Altoona ‘Pry’de: New PSU LBs coach has deep local roots
Like so many people who grew up in Altoona, Jim Pry’s most vivid memories of his dad, Cyrus Harold, or C.H. for short, center around the railroad.
C.H. would leave every morning for 36 years from the 1940s to 70s and walk 12 blocks down a hill to the Fourth Street Shops. There he worked as a welder underneath the rail cars all day, getting greasy and grimy, and Jim proudly says his dad never missed a day of work.
“He knew what hard work was,” Jim said. “He knew hard work, and he liked hard work.”
Altoona’s rich railroad tradition has instilled that kind of work ethic in thousands of people for more than a century. It’s the city’s calling card.
Because of what he saw from his father, Jim Pry made an important life decision more than 40 years ago.
“He came home from work, tired and dirty from crawling around the railroad cars,” Jim said. “That stuck in me, and I didn’t want to do that. I wanted something better.”
Jim learned the value of hard work from his dad, but his decision – to move away for college and eventually pursue a football coaching career – meant that his own newborn son, Brent, would not grow up in his hometown.
Brent was born April 1, 1970 in Altoona, but a year later Jim and his wife, Kathy (McClain) Pry, left behind their entire family – parents, siblings, uncles, aunts, cousins – and took their son to Marshall University. Jim was a backup quarterback on the memorable 1971 Thundering Herd team, the first one to take the field after a tragic plane crash killed most members of the squad a year earlier.
When talking about Brent Pry, Penn State’s new linebackers coach, it’s correct to say he’s an Altoona native, even if it’s not overly revealing given how little time he actually lived here.
It is, however, entirely accurate, based on so many deep-rooted family connections, to say that Altoona has played a big role in shaping the man Brent is today.
“Altoona has been a big part of my life,” Brent said. “Both my mother and father are Altoona High graduates. Everybody – my dad’s brothers and sisters, my mom’s sisters – everybody’s an Altoona graduate. And I have tons of cousins on both sides.”
He moved away early, but Brent has returned to Altoona countless times in his life to visit family. He still has numerous relatives living here, including Jim and Kathy’s sisters and their children, and everyone in the family is elated to see him getting a big-time opportunity at Penn State. Not all of them, though, are Nittany Lion fans.
“It’s very exciting for the family,” Jim said. “In fact, a couple of them are Pitt fans, and I think they’ve turned.”
For the record, Brent was not one of the Pitt fans in the family.
“I grew up a Penn State fan,” he said. “Ninety-five percent of the family is Penn State people. We understand the prestige, we understand the nostalgia and what Penn State football represents. It’s a program, a way of coaching that I’ve emulated my whole career. So I feel very proud to be here.”
Born to coach
Jim Pry didn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps working for the railroad, but Brent fell in love early on with his dad’s profession. Jim has been a college football coach for 40 years, beginning as a graduate assistant at Marshall.
“My roots go back to his,” Brent said. “Him playing on that Marshall University team and the passion and the emotion, I think that led him to a path of coaching, a career he was very passionate about. And it was exciting to me, when I saw what it did for me and how fulfilling and what it meant to him.”
Brent played safety in college at Maryville in Tennessee and at the University of Buffalo, then began his coaching career at East Stroudsburg in 1993. That’s where he met a man who would become a huge influence on his life, not to mention the reason he’s at Penn State now.
James Franklin was the quarterback at East Stroudsburg and crossed paths for the first time with Brent. They’ve been friends ever since, and Franklin hired him on his staff at Vanderbilt in 2011.
When Franklin was hired as the Nittany Lions’ new coach, it was a given that Pry would be joining him on the staff.
The two men speak very highly of each other.
“In my personal opinion, there’s no hotter coach in college football right now than James Franklin,” Pry said. “Far more important than that, he’s a trusted friend. I have a great sense of belief in him, my wife does, we feel very confident in him leading this program. He’s very mindful of my family and all of our families. That’s important to us.”
The day he was hired at Penn State, Franklin pointed out, “I’m a huge fan of Brent Pry.”
“[He] had a big impact for us at Vanderbilt, not only in recruiting, not only in dealing with the media, but taking some things off my plate, as well,” Franklin said Friday. “A very, very sharp guy. A great coach, great recruiter.”
