For decades, Penn State was always considered the gold standard of college football programs in Northeast.
Since 1936 when the Associated Press first began ranking college football teams, Penn State has finished in the rankings 40 times (10th among all college programs), including a pair of national championships in 1982 and 1986.
Just one year after taking over for Rip Engle in 1966, Joe Paterno steered the Nittany Lions to nine straight finishes in the national polls from 1967-75 – the most ever by any school from the Northeast.
“Paterno’s got the best job in coaching at that time,” former West Virginia coach Jim Carlen once recalled, “because they get better players than everybody else. Pitt was having the same problems we were having (in the late 1960s) recruiting players."
For years, other Eastern schools simply could not compete in recruiting with Penn State.
“We could beat Pitt for a Western Pennsylvanian kid but we couldn’t beat Penn State,” said Chuck Klausing, assistant head coach at West Virginia under Bobby Bowden from 1970-76.
Paterno’s dominance has continued to this day. His Penn State teams had a streak of six straight years in the polls from 1977-82, and seven consecutive years in the rankings from 1993-99.
But on occasion, other Northeastern schools have had pockets of success.
Earl Blaik benefited from an abundance of service personnel during World War II to build a powerhouse football program at Army in the mid-1940s, winning back-to-back national titles in 1944-45, and leading the Cadets to a streak of eight straight years in the national rankings from 1943-50.
Jim Tatum followed Bear Bryant and Clark Shaughnessy at Maryland, building the Terrapins into a Northeastern power in the early 1950s. The Terps won the national title in 1953 and spent five straight years in the rankings from 1951-55 before Tatum left to take over North Carolina’s grid program.
Pitt also enjoyed great success under Johnny Majors and Jackie Sherrill in the mid-1970s. When Majors left for Tennessee after leading Pitt to the 1976 national championship, Sherrill, a Majors assistant, took over the reins and guided Pitt to a 50-9-1 record from 1977-81 before handing off the Panther program to his defensive coordinator Foge Fazio in 1982.
Between 1979 and 1983 with Sherrill and Fazio working the Panther sidelines, Pitt spent five straight years in the national rankings.
Many years before that, Fordham and Penn had powerful teams in the 1940s and early 1950s before choosing to deemphasize football. In fact, at one time the Northeast had 30 schools playing big-time college football with 26 of them finishing at least once in the AP poll.
Today, there are only 11 Northeastern programs still competing on the major college level despite the region being one of the most heavily populated areas in the country.
For years, these four football programs - Penn State (1967-75, 1977-82 and 1993-99), Army (1943-50), Maryland (1951-55) and Pitt (1979-83) – were the only ones from the Northeast to have a streak of at least five consecutive finishes in AP the rankings.
Well, now you can add another football program to the list: West Virginia.
The Mountaineers had their fifth straight Top 25 finish this season. Beginning with Rich Rodriguez in 2005 when he led the Mountaineers to an 11-1 record, a win over Georgia in the Sugar Bowl and a No. 5 finish in the polls, West Virginia was in the rankings in 2006 (10th) and 2007 (6th) under Rodriguez, and 2008 (23rd) and 2009 (25th) under present coach Bill Stewart.
During that span of time, West Virginia has posted a 51-13 record and played in January bowl games in four of five years. The Mountaineers’ wins in the 2006 Sugar and 2008 Fiesta bowls were the first major bowl triumphs in school history.
It has truly been a remarkable run for West Virginia football, especially when considering how difficult it has been for Northeastern programs (Penn State being the exception) to maintain consistent long-term success.
Syracuse had pockets of success under Ben Schwartzwalder in the 1950s and 1960s with a string of running backs that included Jim Brown, Ernie Davis, Jim Nance, Floyd Little and Larry Csonka, and also later under Paul Pasqualoni in the mid-1990s with Donovan McNabb and Marvin Harrison, but eventually the Orange were forced to rebuild. A streak of four consecutive Top 20 seasons came to an end in 1962 when Syracuse went 5-5. Another streak of ranked seasons ended in 1999 when Syracuse went 7-5.
Boston College also had a recent run of four straight Top 25 finishes under Tom O’Brien and Jeff Jagodzinski from 2004-07, but that eventually ended as well. The Eagles had two great years under Frank Leahy in 1939-40 before Leahy left for Notre Dame, and they were also successful in the 1970s under Joe Yukica and in the mid-1980s under Jack Bicknell with Doug Flutie at quarterback. Tom Coughlin, too, had some success at BC in the early 1990s before moving on to the pros.
West Virginia had spurts of success under Art Lewis in the mid-1950s with future all-pros Sam Huff, Bruce Bosley, Chuck Howley and Joe Marconi in the program, and later under Don Nehlen in the early and late 1980s. The Mountaineers spent three straight years in the national rankings from 1953-55 and another three years in the polls in 1981-83 before needing time to rebuild.
Even Penn State and Army eventually had to rebuild. The Nittany Lions’ streak of Top 20 finishes came to an end in 1976 when they posted a 7-5 record. Penn State also finished outside the polls in 1983, 1984, 1987, 1988, 1992, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2004 and 2007.
Army’s great run of nationally ranked seasons ended in 1951 when the Cadets finished that year with a 2-7 record. Two years later, Blaik recovered to lead Army to a 7-1-1 mark and a No. 14 national ranking in 1953. Blaik also led Army to Top 20 finishes in 1954 and 1955.
Maryland’s great run of success ended when Tatum left for North Carolina after the 1956 Orange Bowl loss to Oklahoma. Tatum’s successor, Tommy Mont, was just 11-18-1 in his three seasons at College Park.
Pitt hit its dry spell in 1984 under Fazio, going 3-7-1 that season and then 5-5-1 a year later before Fazio was relieved of his head coaching duties in 1985.
In Morgantown, the pessimists say West Virginia is on its way to a rebuilding season in 2010. They point to the Mountaineers’ slip in the rankings from No. 6 in 2007 to 25th this year as proof of their decline. The optimists say the rebuilding already took place. Playing for the first time without star quarterback Pat White, West Virginia finished the 2009 campaign with a 9-4 record and a 33-21 loss to Florida State in the 2010 Konica Minolta Gator Bowl.
West Virginia did so with only 13 seniors on its Gator Bowl two-deep roster.
If underclassmen Noel Devine and Jock Sanders choose to return for their senior seasons (the two are on campus right now for the second semester), West Virginia will have 39 players on its Gator Bowl two-deep roster back for 2010, including sophomore quarterback Geno Smith, who led the Mountaineers to a come-from-behind win over Marshall and also played the entire second half of the Florida State game.
Will West Virginia be good enough to once again finish in the national rankings in 2010? Time will tell. But if the Mountaineers do, they will become one of only three Northeastern football programs in the last 72 years to complete six straight years in the AP national rankings.
And that would be a pretty remarkable achievement for any region of the country.
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