Right things at the Right time.


We did our best to get our guys ready before getting on a plane to play #22 Northwestern as a decided underdog.




That late afternoon along Lake Michigan we exploded for 38 points including a late touchdown to seal a 38-35 win over Northwestern (Highlights Here). Starting that day, we won 5 of the last 7 games including wild comeback wins over Ohio State (Highlights) and over Michigan State on a cold and windy November day in East Lansing.


After that winless start, Joe Paterno’s new/old system sparked an offense that averaged 35 points per game over the next 19 games through 2002.



The lesson from Joe Paterno was to stick to the core values of the program and the “Four Rs.”


Some more Penn State history…….


Recent statements claim that the 2016-19 seasons represented the best 4-year span of Penn State’s Big Ten era. It was a great run, but was it truly the best in PSU's Big Ten Era?

The 2016-19 seasons produced one Big Ten Championship, two bowl wins (over Memphis and Washington) and a 42-11 record (79.2%). In that span Penn State posted an 8-9 record versus ranked teams.


There are at least two other spans that may eclipse the most recent run.

The first four years of the Big Ten era from 1993-1996 produced a 42-7 record (85.7%) a 12-0 season, the Big Ten and National Title in 1994 and four bowl wins (Tennessee, Auburn and Pac-10 Champion Oregon and Big 12 Champion Texas). Those teams also racked up a gaudy 14-5 record versus ranked teams.


The other four year span to note is from 2005-08. Penn State produced two Big Ten titles, a 40-11 record (78.4%) and three bowl wins (over ACC Champion Florida State, Texas A&M and Tennessee). That record included a 9-6 record against ranked teams.


Want other notable four-year spans (pre-Big Ten)?

1968-71 40-4 (90.9%)

1971-74 43-5 (89.6%)

1977-80 40-8 (83.3%)

1919-22 28-5-5 (80.2%)

1945-48 27-6-2 (80.0%)


There is great and enduring history at Penn State. But there are also tough seasons and often the lessons of setback spark revival. The more football changes, the more it stays the same. Those with a grasp on history can use the past to bend the arc of the future. That is the lesson of the 2001 season.

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