Special Feature: Legends of '94 - The Oral History

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kijana_blog.jpgUNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Twenty years have passed since the Nittany Lions put together one of the greatest seasons in school and Big Ten history. More than 45 members of the undefeated 1994 Big Ten title team will be back in town this weekend for a reunion. Many of the squad's stars, including All-Americans Kyle Brady, Ki-Jana Carter, Kerry Collins and Jeff Hartings will be among the attendees who will be honored at halftime of Saturday's game.

To commemorate the unstoppable '94 team's return, Ryan Jones, editor of The Football Letter Blog, compiled a tremendous oral history from the figures involved with Penn State's last undefeated team. A portion from Part 1 of a five-part oral history is compiled below.

Please follow this link to The Football Letter Blog for the remaining parts to the special series on the 1994 team.


The Football Letter Blog - 1994 Team Oral History (Parts 1-5)


Unbeaten, Unstoppable, Uncrowned
An Oral History of the 1994 Penn State Football Team


By Ryan Jones, The Football Letter Blog Editor


Part 1:
We trace the '94 team back to its roots, following the recruiting classes of 1990 and '91 as they mature from talented prospects into proven leaders who will provide the foundation for greatness.

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Chapter 1: Building the Foundation

In the winter of 1990, Joe Paterno's staff inked a 16-player recruiting class, led by stud tight end prospect Kyle Brady and featuring a trio of quarterbacks. One of them was Kerry Collins, whom one Philadelphia newspaper described as "the biggest and strongest of the bunch... has been mentioned as a possible tight end candidate."

PAUL "BUCKY" GREELEY: Growing up a Pennsylvania kid, the opportunity to even be recruited by Penn State, it's almost like that was a win. For family members, friends, people in my high school, when Penn State was recruiting me, that was the accomplishment.

KYLE BRADY: When we first got there in 1990, most of us redshirted. Our class was a small one--I think we only had 16 guys--but we had a couple of quality guys: Kerry, myself, Bucky Greeley, Brian Gelzheiser, Phil Yeboah-Kodie.

KERRY COLLINS: Certainly Kyle was a big-name recruit, and there were a couple of other guys. I don't know what the ranking was, but I got the feeling that everyone was excited about our class.

FRAN GANTER: We knew Kerry was going to be something special.

COLLINS: Initially, there were four or five of us--John Sacca, Danny White, Craig Fayak, who at the time was a quarterback--but I don't remember that scaring me too much. I felt like Penn State was the best place for me. I had an assurance that I was gonna be a quarterback, and I took them at their word. Even when I was there, I would kind of tease Billy Kenney, who recruited me, "Hey, you guys aren't going to move me."

GREELEY: I played against Kerry my senior year, and he was my quarterback at Big 33, and there was no doubt he was going to be the quarterback. He had the confidence, the raw talent, the leadership ability. I look at a lot of the stuff that was written back then... we never had those doubts.

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Not every member of that class was a sure thing.

VINCENT STEWART: I didn't play football until tenth grade. I'm this 6-foot-4, 280-pound guy out of Long Island that nobody knows about. After a lot of pushing from my coaches, I ended up at Penn State camp going into 11th grade. Joe Sarra was in charge of the defensive tackles, and he was the guy who spotted me, inspired me, and ultimately fought for me to get my scholarship. From that day on, by hook or by crook, I was going to Penn State...

On my visit, I sat with Coach Paterno, and the first and only thing he talked about was school. I talked to a lot of other coaches, they talked about playing time and all that, but none of them really talked about school. I knew something was different when Coach Paterno looked me in the eye and said, "Just give me all you can. I don't care if you come here and don't play, you're going to graduate." I had four other recruiting trips scheduled, and I cancelled all of them.

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The group that would form the core of the 1994 team drew heavily from the recruiting classes of 1990 and '91. There were a handful of exceptions, including a pair of 1989 high school graduates. One was defensive tackle Chris Mazyck, who tells his story in Chapter 3; the other was cornerback Marlon Forbes.

MARLON FORBES: I came to Penn State as an ROTC student. I graduated in '89, then went into the Navy right out of high school. I qualified for a program where you become a scholarship ROTC student at the school of your choice. I wanted to go to Penn State anyway, and this became a vehicle to get there. So in the fall of 1990, I walked on as a quarterback and wide receiver.

Once I got on the team, I took at look at the quarterbacks we had, and I was like, "You gotta be kidding me. Everybody's good here." The receivers? It was Dave Daniels, Terry Smith, O.J. McDuffy, Ricky Sayles... It seemed like we had everything. It might've been the second or third practice, and one of the coaches said "Hey, you ever play defensive back?" I was like, "Not really." Next thing I know, I'm a scout team DB. Ron Dickerson said, "Come back next spring on defense," and that was it.

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Forbes was understandably impressed by the Lions' veteran skill players that fall; a year later, he and the rest of the Penn State squad would be wowed by an incoming freshman class that stands as arguably the greatest in Penn State history. Boasting nearly two dozen players, the '91 recruiting class was particularly loaded with offensive linemen--Keith Conlin, Jeff Hartings, Andre Johnson, and Marco Rivera among them--and running backs. Analysts called it the top class in the nation. Who were those freshmen to disagree?

KEITH CONLIN: We were the No. 1 class in the country. We were Joe's best recruiting class of all time. The running backs, the offensive linemen, everywhere, we were loaded.

MARCO RIVERA: Even before we got up to Penn State, we knew all these guys right away, from reading about them in the newspaper. We knew we had a good class.

