Im driving west on College Avenue last Thursday, toward the Penn State campus, knowing with full certainty one of two things is about to happen.
The first receiving unprecedented access to the Nittany Lions football recruiting coordinator in the heart of recruiting season is the better option. But I have to admit, the second being locked in a room deep inside the PSU football complex and having the tar knocked out of me by a couple of linebackers would be a more fitting fate for someone who has spent so much time criticizing the program the past few years.
With those thoughts in my head, I enter the expansive Lasch Building, and climb the stairs to the second-floor football offices. The receptionist is on the phone and motions for me to hold on.
Coach Bowden, Im sorry, Coach Paterno is not in at the moment, she says into the handset. Thats Coach Bowden, as in Bobby, the head man at Florida State. And Coach Paterno, as in Joe, the lead Lion at Penn State. They are, in no particular order, the two winningest coaches in major college football history.
What the heck have I gotten myself into? I suddenly realize if Bobby Bowden is calling Joe Paterno to tell him how to deal with unruly reporters, Im in dad-gum trouble.
The receptionist gets off the phone, and I tell her why Im there. She makes a call, and politely asks me to head to a waiting area downstairs. I do it. In a few minutes, Penn State athletic marketing maven Guido DElia arrives to escort me deep into the heart of the Nittany Lion football nerve center. We arrive at the room where the tight ends meet, and I realize I was wrong with my earlier projection.
Itll be tight ends doing the dirty work, not linebackers. Figures. All those cracks about tight ends coach Bill Kenney are coming back to get me.
I enter the room and realize I was wrong about that, too. Sitting there scribbling notes, cell phone at the ready, is first-year Penn State recruiting coordinator Mike McQueary. McQueary, you may remember, had a knack for making great first impressions in his days as a quarterback for the Nittany Lions (1992-97).
In his first serious action of 1996, he stepped in for an injured Wally Richardson and helped lead PSU to a Kickoff Classic win over USC. Later that year, he came on in relief of Richardson and helped the Lions rally to a win at Indiana. In his first game as a starter against Pitt at Beaver Stadium in 1997 McQueary set a then-school record of 366 passing yards. He is still Penn States all-time leader in career pass efficiency (145.5).
McQueary has been equally impressive in his debut as Penn States recruiting coordinator. Though the Nittany Lions have experienced four losing seasons in the past five years, and everyone seems to be wondering how much longer the soon-to-be octogenarian Paterno can keep chugging along, State has already received commitments from a pair of players Maryland receiver Derrick Williams and Pittsburgh defensive back Justin King who many analysts rate among the nations top 10 prospects.
Williams and King, along with California star running back Lydell Sargeant and York, Pa., receiver Knowledge Timmons, give Penn State four of the countrys fastest prospects. Sargeant was recently named team MVP of the annual all-star game that pits the best seniors from California against the best from Florida. Adding speed to a program short on game-breakers is a priority for PSU this winter, and it has already gone a long way toward meeting that goal.
And the Lions are not only doing it in this country. Penn State also plucked standout tight end Francis Claude out of Champlain Prep in Beauport, Quebec.
The solid nucleus the Lions have 16 prospects in the fold is allowing them to be extremely selective with the final four or five grants they have to give before signing day (Feb. 2).
What happens with those grants will go a long way toward determining where Penn State finishes in the national recruiting derby. But it is fair to say that the Nittany Lion staff has already exceeded all expectations, except perhaps its own.
So how are they pulling it off?
Thats why I wanted to talk to McQueary. What follows is the first installment of our lengthy Q&A with the Nittany Lion recruiting coordinator. Per NCAA rules, McQueary was not allowed to discuss specific recruits. He stuck to those rules on the record and off.
MB: How did Penn State develop the approach it uses in recruiting?
MM: Its something that develops over time. We had a starting place 30 years ago, and over time, you get to where you are now in terms of how you format your [recruiting] weekends and how you format your whole recruiting program.
The nice thing about Penn State is you dont have to scratch and claw through the dirt to find positives. Its a great place. And the people that have been a part of this program have made it a program that speaks for itself, in terms of academics, stability of the coaching staff, stability of the head coach.
