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Stories of the year: Paterno’s death, O’Brien’s success leave mark on 2012 sports scene

December 30, 2012
By John Hartsock ( , The Altoona Mirror

he soap-opera saga that walloped Penn State's football program since news of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal first broke in November 2011 continued to become more surreal and incredulous throughout the year 2012.

Legendary coach Joe Paterno's death at the age of 85 from lung cancer Jan. 22 left much of Pennsylvania in mourning.

Former Penn State quarterback Michael Robinson was one of the several hundred former Nittany Lions players on hand to eulogize Paterno at a packed memorial tribute at the Jordan Center last Jan. 26.

The ceremony followed a two-day public viewing (Jan. 24-25) in which Penn State fans, stretching for blocks across campus, stood for hours to pay their respects.

"He's in all of us,'' was how Robinson, a Pro Bowl running back with the National Football League's Seattle Seahawks, summed up Paterno's lasting influence on the players he coached and the lives he impacted.

Sandusky's conviction in June, the damning Louis Freeh report in mid-July, and the removal of the Paterno statue, for his alleged involvement or lack thereof in handling information involving Sandusky, from Beaver Stadium July 22 led up to what could have been a knockout punch for the Nittany Lions' long-storied football program.

On July 23, the NCAA levied sanctions against Penn State that included a four-year postseason bowl ban, a $60 million fine, drastic football scholarship reductions, and the vacating of 111 of Paterno's previous college football record 409 career coaching wins - leaving Penn State and its newly-hired football coach, Bill O'Brien, with the monumental task of rebuilding a shattered program that has traditionally been regarded as one of the nation's best.

O'Brien proved to be the right man for the job, too, at least in his first season. He led one of Penn State's most resilient teams ever to an 8-4 record after an 0-2 start and several key player defections had initially brought forecasts of doom and gloom for the program in 2012.

For his efforts, O'Brien earned recognition as the Big Ten Conference's Coach of the Year and was one of nine finalists for the National Coach of the Year Award.

The NCAA sanctions that compounded O'Brien's challenge allowed current players the opportunity to transfer from Penn State without penalty, and many did so - including star running back Silas Redd, who bolted for USC, kicking specialist Anthony Fera, who left for Texas, and wideout Justin Brown, who transferred to Oklahoma.

On the football field, Paterno left almost nothing undone, winning two national championships, setting the all-time NCAA Division I college football coaching victories record, and helping Penn State blossom from a rural, agricultural school in the middle of the 20th century into a national college football and academic powerhouse just a few decades later.

As the Paterno era came to a close, Penn State hired a new football coach who was half his age. O'Brien, who had formerly been the New England Patriots offensive coordinator, was formally introduced at the Nittany Lion Inn on Saturday, Jan. 7.

"There is so much pride in Penn State, and we will never, ever take that for granted,'' O'Brien, 43, said at his media coming-out party. "I believe in myself. I believe in Penn State.''

O'Brien inked a five-year contract with Penn State that will pay him at least $2.3 million each season. After the sanctions, it was announced the contract was extended four more years, through 2020.

O'Brien brought a run-and-gun, wide-open offense that was a big change from Paterno's conservative approach. Senior Matt McGloin developed into one of the country's most improved quarterbacks, and sophomore wideout Allen Robinson blossomed into a premier receiver.

The Lions' strong finish - eight wins in their final 10 games - leaves O'Brien as a hot commodity for NFL and college football coaching vacancies this offseason. But in late November, the coach publicly declared that he has no plans to leave Penn State.

O'Brien retained a pair of long-time Penn State defensive coaches, Ron Vanderlinden and Larry Johnson, on his first-year staff, but former defensive coordinator Tom Bradley's life-long affiliation with the Nittany Lions came to an end after the 2011 postseason.

Bradley, a Johnstown native who was in the running for the Penn State head coaching vacancy, took over the head coaching reins of the Nittany Lions after Paterno's firing for the final three games of the 2011 regular season and the team's TicketCity Bowl game against the Houston Cougars in Dallas on Jan. 2, 2012. Penn State lost that game, 30-14.

The developments at Penn State were among the nation's biggest stories in 2012, as well as the Mirror's top sports stories for the past year.

Other top stories worthy of consideration follow:

Franco returns as Altoona football coach

John Franco spent 18 years putting the Tyrone Area High School football program on the map.

