Local financial advisor dives into PSU history that has gone largely forgotten
UNIVERSITY PARK — One look at the east side of Beaver Stadium and it’s easy to see the Penn State football team has a long-standing winning tradition. Between the suite levels, there are 17 years displayed to honor undefeated or championship teams — national or conference — with the exception of 2012 which honored the players that stayed after crippling NCAA sanctions fell on the team in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
For local financial advisor, Rex Naylor Jr., he thinks there should be two more teams hanging from that facade — the ones named in the title of his new book “The Forgotten Seasons: Penn State Football 1977-1978.”
Naylor’s job requires him to work with numbers so having to work with words and write a 275-page novel on two years that are often overlooked by even the biggest of fans, but turned around the program for the better was no small task.
It wasn’t easy at first and the book’s publishing date was even pushed back a year.
“I wasn’t very good at writing. In fact, I thought my writing was very poor. So, in communicating with my clients and in other aspects, I needed to write better. I thought I’d write a book,” Naylor said. “I can’t write articles, I have to write a whole book so I dropped off the deep end with that. I thought if I wanted to write a book, I wanted to do something that’s fun and interesting.”
Naylor was just 10 years old when the 1977 football season kicked off, so there was a lot of rewatching the 24 games the Nittany Lions played over the two seasons before he could start writing. He then went and talked to some of the players including Chuck Fusina, Dayle Tate, Matt Suhey, Keith Dorney, Matt Millen and Jim Brown. Access to those players came from running back Mike Guman who also wrote the book’s foreword.
It didn’t come without obstacles.
“It was five and half years of work so you go back five and a half years, we weren’t far removed from the big issue (sanctions),” Naylor said. “They were getting tired of the phone calls thinking ‘here’s another idiot that’s trying to call me about it,’ and I knew what was going through their mind, but Mike Guman made a lot of the contacts for me. … There have been some that dropped off and others that don’t talk, period.”
Naylor dives into the differences in the two teams claiming the offense was actually better in 1977 while the defense in 1978 — averaging 8.8 points and 54.5 rushing yards per game allowed — ranks near the top, arguing it could be the best ever.
“The recruiting class of ’76 was so vital because (Coach) Joe (Paterno) had seven Parade All-Americans. There were only 50 of them and so he had a ton of them and Matt Millen wasn’t one of them. You add players like Millen to that recruiting class and it was supposed to be Penn State’s year. This class was expected to win a national championship and Joe didn’t expect it to happen in ’77 because they were still young and lost some close games late in ’76. … ’78 was the team that they thought was going to win it. I think that would be one of the greatest teams in college football had they won that Sugar Bowl game,” Naylor said. “That game was devastating to the people here. Paterno always said when he did win the championship people were lined up on the highway waving to the bus and Paterno said ‘I never realized how important it was for Penn State to win a national championship’ until he actually did it. It was a very devastating loss. Most of the players haven’t watched the game.”
The local author also talks about how times were much different then in terms of Penn State still playing as an independent, politics of the bowl season, and ways fans kept up with their favorite team and players.
Things changed for Penn State after the historical 1978 season. The Nittany Lions were ranked No. 1 in the country for the first time ever, but that didn’t last long after playing Alabama for the national championship in the 1979 Sugar Bowl in one of the greatest bowl games ever played.
He takes readers down memory lane from 40 years ago breaking down many of the games played, giving player profiles, and describing how much has changed at Penn State during the two-year stretch — including renovations to Beaver Stadium — and after.
Readers get a 23-page chapter all on the Sugar Bowl and the immediate impact the game had on the program and legendary coach Joe Paterno who considered hanging up the whistle after that game.
Instead, he made the necessary adjustments it took to win the team’s first national championship in 1982.
“Joe Paterno recruited more speed on the edge. They had some speed, but their wideouts weren’t as fast or fleet-footed as some. … They were more possession-type receivers,” Naylor said. “He went out and got some more speed on the edge. The mistakes he made in that Sugar Bowl, he learned from them. He didn’t make many more of those mistakes. He needed a game like that — and unfortunately, it was with that team — to get to the national championship game in ’82.”
Naylor often brings in his own experiences in life to find a common connection with the readers.
“I thought I could relate it better that way. The best way to learn is from personal experiences. I related it that way because I thought it would be easier to discuss,” Naylor said. “Remember, I’m an amateur guy writing a book. So, I thought that would be an easy way to understand it and I felt as if I’ve lived that.”
After large amounts of research that included more than 100 books, numerous newspaper articles and a large quantity of notes, Naylor’s biggest takeaway for readers is to learn about two fantastic teams that have been largely forgotten over the course of 40 years.
“Neither of these two teams have been asked back by Penn State for anything. Never. This team is better than you think. If you’re a Penn State fan or even college football fan, it’s a great book to get about those teams — especially if you lived through that time. It will bring back a lot of memories,” Naylor said. “I tried to take everybody back into that time period with the popular events of that time. Anybody can read it.”
People can purchase the book on www.amazon.com or through Naylor Publishing at (717) 250-8733. Purchases of the book will benefit research into multiple sclerosis and amyloidosis for former Nittany Lions players Neil Hutton and Millen.