Theres also what we have to offer kids. On the field, in terms of winning tradition. And off the field, in terms, of hey, youre going to excel. Youre going to excel in the classroom and youre going to excel beyond Penn State in your football career.
I think for us here at Penn State, its almost easy to come up with a format, because the program in its entirety speaks for itself.
MB: What kind of questions are you getting from the kids after the team struggles on the field in four of the past five years? I have to imagine theyre hitting you with pretty pointed questions.
MM: To be honest, we havent had to experience those questions. If anything, the questions are about where are you going, not where have you been. The questions are, hey, where do you see yourself in a year. Its not, have you done this or done that, or this has happened to you. Because I think kids, sometimes we underestimate them and their parents. They see where USC was six or seven years ago, they see where Oklahoma was maybe six or seven years ago, and they say, hey, it wasnt so long ago that these programs were having their troubles.
With the aggressivenes weve had this year, we dont see them saying youve had troubles. We see them saying, hey, what are you going to do about it. I think what we have done in terms of going after some skill players and some speed, and some of the athletes weve gotten to commit so far, theyre saying, hey, theyre doing something about it and theyre going in the right direction.
Coach Paterno, hes out there maybe more than hes ever been recruiting. Hes there doing the job that needs to be done.
MB: Does he recruit the players more or the parents more?
MM: I think both. Thats a three-way equation there, and you cant ever underestimate any part of it. The kid, he spends time with them, goes into the school, sees the coach. He works his rear end off once he goes into the school to make sure he has time to go to the house. Sometimes its with grandparents. Sometimes its with aunts and uncles.
Joe Paterno is an icon. Its not like he walks into a school and only the coach knows hes coming and thats it. Its a parade. Its a circus. Coach Paterno walks down the hallway, the principle knows, the guidance counselor knows, the math teacher knows, and 200 kids in that school know who he is. Hes an icon.
And hes not only there to recruit, to say Im here to get this kid out of this school. He says, Im here to tell you Penn State is the right place for this kid. Not because of football but because we can do the right things with him. We have an 86 percent graduation rate, and those types of things.
MB: Do you get questions about how long Joes going to be around? Thats something those of us in media focus on. Is that something the kids focus on?
MM: No, its not. I think thats had its day. When you read the papers now and read the Internet, people are starting to get the drift that he may be 78, but his mind and his body are saying hes 45 or 50. When hes running sprints out at practice, and when hes doing pushups and running gassers with the whole team, they are watching him. Actions speak louder than words there.
The positive thing about Joe is, in his mind, hes not whatever age he is. Hes 45 or 50, and hes here on a mission. Hes going to be here three or four more years. And not only does he want one Big Ten championship or one national championship, he wants two or three before hes done.
Hes got the drive. He was out in May this year. Thats the first time in years hes been out in May. And hes been out a lot in December and January. Hes had full schedules, from 7 in the morning to 9 or 10 at night. Hes enthusiastic, hes got drive, and he wants to make sure he completes the job hes done over the last 50 years.
MB: Have you had the opportunity to be with him in high schools?
MM: Yeah, once or twice, and its amazing. You really cant put it into words. Being a first-timer, youre a little nervous and worked up about it. But you just sit there and watch. Its almost like hes 29 or 30. Hes charismatic, hes outgoing. He tells stories, because hes been in these schools before. Hell bring a guy up from 1965, and say, you know, I remember his mom and I sat in their home on this street.
Thats the difference between him and maybe another guy. With Joe, you know its genuine. With someone else, they may shake the hand and forget the first name 20 minutes later.
MB: He has a reputation as a micromanager. Is that true in terms of recruiting?
MM: He lets you do your job. But hes not afraid to say, hey, maybe we can change this. Hes not afraid to give an opinion but also say, if you guys think you are doing the right thing, go with it.
I dont think he would hire you or work with you unless he trusted your intelligence level. Hell come in and give you a thought to think about, [and then say] now go with it, twist it around and give me an end result. To say hes a micromanager, I dont know. But to say he doesnt pay attention to the little things in the program, that wouldnt be true. He knows everything that goes on inside the walls of the program.
MB: How much have people tried to use the losing and Joes age against you in recruiting?
