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.