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Did Joe Paterno cost Franco Harris the Heisman Trophy?

Joe and Franco did not get along well -- but Chuck Noll and Franco did

… new book discusses the friction

When I was an undergraduate at Penn State in the late 1960s and early 70s, those of us who were rabid Nittany Lions fans could agree on one thing as we sat around the table in the dining hall: Franco Harris was going to win the Heisman Trophy before he graduated from Penn State.

Of course, we were wrong about that — but we were right that he should have won it. After all, only two PSU running backs have made the NFL Hall of Fame, and Franco is one of them.

So, what prevented Franco from winning it after demonstrating such promise as a college sophomore?

Joe Paterno.

Or so the story goes.

Jim Wexell has written a book about the Steelers drafts, one that will be released later this year. The title is “One the Clock: Behind the Scenes with the Pittsburgh Steelers.”

In it, he sheds light on the contentious relationship between Penn State Coach Joe Paterno and the only running back he coached you made the NFL Hall of Fame.

And why it was not Lydell Mitchell.

Art Rooney Jr. loved Franco

Wexell explains that Art Rooney Jr., who put together the great drafts of the late 60s and 1970s, was enamored when he watched Franco, who was big, fast, strong, with great moves.

However, whenever he asked about Franco, the PSU coaches always changed the subject,

Art Rooney Jr.'s first visit to watch the Penn State backs seemed off to him. He liked Harris, the bigger back who could cut at full speed, but whenever Rooney asked Joe Paterno or members of his coaching staff about Harris, they turned the conversation to Mitchell.

On his next trip, Rooney heard from the coaches that Harris was lackadaisical in practice and again the conversations were steered toward Mitchell.

This puzzled Rooney, who thought Harris clearly had more size, power and speed and seemed to make the big plays at the big times for Penn State.

Unshaken, Rooney sought confirmation from Dick Haley and the two agreed: There was no legitimate comparison between the two backs and Harris was clearly the better pro prospect.

Jim Wexell, “The Penn Stater,” 247 Sports, September 7, 2022

The Steelers took Franco as their first-round pick in 1972, but many people questioned the pick since Lydell Mitchell was the star, the one who was the star of the 1971 season.

1971 Penn State season

Mitchell had rushed for 616 yards as a sophomore and 751 as a junior, but in his senior season, he carried the ball 254 times for 1,567 yards (6.2/carry) and 26 touchdowns. He finished his career with 2,934 yards on 501 carries for 38 touchdowns, a total of 3,404 yards from scrimmage.

That led one of my high school friends and football teammates to question me about why the Steelers had selected Franco over Lydell. “Believe me, the Steelers made the right pick. Just you wait and see Franco,” I told Danny Bender, a friends from Lilly who was then working and living in Pittsburgh.

So, what happened to Franco’s Heisman opportunity?

Joe and Franco did not get along well, as an instance in the 1971 season illustrated.

The Nittany Lions opened their 1971 season with ten consecutive victories, but then lost its last game to Tennessee, which cost itself a chance at a national title and enraged Paterno. Then, Harris’ antics further enraged his coach, who denigrated Franco to the NFL scouts.

Ultimately, that worked to the benefit of the Steelers, who knew how good Franco really was,

Penn State finally lost in Game 11 at Tennessee and four weeks later played in the Cotton Bowl against Texas. That week, Harris came out for practice a few minutes later after being taped. This angered Paterno and he warned Harris in front of the team that he would be demoted if it happened again. Harris felt the need to test Paterno and the next day sat inside and came out exactly three minutes late, purposely. True to his promise, Paterno didn't start his fullback, which raised more questions with scouts.

According to Penn State historian Lou Prato, Paterno thought the action would stimulate the team. "In fact," Prato wrote, "it solidified the team behind Harris, and the Nittany Lions went out and upset Texas, 30-6, in what is considered one of the turning point games in Penn State’s football history."

