When the Nittany Lions head to Virginia on Saturday, Frank Rocco Jr. will be in the stands with many reasons to cheer for Penn State.
Frank Jr. started at quarterback and helped the Nittany Lions win the 1979 Liberty Bowl. After that, he was a graduate assistant on their 1982 national championship team.
His father, Frank Sr., spent nearly two decades on the Penn State’s coaching staff, and his wife also graduated from the school.
But Frank Jr. won’t be wearing blue and white on Saturday.
He’ll be sporting blue and orange.
Michael Rocco, Frank Jr.’s son, is Virginia’s starting quarterback, and the Penn State alum said his family ties take precedent over any other bonds he has.
“I would think anybody in their right mind would be rooting for their son, regardless of their history” Frank Jr. said. “I will root my head off in the next nine games [for Penn State], just like I did for them last week against Ohio. …For this one game I’m not, for obvious reasons.”
Michael’s Penn State roots go a bit deeper than what has already been mentioned.
In addition to his father and grandfather, Michael has two uncles — Dave and Danny — with connections to the program. Both uncles spent limited time playing for Penn State. Dave suffered a back injury and had his career cut short, while Danny transferred to Wake Forrest after two seasons in Happy Valley.
Michael still has family in the area with Frank Sr. and his wife, along with Michael’s aunt Sheri all currently living in State College.
The junior quarterback spent about the first 10 years of his life in Pittsburgh and grew up a Nittany Lions fan as Michael went to many games at Beaver Stadium as a kid with his family.
“We always went over to campus and the stadium, and we always went over to the Nittany Lion on campus and took a picture,” Frank Jr. said. “That’s all part of his heritage, so that’s why this game is so special this week. Penn State is such a big part of our family.”
With all the connections he has to the Lions, playing for them wasn’t ruled out of the question when Michael was in high school.
He attended Penn State’s football camps for many years and when he went to one before his senior year in high school, he had a talk with then-head coach Joe Paterno and his son, Jay, who at the time was the quarterbacks coach. Penn State already had offers on the table to two quarterbacks in Michael’s class — Rob Bolden and Paul Jones — who were both more highly touted than Michael, so the school offered him a grayshirt option.
In college football, a grayshirt is when a school delays the enrollment of a student to extend a player’s eligibility. But it wasn’t something Michael wanted to do.
“That was an option early in my recruitment,” Michael said of Penn State. “But once I talked to [Virginia head coach Mike London] and made the decision to come here, I was fully committed. But [Penn State] was one of the top five schools or something on my board. I became a Cavalier and haven’t looked back since then.”
Actually, Michael originally verbally committed to Louisville, but after a change in coaching staffs at the school, he reopened his commitment for a spell before landing at Virginia. He added that, even with its Penn State ties, his family was very understanding during the recruiting process.
“My family just wanted me to pick the right school for me, the right fit for me,” Michael said. “And if that was Penn State they would be happy, but if that was anywhere else, they’d be happy. At the end of the day, that was Virginia and I’m happy with my decision.”
Michael said he has no hard feelings toward Penn State for not giving him a full offer. The team now has a new coaching staff, and it may wish Michael had received a better offer from the program a few years ago.
Bolden started as a freshman for the Lions, but has since transferred to LSU. Jones was academically ineligible last season and has yet to play a collegiate snap.
Meanwhile, Michael has earned himself a starting spot in Charlottesville and helped lead the Cavaliers to an appearance in the Chick-fil-A Bowl and an 8-5 record as a sophomore in 2011. Michael was the starting signal-caller for all 13 of Virginia’s games last season and threw for 2,671 with 13 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
And though he was the starter for all of last season, the 6-foot-3, 225-pound junior had to compete with Alabama transfer Phillip Sims for the job this summer. Michael won the job and threw for 311 yards and a touchdown in the Cavaliers’ season-opening win against Richmond last Saturday.
While Virginia’s game this week has family implications for the Roccos, so did the team’s game against Richmond. It just so happens Danny is the head coach at Richmond and coached against his nephew last weekend.
“How many families get the chance to have an experience like that?” Frank Sr. said. “With major college football with sons and grandsons involved at that level. It was special, it really was.”
It was a family gathering for the Roccos at last week’s game, and the whole family is going to be back in Scott Stadium this Saturday for another memorable game.
“When my family and I first looked at the schedule when it first came out, we just were kind of shocked about how familiar the first couple of games would be,” Michael said. “I went against my uncle this past week, it was kind of a family reunion that we had at the game. And this week, it’s Penn State, and I have so many affiliations with them, it’s crazy how it all worked out.”
With Frank Sr. retired — having been a part of Penn State’s program from 1982-2000 in addition to coaching for 20 years in the high school ranks — his three sons followed in his footsteps. Danny does so at Richmond, while Dave is currently the head football coach at the Covenant School in Charlottesville.
Frank Jr. is the athletic director and head football coach at Liberty Christian Academy in Lynchburg, Va. And just as Frank Jr. was coached by his father at Fox Chapel High School near Pittsburgh, Frank Jr. was Michael’s head football coach in high school.
The eldest of the Rocco men said he was proud all three of his sons — who interestingly enough have at one point each coached current Jacksonville Jaguars running back Rashad Jennings — have become coaches, and anticipated Michael will do the same when he is finished playing.
“There are probably times I would’ve hoped they would’ve went in different directions,” Frank Sr. said laughingly. “They all have degrees in things other than coaching, you know. But they all gravitated to it and they are all doing well and we’re grateful.”
Michael’s potential future in coaching lies down the road and right now he’s more worried about facing the team he grew up rooting for.
Michael said he’s trying to treat it the same as any other game.
But that won’t be the case for the rest of his family.
“[Saturday]’s going to be an exhausting day because there will be emotions going in both directions,” Frank Sr. said. “Whenever a good play happens, you’re going to be happy and unhappy at the same time.
“It’s a big day for us.”