GANTER: There were so many kids who were hard to get, and we worked hard to get them.

TONY PITTMAN: With those two classes, '90 and '91, it was like, "Wow, we've got a lot of talent coming in." But you never know how that talent pans out.

BRADY: We had heard so much about that '91 class. I was already starting to take those things with a grain of salt. Guys can be all-world in high school--you hear all these numbers about their speed and bench press--then they get there and it's a different story. You never know what you're going to get.

TODD ATKINS: A bunch of us--myself, Keith Conlin, Eric Clair, Mike Archie--we all played on the Pennsylvania Big 33 team, so quite a few of us knew each other coming into camp. It seemed like everybody kind of gelled.

BOBBY ENGRAM: It seemed uncommon at the time, how well we all got along.

CONLIN: I played with seven or eight guys in the Big 33 game, so we already had our little clique going. Plus, a lot of us were recruited by the same teams. I ended up living with Eric Clair for four of my five years there, and we first met on a visit to Florida State.

RIVERA: I remember I went on a recruiting trip to Syracuse, and I'm standing there with Andre Johnson--he's a lineman from Long Island, I'm a lineman from Long Island--and I'm asking him, "Where do you think you're going?" And he's asking me... Next think you know, I commit to Penn State, he commits to Penn State. That's how it happened with us.

MIKE ARCHIE: When I came in, you know who my host was? Kerry Collins. It was just a great time. Touring me around, showing me the campus, he really did feel like a brother. I remember meeting Keith Conlin and Marco Rivera and thinking, "Are these guys coming here? Because these guys are pretty big."

COLLINS: The offensive linemen, it's hard to see into the future with those guys--Jeff Hartings put on probably 70 pounds when he was there. Those guys had to grow into it. But you could see it. That class kind of carried themselves in a certain way. They knew they were good.

BRADY: Guys like Jeff Hartings and Marco Rivera, they were the ideal guys to come in as offensive linemen. You don't want a guy to come in at 300 pounds with a bunch of baby fat. You want a guy who shows up maybe 260, athletic, maybe played basketball in high school, then you get them in the weight room and build them up from there. Their work ethic was tremendous, they had the smarts, they had the talent. You don't know what the potential could be, but it could really be something.

GREELEY: When that class came in, they were loaded for bear. The expectation was, "We're going to be good. How good? We want to be national champions."

JEFF HARTINGS: I think with a Joe Paterno team, all of us went there for one reason. That was to win national titles.

KI-JANA CARTER: We were all close with each other, we had no egos, and we knew we had the No. 1 class coming in. We basically sat down and said, "We know what we've got here. Before we leave, we want to go undefeated and win a national championship."

ARCHIE: When we first came in, we had a little meeting, and I believe it was Kerry who stood up and said, "There is no reason, by the time we get out of here, we shouldn't be a national championship-caliber team."

TOM BRADLEY: If you look at Penn State's greatest teams, the seeds of those teams were probably built when those guys were freshmen. The '82 team, it was the '79 team going to the national championship game.

GREELEY: There were a lot of guys in both of those classes who could've gone to other schools and made contributions earlier, but we all saw the opportunity and bought into our goals at Penn State. I know I took it personally that every class up until that point, Joe used to say, "You're either going to have an undefeated team or play for a national championship." I was like, "I don't want to be the class that breaks that streak."

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A common feature on Joe Paterno's championship-caliber teams was the presence of at least one transcendent running back. The '91 class featured a half-dozen potential backfield stars: tailbacks Mike Archie, Ki-Jana Carter, J.T. Morris (who eventually transferred), and Stephen Pitts, along with Brian Milne and linebacker-turned-fullback Jon Wittman.

CARTER: I think Mike committed first, then Stephen, then myself.

ARCHIE: If memory serves, I was the last to come in.

STEPHEN PITTS: If I wasn't the first of the three of us, I was at least the second. Ki-Jana kind of came on at the end, when some things fell apart with his recruiting at Ohio State.

CARTER: Me and Archie were on the same visit.

ARCHIE: I knew about Ki-Jana, and I knew about Stephen, and I knew about J.T. Morris. I was wondering if all these guys were gonna come in. But it was fun to meet them on the visits. You get to talking--Ki-Jana's like, "You thinking about coming here?" I'm like, "I don't know, are you thinking about coming here?"

CARTER: Wherever you go, there's gonna be competition. From my standpoint, if I can play, I'm gonna play anywhere. That's how I felt. I went where I was comfortable.

PITTS: My process was kind of slow. I wasn't one of those guys that dreamed of playing in the NFL. I loved the game--that was it. I was going to college regardless. The way I made the final pick was, if there was no football, where would I want to go to school?

ARCHIE: When I heard all three of them were coming here, I made up my mind. "I said, I probably could go anywhere and play right away, but if I'm going to be the best I can be, I'm going to go with that group right there." I wanted to come in and compete with those guys. I knew I was only going to get better.

BRIAN MILNE: I came in as a tailback, but on our very first lap around Holuba Hall, I looked at Mike Archie, Ki-Jana Carter, and Stephen Michael Pitts and said, "You know what? I think I'm gonna change to fullback. I might be fast, but I'm not that fast." You just look at these guys, see them run, it was like, "Oooh, boy." I knew right away the talent that was in the room.


Click here for the continuation of Part 1 of the oral history of the 1994 team


The Football Letter Blog - 1994 Team Oral History (Parts 1-5)

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