“I was very upset with the consequences of not starting in the Cotton Bowl,” Harris told Prato. “I did get to play. I didn’t have a lot of yards, but felt I had a really good game, in blocking and doing other things. Then because of that, when they were talking about me being drafted, they talked about Franco being a problem kid. I called Joe about that, and he said, ‘Don’t worry about it. If anybody calls me, we know you’re not a problem.’”

Jim Wexell, “The Penn Stater,” 247 Sports, September 7, 2022

Well, that was not true. Paterno was old-school, and those coaches wanted players to be great on the practice field before making it onto the playing field.

Franco’s stats over the years show that Joe was not happy that his talented running back was not much of a practice player.

For example, Harris carried the ball 115 times for 643 yards and ten TDs as a sophomore, 142 times for 675 yards the next year, and 123 times for 684 yards as a senior. These are not the numbers of a marquee back, and Paterno felt that Harris was not the marquee back — Mitchell was.

Mitchell carried the ball 254 times his senior season, more than twice the number that Franco had. So, even Chuck Noll did not agree that the better back was Franco Harris. In fact, Noll did not like either PSU back,

There was far from a consensus on the alternative, and the camps lined up behind running backs Franco Harris of Penn State and Robert Newhouse of Houston.

The camp led by Chuck Noll liked Newhouse, a bowling-ball type who was fast and strong. Harris, at 6-2, 220, was a fullback, but Noll wasn't looking for a lead blocker. He wanted split backs who could block for each other and catch passes and run inside and outside. Harris could do all of that, but Noll didn't like big backs. He thought they lacked agility. Newhouse, at 5-10, 205, was more Noll's style because he liked balance, quickness and Newhouse’s body control. Noll also didn't like the reports questioning Harris' moodiness and work ethic.

The debate raged in the draft room the day running backs were discussed. "Pure emotion took over, especially in my own case," said Art Rooney Jr., leader of the Harris camp. "Let's say I was carried away."

Art Jr. came prepared that day. He had asked George Young about the backs, and Young was a highly respected assistant with the Colts and had worked alongside Noll. Art Jr. knew Noll would listen to Young, who said, "Tell Chuck that question was settled over 2,000 years ago when Socrates said, 'A good big man is better than a good little man any day.' "

On that note, the meeting ended. And with the offensive line to be discussed the next morning, Art Jr. knew he had to be proactive and come in with fresh info before opening the topic again. So, he solicited the opinions of friends who had scouted both backs and Art Jr. put their assessments on tape for Noll. But Noll merely responded that Art Jr. was asking leading questions.

Art Jr. believes departing defensive line coach Dan Radakovich ultimately convinced Noll to draft Harris.

Jim Wexell, “The Penn Stater,” 247 Sports, September 7, 2022

Fortunately for the Steelers, Art Jr. won the day, and the Steelers ended up with a Hall of Famer.

Paterno used his Italian roots to lure Harris

Attracting Franco to Penn State was not an easy task for the Nittany Lion recruiters, but ethnicity may have played a factor. Paterno, an Italian from Brooklyn, managed to sweet talk Gina Harris, an Italian who met Franco’s father, Cad, when he was a U.S. soldier in the World War II in Italy,

Winning Mom over

In the end, though, it may have been his mother who actually was won over.

Notre Dame had sent Gina Harris a beautiful crucifix. But Paterno showed up with a 25-pound box of candy. "I was mopping the floor when he came over," she said. "It was the biggest box I had ever seen."

Recalled Carm Cella, Harris' high school backfield coach: Paterno's "an Italian boy. Here's a lady from Italy. He promised he would take care of her son. You had to sell Mom."

Sean Somerville, “Franco Harris: still goal-bound ‘He has always knew

where he wanted to go’,” Baltimore Sun, September 21, 1996

Joe may have sold the mom, but Franco never sold Joe — though he did sell Chuck Noll, which was much more important to Franco in the long run.

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