He led the Golden Eagles to three appearances in the PIAA Class AA state championship game - the last in 2011 - and a state title in 1999.

There wasn't much else left for him to accomplish at Tyrone, but there was plenty of room for improvement with the football program at Altoona Area High School, where Franco began his second tour of duty as the Mountain Lions' head coach on Jan. 30. The Mountain Lions had won just eight of 36 games from the 2008 through 2011 seasons.

Franco, a driver's education teacher at Altoona Area High School, was the Mountain Lions' head football coach from the 1986 through 1993 seasons, compiling a 40-45-2 record.

Franco was hired for his second tenure as the Mountain Lions' coach by a 6-3 vote of the Altoona School Board. His Tyrone teams put together a composite 190-37 record over 18 seasons.

Altoona was a high school football power back in the 1960s and 1970s, turning out several future National Football League players. Franco believes that the Mountain Lions can become one of the state's elite high school programs again.

"To me, when I think of Altoona, I think of a school that has to be a football power,'' Franco said on the day of his hiring.

In Franco's first season of his second tour at Altoona, the Lions qualified for the playoffs for the first time since 2007. They posted a 4-6 record, losing to North Allegheny in the first round of the WPIAL playoffs.

Among the assistant coaches on Franco's staff is Tom Palfey, who had been the Mountain Lions' head football coach for three seasons (2009 through 2011) before the job was opened in November 2011. Palfey had previously served as Franco's assistant at Tyrone before taking over the Altoona program.

Bellwood reaches football semifinals

The 2012 Bellwood-Antis High School football team punched its third ticket to the semifinal round of the PIAA state playoffs, joining the 1988 and 2006 squads as the only two teams in school history to do so.

Under the direction of veteran coach John Hayes, Bellwood compiled a 13-2 record and came within one victory of a berth in the PIAA Class A state championship game.

Bellwood, which won the District 6-A title with a 54-3 victory over Bishop McCort, defeated Delone Catholic of District 3 in double-overtime, 33-26 in the first round of the state playoffs. Bellwood's season ended the following week with a 40-19 loss to District 2 champion Dunmore in a semifinal-round game played on Central Mountain High School's field in Mill Hall.

St. Francis coaching changes

The past year brought head coaching changes with both the St. Francis University men's and women's basketball programs.

Don Friday left as the St. Francis men's coach in April after compiling a 32-86 composite record over four seasons, including a 6-23 mark in the 2011-12 campaign. Friday's departure was characterized as a mutual parting between the coach and St. Francis, but SFU athletic director Bob Krimmel said that in the aftermath that "we didn't see the results that he expected to see or that we expected.''

In a move that generated a great deal of controversy, Krimmel's son, Rob, who had been the team's associate head coach, was promoted to the head coaching position.

Rob Krimmel played at St. Francis and had been on the SFU coaching staff for the past 12 seasons.

Earlier in April, the St. Francis women's basketball program also experienced a changing of its guard, as Susan Robinson Fruchtl - who had guided the program to three straight Northeast Conference championship game appearances, two NEC titles, and two NCAA tournament appearances - left Loretto after five seasons to become Providence's new head coach.

Joe Haigh, who had been Robinson Fruchtl's assistant coach for the past four seasons, was promoted to the head coaching post in late April.

Penn State wrestlers defend NCAA title

The Penn State wrestling team won its second consecutive NCAA team championship in March, taking top honors at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis.

Penn State racked up 143 team points, rolling to the team title by 25 points over second-place Minnesota.

The Nittany Lions boasted three individual champions in Frank Molinaro (149 pounds), David Taylor (165) and Ed Ruth (174).

State College Area High School product Steve Bosak won the 184-pound NCAA championship for Cornell, defeating Penn State standout and Bald Eagle Area grad Quentin Wright in the title match.

Everett grad part of Olympic medal effort

Clearville native Natalie Dell, 27, a graduate of Everett Area High School and Penn State, was part of a four-person rowing team that secured a third-place bronze medal in the 2012 Olympic Games.

Dell, along with California's Kara Kohler, Wisconsin's Megan Kalmoe, and Washington's Adrienne Martelli - took third place in the women's quadruple sculls event at Eton Dorney, England on Aug. 1 - enabling the U.S. to earn just its second-ever Olympic medal in rowing, and its first in 28 years.

The team finished with a time of six minutes, 40.63 seconds. Ukraine took the first-place gold medal with a time of 6:35.93, and Germany captured a second-place silver medal in 6:38.09.

