VARSITY TEAMS: 29
INTRAMURAL SPORTS: 16
FAMOUS ALUMNI: MARY ELLEN CLARK, KERRY COLLINS, FRANCO HARRIS
EXTRA CREDIT FOR: CLASSIC FOOTBALL UNIFORMS
Never mind the 93,967-seat football cathedral or the basketball arena replete with skyboxes. If Penn State recruiters really wanted to lure prospective athletes to Nittany Valley, they would take them on a tour of the gift shops and bookstores that dot College Avenue in State College. It is there that one gets a blast of school spirit that assaults all five senses. Aside from viewing the massive inventory of school-logoed T-shirts and tchotchkes, petting thousands of stuffed Nittany lions and, on football game days, hearing tapes of the school marching band blared over loudspeakers, one can sample (no joke) Penn State Extra Chunky Salsa and even get a whiff of Nittany Lion Cologne ($19.95 a bottle).
A tad excessive, this commercialism? "Naw, that stuff is all in good fun," says Joe Paterno, the venerable football coach, whose own life-sized cardboard cutout sells for $39.99. "It just goes to show how caught up folks are in the athletic program. Besides, I'd rather see our boosters buying hot sauce than buying players."
Once a school whose athletic profile was visible only on fall Saturdays, when the football team played, among others, then fellow independents like Miami, Notre Dame and Pitt, Penn State underwent a sports face-lift in 1990 when it became the 11th member of the Big Ten. Football remains king, and though the old rivals have been supplanted by the likes of Michigan and Ohio State, hordes of alumni still converge on Beaver Stadium on game day from as far away as Hawaii, creating traffic jams miles long on single-lane Route 322. So is Joe Pa still the most, well, lionized figure on campus, the eponym of Peachy Paterno ice cream at Penn State's renowned creamery and the Joegie hoagie (capocollo ham, Genoa salami and provolone on an Italian roll) served in the dining halls.
But the Nittany Lions' entrance into the Big Ten has improved their entire athletic program. By taking on stronger competition and reaping the fruits of conferencewide revenue sharing, Penn State has become a force in volleyball, women's basketball and other sports. Moreover, as a condition for joining the Big Ten, the Lions had to retire some outdated facilities, including Rec Hall, the rickety field house that had been used for intercollegiate basketball since 1928 and was already scheduled to be replaced. In its stead the athletic department built the $55 million Bryce Jordan Center, a glossy all-purpose arena that just celebrated its first birthday.
The emphasis on spoils isn't limited to the varsity teams. Undergrads must take at least three credits in a recreational pursuit, such as fly-fishing, golf or power skating. The school also offers academic courses related to sports among them The Modern Olympic Game! (page 84). And the College of Health and Human Development boasts a nationally renowned kinesiology department.
With a sprawling, pastoral campus perched in the heart of the Allegheny Mountains Penn State has more than enough playing fields (80 acres), swimming pools (four), golf courses (two) and other facilities to accommodate a student body of nearly 40,00, some 58% of whom participate in intramurals. The school has 57 recreation and sports clubs, including an outdoors organization whose 1,300 members do everything from kayak in Lake Perez 17 miles from campus, to ski at Tussey Mountain, just four miles away.
Simple geography helps explain Penn State's rabid devotion to it: teams. Happy Valley is equally inaccessible from all points on the map This means that once students get to campus, they tend not to leave, forgoing road trips and instead catching, say, women's hoop; on campus. Those with some semblance of a valid I.D. showing then to be 21 or older gravitate to Damon's Clubhouse or Champs Sport; Grill to catch the Nittany Lions on the big screen and scarf Philly steak: laden with more cheese than Jerry Maguire's mission statement.
"The students are a captive audience who are always around lo games, and they then become loyal alumni who love to come bad to campus," says Bruce Parkhill, a former men's basketball coach who' now an administrator in the athletic department. "This place is second to none in fan support." Indeed, like the school's fragrance, the fervor in Happy Valley resembles Obsession.