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Lions make the wrong choice, attend Orange and finish 2nd again

(Editor's note: This article is the final article in a six-part series focusing on Penn State's 1969 Penn State football season. This article concentrates on the end of the season and the process the team went through when deciding to participate in the 1970 Orange Bowl.)

Twenty years ago it was a difficult decision. Penn State's players had to meet twice before they reached a consensus.

Only a week later, however, the decision the squad labored over proved costly; and now, 20 years later, the mistake in judgement still hurts some members of the 1969 football team.

"I think I'm more devastated now then I was then," former Penn State linebacker Dennis Onkotz said. "We could've played for the National Championship, but we didn't. Of course looking back is easy, but personally, I regret the fact that we didn't play Texas."

On Nov. 17, 1969, the Penn State football team called a team meeting to discuss its postseason bowl opportunities. A day earlier the Lions had pounded Maryland, 48-0, and upped their record to 8-0 with games remaining against North Carolina State and Pitt.

With representatives of the Orange, Cotton and Sugar Bowls waiting, Penn State's players tried to decide where to spend the holiday bowl season. The post-game meeting proved fruitless, however, and Coach Joe Paterno met again with his squad the following evening.

A decision was reached almost immediately.

"It's a wonderful honor to be invited back to the Orange Bowl," Paterno said in a statement after the meeting. "Our players thoroughly enjoyed it last year and are looking forward to playing a really great team."

At the time, Penn State was ranked fourth in the Associated Press's poll. Missouri, the Lions' opponent in the Jan. 1 contest, ranked seventh. Defending national champion Ohio State held the top spot in the poll with Texas No. 2.

The Buckeyes would not attend a bowl because of a Big Ten rule stating that no team could repeat as the conference's representative to the Rose Bowl. Their only remaining game, against Michigan (Nov. 22), seemed a sure victory for the squad which was atop the polls all season long. If so, Woody Hayes' team would have posted a 9-0 mark and gained the national title again.

Texas still had games with Texas A&M and No. 3 Arkansas remaining on its schedule. Those matchups would decide the Southwest Conference champion and a berth in the Cotton Bowl.

So, here in Happy Valley on Nov. 17, 1969, the Lions had two choices:

-- Hope that Ohio State would lose to Michigan and vote to play the Longhorns or Razorbacks in the Cotton Bowl for the National Championship, or

-- Opt for a return trip to Miami and face Big Eight champ Missouri in the Orange Bowl.

Penn State Athletic Director Jim Tarman, then the University's public relations director, said Paterno had a definite preference, but allowed the team to make the decision.

"I don't think he ever expressed his opinion to the team. He wanted them to make the decision," Tarman explained. "But I had talked to Joe and I know he wanted to go to Dallas. He liked the way the team was treated the previous year in Miami, but he always thought you should play the best team you could.

"That means the highest ranked team and that would have been either Texas or Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl."

Many different factors played key roles in the squad's decision to play in the Orange Bowl, though.

Only five years earlier President John F. Kennedy had been killed in Dallas and many team members were worried about traveling to Texas, especially black players.

"Some of the players, like (Charlie) Pittman and (Lydell) Mitchell felt they wouldn't be able to have as good of a time in Texas because they were black," Onkotz said. "We had a good time in Miami (in 1968), but it was a stupid decision (to go again in 1969). It was a mistake. It was dumb and I think Joe regrets the fact that he let us vote."

Onkotz's statements sound harsh, but Tarman and Pittman agree expected racism was an important consideration.

"I still think some players were worried about those problems even when we finally did go to the Cotton Bowl in 1972," Tarman said.

Along with expected racial problems, the team had also heard rumors about the manner in which visiting teams were treated at the Cotton Bowl.

"We were told that a game with Texas in Dallas is just like an away game," an unidentified Lion player told the Daily Collegian on Nov. 19, 1969. "It's not like a bowl trip -- they give everything to Texas and nothing to the other team."

Of course, many players were convinced that Ohio State was invincible and assumed the Buckeyes would never lose to Michign. If so, a Penn State matchup against Texas or Arkansas would have been a game for number two and several team members felt if the Lions were going to be number two they should at least enjoy themselves in Miami.

"Writers were proclaiming Ohio State as the team of the century," Pittman explained. "The feeling of the players as the time was that if we had no chance of being No. 1, why go and play Texas on its home field?"

All those possibilities, opinions and rumors changed in the ensuing weeks, though.

Michigan upset OSU, 24-12, a week later and Texas jumped to No. 1 in the polls with Arkansas and Penn State moving to second and third, respectively. Then, on Dec. 9, with a national television audience watching and President Richard M. Nixon in the stands, the Longhorns and Razorbaks met.

Arkansas grabbed a 14-0 halftime lead, but Texas rallied and eventually won the game, 15-14.

Nixon attended the game at the request of an ABC executive to celebrate the 100th anniversary of college football. In accordance with that theme, he was to crown the winner of the game as National Champions. He did just that, thereby losing the votes of many people in Central Pennsylvania.

"I always wondered how Nixon could know so much about college football in 1969 and so little about Watergate in 1973," Paterno has quipped often since then.

Penn State moved up to No. 2 in the following week's poll while Texas stayed at No. 1 and Missouri moved to fourth.

On Jan. 1, 1970, the Lions put on a defensive display unequaled in Penn State history as it held Missouri's high-powered offense to just three points and won the Orange Bowl, 10-3.

As it had throughout the regular season, the Lion defense dominated. While the Penn State rushing game garnered only 55 yards against the Tigers' defense, Penn State forced nine turnovers, including seven interceptions (which still stands as a major bowl record).

Onkotz, Neal Smith and George Landis each had two interceptions while Gary Hull pulled in one. The defense also refused to allow Tiger quarterback Terry McMillan and his favorite receiver, Mel Gray, connect on even one single pass play.

All of Penn State points came late in the first quarter. Mike Reitz kicked a 29-yard field goal with 3:44 remaining in the period and, after Mike Reid caused a fumble, quarterback Chuck Burkhart threw his only touchdown pass of the season, a 28-yarder to Mitchell.

After that, the game became a defensive struggle. Missouri continually moved the ball into Lion territory, but was stopped every time except for one drive late in the first half when they settled for a 33-yard field goal.

Both teams were scoreless throughout the second half and with just minutes remaining the Lions got the ball and were ready to run out the clock. Missouri's defense held again, though, so McMillan and Gray had one more chance to win the game.

Penn State's veteran defense was not about to surrender.

"We were in and out of the game a lot and after a while it seemed like we had been out there a long time," Landis recalled. "I do remember the last time we were on the field Mike Reid was not a happy person. What he said still echoes in my mind.

"Paraphrasing a little, he said, 'This is the last time we're going on the field tonight and we're going to bust our butts and stop them again and get this game over.' "

They did just that, seemingly proving themselves worthy of consideration as the nation's best college football team.

Earlier in the day, though, Texas beat Notre Dame, 21-17, and later that week the football writers agreed with Nixon as they voted the Longhorns as National Champions.

Despite the disappointment of being voted No. 2 for the second consecutive season, the former players said they tried to keep things in perspective.

"We didn't worry about too many things we couldn't control. We were told by Joe Paterno to never look back and never worry about any more than we could do ourselves," Pittman said. "Actually I think we worry about it more now than we did then. It's kind of a shame, but that's the way it is.

"We did the best we could and came up number two seasons in a row. No matter what, though, I believe that no matter who we would've played then, we would've won. The team was just that way -- we didn't lose. It was a great bunch of players."