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Jerry Sandusky: From Rising Star To Most Hated Man In America


This article on Penn State assistant head coach Jerry Sandusky originally appeared in our 1987 college football annual. Given the horrific, recent tragic events surrounding allegations against Jerry Sandusky, we felt our archival pieces pertaining to Jerry, Joe Paterno and Penn State are worth revisiting to show how revered Sandusky was, not only at PSU, but in the world of college football.

1987 Assistant Coach of the Year: Jerry Sandusky, Nittany's Defensive Lion

On the morning after Penn State had won its second national championship of this decade, what everyone wanted to know from Joe Paterno was exactly how the Nittany Lions' defense had so thoroughly defused Miami's high-octane offense. Paterno sipped his coffee, blinked owlishly and responded: "I don't know exactly. Jerry hasn't explained to me the details of what we were doing yet."

He was only half kidding.

Jerry is Jerry Sandusky, a cerebral, aw-shucks-humble, relentless watcher and analyzer of films, and, most importantly, the defensive coordinator for the Lions.

Penn State, of course, is to linebacking what Juilliard is to piano playing, and for the better part of two decades the man who has been responsible for turning out all those concertmasters in cleats at Lineback U has been Sandusky.

No one in sports is quite so anonymous as an assistant football coach, but on the day after Penn State had beaten Miami in the Sunkist Fiesta Bowl, Paterno was going out of his way to make sure that Sandusky was being made known nationally.

Sandusky is honored now by Athlon as 1987's Assistant Coach of the Year. He becomes the second such award recipient, succeeding Ken Donahue of Tennessee.

Sandusky has sent 21 linebackers to the NFL. Seven played last fall. He has developed eight first-team All-Americ backers. But what has endeared him even more to Paterno is his ability to conjury up defensive magic in th ebiggest games against the most celebrated opponents.

When Penn State's defense shut out Miami quarterback Vinny Testaverde--zero touchdowns, five interceptions--it was just one more in a long line of throttlings dreamed up by Sandusky.

A few more memorable examples of Sandusky's defensive game plans:

  • When Penn State won its first national championship in 1982, it did so by beating the splendiferous Herschel Walker and Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. When the game was on the line, Walker got the ball--a pitch and a sweep. He also got stuffed. The interference was strung out and Walker was smothered by four tacklers. Sandusky: "The key with a back as powerful as Herschel is to keep him from getting turned upfield. Once he gets his shoulders squared to the line of scrimmage, it's all over. He gets headed upfield and it's a runaway truck. You have to pursue and not let him get squared up." Ovediently, the defense kept Walker running laterally. Penn State 27, Georgia 23.
  • The only time in his collegiate career that Marcus Allen failed to rush for 100 yards as a starter was against Penn State in the 1982 Fiesta Bowl. Sandusky: "Marcus is a great reader. He sits back there in the I-formation and knows where the holes will open up. We tried to confuse him with some false reads and also to get penetration so that we could disrupt the play before it ever got started. It's important to take away the interference before it ever forms." Penn State 26, Southern California, 10.
  • Dan Marino had already put up two touchdowns and was driving Pitt in for a third on Nov. 28, 1981. It was 14-0, and still Penn State insisted on sitting back in that eight deep defense. Suddenly it would all make sense. There was an interception by the Lions. And another. Marino, in stages, became confused, uncertain, tentative. He would cok and aim, and then cock again. He never dented Penn State's defense again. The Nittany Lions ran off 48 unanswered points. Sandusky: "Most of the time we only rushed three because we felt he was a more dangerous passer when he was flushed from the pocket. With eight in the secondary, we could really disguise our coverages." Penn State 48, Pitt 14.

Those are some of the more recent of Sandusky's defensive triumphs. None, however, is more pristine than the 14-10 victory over Miami in the Fiesta Bowl. Testaverde, like Marino before him, was befuddled by Sandusky's cleverly camouflaged defensive alignments. Testaverde had thrown 116 straight passes without an interception in 1985 and 114 last season. Yet the Heisman Trophy winner was intercepted five times by Penn State.

"He was just throwing by the numbers," Paterno said. "He didn't expect anybody to be there. Jerry did another remarkable job."