Curve home park renamed

The Altoona Curve played in the same ballpark this past summer that they did for their first 14 seasons in the Eastern League.

Beginning with the 2012 season, however, that ballpark began going by a different name.

The Peoples Natural Gas company of Pittsburgh purchased the naming rights to what had previously been known as Blair County Ballpark, and the Curve's home field is now going by the name of Peoples Natural Gas Field.

Peoples Natural Gas services 16 counties in western Pennsylvania, and partnering with the company will give the Curve some much-needed revenue support.

Wilson-Adams wins high jump title

Tyrone Area High School's Charles Wilson-Adams proved at the PIAA track and field meet that performance is much more significant than expectations.

Wilson was only seeded in a tie for seventh place entering the Class AA high jump event, but he became the Mirror coverage area's only gold medalist in the 2012 state meet last May at Shippensburg University's Seth Grove Stadium by jumping six feet, eight inches.

Schuylkill Valley's Jared Horne finished second to Wilson-Adams with a jump of 6-7.

Wilson-Adams used his low seed entering the meet as a motivating factor to win the gold medal as a junior. He'll be one of the Class AA favorites to defend his championship in 2013 as a senior.

"Seeds really mean nothing,'' he said. "I knew coming in that I was a low seed, but that actually motivated me. I knew that I could do better [than a seventh seed].''

Altoona, Central, Bedford reach Final Four

Both the Altoona Area High School baseball team and the Central High School softball squad enjoyed unprecedented success for their programs last spring.

Both came within one victory of achieving a berth in state championship games. Altoona won the District 6-AAAA championship and two state playoff games before winding up its deepest playoff run in school history and a 17-6 season with a 4-0 loss to Council Rock South in the state semifinals.

Central, the District 6-AA softball runners-up, wrapped a 19-6 campaign - its best ever - with a 15-5, five-inning loss to Neshannock in the state semis. The Lady Dragons also won two state playoff games to reach the semis.

The Bedford High School boys soccer team also reached the PIAA Class AA semifinals this fall, its best finish ever. Bedford won 21 of its 23 games.

Ex-Altoona coach Swogger dies

John Swogger, who coached the Altoona Area High School boys basketball team from 1968-80, passed away on Christmas Day at the age of 77.

Swogger brought an exciting style that swelled the Mountain Lions' fan base, packing the Jaffa Mosque and Altoona Fieldhouse. He developed point guard Johnny Moore, who became a standout for the San Antonio Spurs and was the first of four Altoona players to make the NBA from 1979-97.

Following his retirement from the bench, Swogger taught the game and provided basketball and life lessons to area youth until the time of his death.

He was inducted into the Blair County Sports Hall of Fame in 2006.

Former Mirror sports staffer Polito dies

Frank Polito, a former long-time member of the Altoona Mirror sports staff, died on Oct. 6 at the age of 69 at Bellmeade Manor after enduring an extended illness.

Polito, who retired as a journalist with the Mirror in 2009, was known by his former co-workers as "Salty" because of his love of pretzels and his crusty wit.

Outgoing and personable, Polito forged life-long friendships with many area coaches, both current and retired. Polito covered the Hollidaysburg Area High School and the University of Pittsburgh football programs, as well as many other Blair County scholastic sports programs, early in his 40-plus year tenure with the Mirror.

Other notable deaths with local ties ...

Former local sprint car racer Johnny Grum, 82; former Penn State men's basketball coach Dick Harter, 81; former professional golfer and Gallitzin native John Felus, 77; former Penn State assistant football coach Joe Sarra, 75; former National League Basketball player Jack Twyman, 73, who had been a guardian of the late St. Francis University basketball great Maurice Stokes; veteran area sports photographer and wrestling writer Jim Butler, 65; long-time George B. Kelley Baseball Federation Martin Oil manager Ed Davis, 64; former Johnstown Area High School and National Basketball Association player Pat Cummings, 55; former Penn State men's basketball player Monroe Brown, 41; former Hollidaysburg Area High School basketball player Matt Yeager, 39; former track star Jim Gehrdes, 1989 Blair County Sports Hall of Fame inductee; former Tyrone High School football player and wrestler Terry Hyde, 36; former Moshannon Valley High School football player Dylan Keith, 19; Huntingdon High School wrestler Clayton Bishop, 16; Everett High School wrestler Neal Hammond, 15.

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