Franklin holds Pry in such high regard that he named his longtime friend an assistant head coach and co-defensive coordinator at Vanderbilt and also now with Penn State.
Seven other coaches from Vanderbilt also have come on board PSU’s staff, so they all know each other very well. Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop raved about the man he works closest with on the staff.
“I consider Brent not only to be my strongest ally, I consider him to be one of my closest friends,” Shoop said.
“Brent’s a great husband, he’s a great father. He’s the assistant head coach here for a reason because he’s got such a great personality. He gets along with people from all different backgrounds.”
When other coaches on the staff have an issue, Shoop said they often go to Pry and ask, “Hey, Brent, you got a minute?”
“Because he’s very level headed, he’s very mature and he communicates well,” Shoop said. “He tells you what he thinks. He doesn’t necessarily tell you what he thinks you want to hear. Sometimes it may not be what you want to hear, but it may be what you need to hear.”
Faith in Franklin
Pry turned down a terrific opportunity just days before his boss was named Penn State’s new coach. He was offered the job as head coach at Georgia Southern, where he spent a season on the staff in 2010, but he decided now isn’t the time to go down that path in his career.
“I’m not a guy that sits behind my desk and says, ‘I want to be a head coach,'” Pry said. “When Georgia Southern reached out, that was a place that I had worked at and I felt I related to. It’s a fantastic place, they were going into the Sun Belt Conference. It’s a great opportunity, and most people would say, ‘Are you kidding me? You need to go do this. There’s only 120 of those jobs in the country.'”
Pry didn’t know yet that he and Franklin would be coming to Penn State when he turned down the job, but he knows Franklin is a rising star in the coaching profession and decided to continue to ride that train and see where it takes him.
“It was a commitment to stay with James,” Pry said. “It was a commitment from him and a belief in him. We just decided we weren’t ready to go be a head coach yet. I felt like I wanted to stay with Coach [Franklin], whether we were at Vanderbilt trying to win in the SEC or hopefully come to Penn State and win a national championship.”
Jim Pry has spent his lengthy coaching career at numerous jobs – he’s currently the offensive coordinator at Bethune-Cookman – and he spent a lot of time talking with Brent about the Georgia Southern offer.
“Brent’s worked his tail off to get where he is, and he loves James Franklin, he loves the guys he works with,” Jim said. “He just didn’t want to give that up.”
It could turn out to be a very lucrative decision for Brent. He’s now got a prestigious job at PSU, and if Franklin succeeds with the Lions, Pry potentially could get head coaching looks from major programs.
“Going with James opened up a lot of doors for him,” Jim said. “It opened up a level of jobs that he could try and get, where maybe two or three years ago he couldn’t get those jobs.”
Great opportunity at PSU
It’s Linebacker U. It doesn’t get any better than that in college football for a linebackers coach.
Just look at the best linebackers in the NFL, and you’ll see Penn State products NaVorro Bowman, Sean Lee and Paul Posluszny mentioned near the top.
Pry has a chance to become a household name in college football if he can carry on Penn State’s recent tradition.
“He’s as good a fundamental coach, as good a teacher and as good a person as there is in the coaching profession,” Shoop said.
It’s the fundamentals, Brent said, that will be the emphasis of his coaching philosophy at Penn State.
“I’m a big believer in training linebackers that, not only will they reach their potential, but they’ll be applicable to any scheme,” he said. “I don’t want guys that are geared toward 4-3, 3-4, 50 front. I want guys that can be plugged in anywhere, guys that play with knee bend, great foot speed, great motors. Really, when I think about Penn State linebackers, that’s the type of linebackers I’ve trained over my career.”
Pry will have a chance to work with some of the best linebacker talent in the country with the Lions, and he will be held under a microscope by many. He has enormous shoes to fill taking over for Ron Vanderlinden, an exceptional linebackers coach who mentored all of those current NFL stars during their Penn State careers.
Pry said he doesn’t feel any pressure replacing Vanderlinden, noting he’s “very comfortable in the linebacker coach that I am, in my beliefs as a coach.”
“I feel very confident in coming here and upholding the tradition of Linebacker U, embracing it,” Pry said. “I’ve already met with those guys and talked about how we’re going to exceed all expectations. What this group embodies, what this position at Penn State, what it means, is everything that I’m about as a coach.
“I don’t think it could be a better marriage.”