Sandusky, typically, had gone half-blind looking at Miami films, and finally one bleary-eyed morning had concluded that if Miami's receivers were jammed at the line, they tended to lose interest in running their routes, and that if they were whacked with gusto when they did catch the ball, their enthusiasm for future plays tended to wane quickly.

"Coach Sandusky told us that if we'd lay a good lick on their receivers when they caught the ball, then their arms would get about eight inches shorter," says cornerback Duffy Cobbs. "He was right, but then he always is. Every play it seemed Vinny was staring me right in the eyes. We'd be faking man-to-man coverage and I'd be saying to myself, 'I hope he believes it, I hope he belives it." He'd chuckle just before the snap, and we'd all think, 'Good, and switch to a zone."

Adds Shane Conlan, the latest, and acclaimed as the best, of the Penn State linebackers: "All week they kept going on and on about how great and fast their receivers were and how short and slow our defensive backs were, but I just smiled to myself, because I knew they'd never been hit by them. Those little guys will rock you. I thought that was the key to the game. We didn't say much but we were confident because we knew Coach Sandusky would come up with a way to stop them.

After all these testimonials, the wonder is that Sandusky is not a head coach somewhere. Surely someone has tried to lure him away from Happy Valley. The answer is that college and pro teams alike have tried.

"Many people have talked to me about him," Paterno says. "He has great teaching ability and a gift for setting up the sort of drills that teach the kids to execute all of the things we ask them to do as linebackers. Jerry has been reluctant to talk to anybody about a head coaching job, though, because of all the commitments he has in this community."

Ah, yes, the commitments. They, more even than his defensive genius, are what set Sandusky and his wife, Dottie, apart from the crowd.

The Sandusky's were unable to have children of their own, so in 1969 hey adopted a son. Later they adopted another child. And then another. And another. Six, finally. And then they began to raise foster children. As the family grew, the Sanduskys dreamed about starting a group home for troubled youngsters.

That dream has since become a reality--a house for six children at a time, and 20 acres of land only two miles from Beaver Stadium. It is known as The Second Mile, as in Matthew 5:41: "And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain."

Part of the finances come from the sale of a manual written by Sandusky: Developing Linebackers the Penn State Way.

Says Paterno: "Jerry and Dottie are special, special people. We're all so proud of what they have done, and certainly would hate to lose them. But at the same time, I'd hate to see him lose his chance to be a head coach."

Says Sandusky, shrugging: "There was a time when I really was interested in becoming a head coach. After all, that's what everyone in this profession aspires to. But the timing never really seemed quite right, and then we had so many things developing with our own family and with the house. We believe in the saying that it's not what happens to you, but how you react to it that is important. If it's meant to be, then it will happen."

It is, his associates testify, Sandusky's nature to be happy only when he is helping others. Which would seem to be the essence of an assistant coach.

"We recruit an awful lot of linebackers," Sandusky says. "Those kinds of kids are usually leaders, outgoing, the ones the other kids turn to for leadership."

Interestingly, when he played football, first at Washington (Pa.) High School and then at Penn State, it was not as a linebacker. He lettered three years at Penn State and was a starter in 1964 and 1965 at defensive end. He graduated in '66 and a year later received his M.Ed. degree from Penn State. He was an assistant coach for one year each at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa, and Boston University before returning to Happy Valley.

In 1969, Sandusky's first year as Penn State linebacker coach, Dennis Onkotz became a first-team All-American. It was the start of a trend.

Will Sandusky be a career assistant coach? Or, one day, will there be a team identified as his and his alone? Some speculate that he will be Paterno's successor. Paterno, who is 60, said after the Fiesta Bowl that he would coach "for another four years, maybe five, but no more than that."

Would Sandusky's loyalty then be rewarded?

There is precedent. For 16 years Rip Engle had an assistant on his Penn State staff who was skinny, wore thick glasses and was bright, and everyone wondered why he never took a head coaching job. Joe Paterno always answered that he was happy just being in Happy Valley. Jerry Sandusky says the same thing.

He has always been so selfless that you can not help but believe him.

This originally appeared in Athlon's 1987 college football annual.

Other Penn State Scandal Content:
Penn State and Joe Paterno Failed Miserably - Braden Gall
Joe Paterno: Paternal Failure - Nathan Rush
Mike McQueary Should Have Pulled a Sinead O'Connor on the Church of Penn State