MM: I dont think much because they know were coming. They know that OK, Penn State has gone through their swing changes like Tiger Woods has. Tiger Woods went through a swing change and Penn States done it and now I think at the tail end of this year you go out to Indiana and you win a tough game there, one that was almost not going to happen. And you come back and beat a Michigan State team that was a good football team that beat a lot of people, and really it wasnt too much of a game. Now theyre saying, oh boy, Penn States coming. Now theyre seeing commitments and theyre saying, boy theyre getting what they needed. So I think they see it rolling. I havent run into it and I dont think weve run into it in the program. If anything, its, hey, lets steer clear of Penn State because it may come back to bite us in the future.
MB: What has the biggest surprise been with this job?
MM: The amount of time. I enjoy it. Some people may say, oh gosh, this job is ridiculous in terms of time, but youve gotta love it. And I do love it. I think no matter what, you cant ever underestimate a kid and what his decision-making process really entails. What I have found is people do care about academics and they do care about how you conduct your program. Do you do it the right way? Are you going to cut the corners to win some more games or are you going to stay true to what youve always believed in and what has worked? And when I first got into it, I thought, boy were gonna have to really go overboard because of the field aspect. The kids, they want to see the whole piece of the pie, the whole pie instead of just one piece.
MB: Is that every kid?
MM: I think on some level it is. I dont think any kid out there is just going to say, boy theyre 11-0 lets go there. I dont think so. Theyre going to care about graduation rate, African American graduation rate, whos in your program, what kind of people do you have staying for it, what kind of kids do you already have in your program? Are we reading about them every other day? Are they graduating with honors and going on to play pro football? Do you have seven defensive linemen that have been coached by Larry Johnson that have all been high draft picks and have all graduated from Penn State? Then theyre saying, oh, that clicks, thats something to really speak of for sure.
MB: Getting back to your job, how many hours per week does everyone put in at this time of year?
MM: Oh, its tremendous hours. It is, it really is. And Joe probably puts in as many hours as any of us. But the whole staff works like a dog. Thats one of the great things about having the staff that we do here at Penn State. From Tom Bradley on down, they all work like dogs. And they go and go and go until the end result is there. And half of it is not only seeing the kids, selecting a kid, but also saying what can we do that is right by the kid? How can we present Penn State and make sure he knows about this aspect of the program that may be a piece missing at another school?
MB: So If Im a recruit youre after, what would you say to me? What message do you want to get across?
MM: The headline that we try to convey to our kids is two part. One, dont come to Penn State if youre just concerned about being on the field and glory and headlines and just the football aspect of it. You go to Penn State because youre concerned about growing as a person. Dont misunderstand me. Winning games is important at Penn State. Theres nothing that is more important. However, on the same plane of importance is graduation, is academics, is being a responsible person, is someday making an effort in your community and being a person that your family can be proud of, that your unversity can be proud of. If youre not sincere about all of those aspects, then Penn State is not going to be the place for you. Now, if you are sincere about it, we promise you that were going to help you grow in all of those ways. I think thats the overall headline. I think thats the mission statement, if you will.
MB: You obviously cant mention names. But have you been surprised at the level of recruits youve been able to land this year?
MM: It doesnt surprise me only because of our staff. Our staff works like dogs and we have great recruiters. Larry Johnson, Joe Paterno, Tom Bradley, Bill Kenney, up and down. Brian Norwood, Jay Paterno, they are all guys who can recruit and when they do recruit theyre not going out there and selling a used car. Theyre going out there and laying on the table Penn State. You choose, this is Penn State, see if its for you. So our staff I think gets 99 percent of [the credit].
People say youre the recruiting coordinator, this is your class. Its not. Its like a 500 piece puzzle and the recruiting coordinator is one piece. Todd Kulka and Wally Richardson, our academic department, is another piece. And Joe Paterno is a piece. Hes a corner piece with two edges on it that you start your puzzle with. And taking a walk on campus is another piece. And [athletic director] Tim Curley, meeting with him and meeting with [school president] Graham Spanier. So all those pieces, they come together. And the recruiting coordinator, its one. Its one middle piece in the puzzle somewhere.
Tomorrow: Getting the lowdown on a Penn State recruiting visit. And be sure to pick up the first issue of Fight On State the magazine, which mails in late February or early March, for our feature story on Mike McQueary.