Airing Out the Differences : Fiesta: Joe Paterno has allowed Tony Sacca to get Penn State's passing game off the ground.


It's not as if he didn't know what he was getting into. It was no secret. Maybe that's why Tony Sacca's two years of complaining so irritated his coaches at Penn State. Especially Joe Paterno.

Sacca, an All-American high school quarterback, arrived at Penn State as a strong-armed freshman with an attitude. He was going to be the quarterback, Sacca thought, who would remake the Nittany Lions in his own image. Paterno had been a fine college coach, but his play calling smelled of mothballs.

Paterno thought otherwise, of course. And, because he was the coach, his thinking carried significantly more weight than that of a freshman rated fourth on the depth chart. Paterno, who is in his 26th season at Penn State, was happy with his philosophy of running, running and, perhaps, a short flare pass to a halfback. In fact, Paterno loved his defense and took pride in the school's nickname, "Linebacker U." Passing was fine on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, but at University Park, they ran.

It's one thing to complain when you are a freshman non-starter. No one hears and no one cares. But barely into what should have been a redshirt season, Sacca was thrust into prominence by an improbable sequence of injuries that sidelined Penn State's starting quarterback, his backup, and the backup's backup. For the first time since anyone could remember, a freshman was starting at quarterback for Joe Paterno.

Talking about it now, as No. 6 Penn State prepares to play No. 10 Tennessee in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year's Day, both Sacca and Paterno can speak of those years with their emotions tempered by time. But the memory of the '88, '89 and '90 seasons and the Sacca-Paterno feud are strong. It was a battle played out in the press, in the locker room and on the field. It was as pitched and competitive as any game Penn State ever played.

"I've always wanted to throw the ball more," Sacca said. "Not so much for my own benefit, but for the team's benefit. I've always thought that we had good receivers and wanted to be able to mix the ball up. To keep handing the ball off, time after time and trying to establish a running game . . . it just didn't work.

"That's where our difference of opinion came. Because of Joe Paterno, because of how he is in the press, what he says goes. He's a legend. To have somebody go against him, the press sort of took it and ran with it. He would get very upset with me about things I would say in the paper. Then he would say things back. My sophomore and junior years, that's how everything got started."

Sacca started his first college game as an 18-year-old. He wasn't very good, and neither was the team. In 1988, Penn State finished 5-6, the team's first losing season in 50 years. No one took it particularly well and to Sacca, the poor season reinforced the folly of a conservative running game. The greater folly, for Sacca, was in telling Paterno about it.

Telling the story now, Paterno's eyes sparkle behind his thick glasses. He gives the impression of having grown to love Sacca as he would a strong-willed son. He is amused and impressed that so young a player would take on the head coach.

"His freshman year was tough, no question about that," Paterno said. "His sophomore year we were still struggling, he was struggling. He and I were trying to figure out how to handle each other. He wanted to throw more. I didn't think we were ready to throw more. There was that kind of nonsense going on.

"He tells you what he thinks. He's not a phony; he's not a hypocrite. I was pushing and shoving, and sometimes he didn't know where I was going. I probably didn't do a real good job of communicating.

"But I was never uncomfortable with Tony. I never really felt it was a problem, except in the sense of trying to bring him along a little faster. To get him to understand where we were coming from. It's hard to be uncomfortable with a kid who never misses a meeting, is never late for practice. He works like a dog on the practice field."

This understanding, though, was hard-won. Sacca said the whole thing came to a head last spring.

"There was a big thing that came out in the paper where he told me to keep my mouth shut, that I've got too much to say," Sacca said. "I was reading it and a lot of guys came up and said, 'What did you say?' I didn't know. I hadn't had any interviews or talked to anybody. Apparently there was a news conference and someone asked, 'You know Tony Sacca is going to want to throw the ball this year.' (Paterno) took it in a totally different way and ripped me in the papers."

Sacca and Paterno had a 'meeting' after that. Neither will repeat what was said, but both agree that the problem was resolved.

Since then, Penn State has become virtually Miami-like with a game plan that includes passing more than 50% of the time. In fact, the new-look Penn State shocked defending national co-champion Georgia Tech, 34-22, in the Kickoff Classic.

It was a milestone game in many ways. Sacca, who had for three seasons sung the praises of the forward pass, threw five touchdown passes in the first game this season, the most prolific passing game in Penn State history.

Sacca had always said that his 38% completion rate in his first two years was the result of not throwing enough to establish consistency. At 6 feet 5 and 220 pounds, Sacca is a strong, if not pinpoint, passer whose ability to scramble makes him a top pro prospect. Now that his completion rate is 58% this season, Sacca is getting to throw much more.

Paterno acknowledges it, but endeavors to make it clear that, despite its reputation, Penn State has always had a passing game. Tony Sacca didn't invent it.

"People just think you sit down one night and say we're going to throw the football," Paterno said, slightly peeved. "People talk about me not wanting to throw the football. I've always felt that you've got to have balance.

"A couple of years ago, we were out to recruit some young quarterbacks. A lot of people were saying (to them), 'Don't go to Penn State, they don't throw the football.' So I looked at the stats. We threw more than most teams we played. That's why we weren't very good.

"A lot of people don't realize it, but when we won the national championship in 1982, Penn State was the first team in the history of the NCAA to win the national championship and make more yards throwing than running during the year. After us came Miami and after them came BYU, but we were the first. So the whole thing is kind of out of whack, is what I'm trying to say."

The Nittany Lions' new style, which Sacca helped unveil in the season opener, is now well known to opponents. Penn State's two losses this season were to Miami and USC. The Trojans successfully pressured Sacca by anticipating the pass.

"They lined up almost every down designed to stop our passing game," Sacca said. "They put pressure on me every play. It was successful."

Take that as an explanation, not a complaint. Now that he has been given the freedom to throw, Sacca's not advising Paterno on how to run the team. In fact, he says he gets along great with the coach.

It's a new day for Sacca, at the end of his college career. But not too late. Count him as one of the happy campers in Happy Valley.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World