Amid sanctions, Penn State's seniors salvaged season
Coach Bill O'Brien often can't say enough about the role Penn State's seniors played in leading the Nittany Lions to an improbable 8-4 record this past season.
But two key words offer the simplest explanation of why this senior class will go down as perhaps the most important in Penn State football history: “Charlie Mike.”
That is military shorthand for the initials C.M., which stand for “Continue Mission.” Following an inspirational speech from a former Nittany Lion and Navy SEAL, those words became the rallying cry for the players in August. And the code words help tell the story of a group that refused to let Penn State fail after crippling NCAA sanctions in July triggered widespread predictions of collapse.
Notre Dame and Alabama play for the national championship Monday night, bringing an end to the college football season that capped the most trying year in Penn State history. If the Nittany Lions one day rejoin the elite in college football, 2012 will go down as a seminal season.
Senior leaders, many of whom composed an unheralded recruiting class five years earlier, helped prevent a mass exodus of underclassmen in the days after the sanctions were announced. The Tribune-Review talked exclusively with a handful of those players, including outside linebacker Michael Mauti, about how they held the team together during the most precarious time in program history.
The efforts of Mauti and his fellow seniors started the same day the NCAA slapped the program with sanctions that included a four-year postseason ban and allowed all players to transfer without penalty. That night, Mauti and running back Mike Zordich showed up unannounced at the on-campus apartment of defensive tackle Jordan Hill.
“We need to keep this (expletive) together,” they told Hill after he opened the door.
The players met with O'Brien, who was six months removed from a trip to the Super Bowl as New England's offense coordinator, shortly after the NCAA sanctions were announced.
“He didn't show weakness of hoping guys would stay or begging guys to stay,” said senior offensive tackle Mike Farrell, a Shady Side Academy graduate. “He was honest, but he was firm with the plan that he had, and I don't think he could have done it better any other way.”
The seniors pledged to stay together almost immediately after the sanctions were unveiled, and they took the lead in persuading underclassmen not to flee the program.
Hill talked to every defensive lineman and told them to call him at any time with questions or doubts.
“I may not have the answer,” he said, “but I will help you.”
Senior cornerback Stephon Morris, to whom the concept of loyalty is fiercely personal, talked to the defensive backs about how he planned to honor the commitment he had made to Penn State. Sophomore cornerback Adrian Amos and freshman cornerback Da'Quan Davis thanked Morris afterward. Both told Morris that they hoped to lead like him one day.
Mauti and Zordich kept detailed notes on every player and where each stood as far as staying at Penn State or leaving. The two players would work out first thing in the morning and try to stay in front of the fluid transfer situation in the afternoon.
Nights were spent in O'Brien's office, as Mauti and Zordich shared notes on what they were hearing with the head coach and strength coach Craig Fitzgerald. Mauti and Zordich outlined scenarios in which a player might leave and what player or players he might follow out of Penn State.
“Going to bed at 3 or 4 at night and wake up at 6 in the morning and doing it all over again,” Zordich said of the days after the sanctions were announced. “We had it all mapped out.”
Not that everything followed script.
Mauti found out one day that two of his teammates were visiting Michigan State, and he reached one of them by cell phone. After he delivered a pitch as to why they should stay at Penn State, the two turned around and headed back.
Mauti declined to name the players, but he said the anecdote illustrates how fine a line there was between keeping the program together and watching it crumble.
The first significant loss came a week after the sanctions were handed down when star tailback Silas Redd made official his plans to transfer to Southern Cal.
O'Brien had previously invited hundreds of former lettermen back to Penn State, and they were scheduled to address the team that night. O'Brien told them following the loss of Redd that he needed their help.
“The boat isn't sinking,” O'Brien said to them. “It is rocking.”
A galvanizing speech
No former player did more to galvanize the current ones than a walk-on whose name might not register with even the most avid Penn State fan.
Rick Slater joined the team in the late 1990s, at age 28, after serving eight years in the military. After 9/11, he re-enlisted, and by the time O'Brien had asked him to address the 2012 team, the Navy SEAL had served five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Players sat at attention as Slater brought to life abstract values such as duty and honor. He talked to them about how his life depended on trust and knowing the guy next to him would fight for him.
Then Slater took off the football belt he had worn at Penn State. He told the players that it had been on every continent and that he had worn it during every mission.
That, he said, was how much Penn State football meant to him.
“That was one of the more powerful moments of that speech,” Mauti recalled.
Slater concluded by exhorting the players to “Charlie Mike” — continue mission.
The words made their way onto T-shirts as well as the wall of Penn State's weight room.
Players would often bark the words in unison after they broke a team huddle. And “Charlie Mike” is the reason Penn State didn't unravel after opening the season with back-to-back losses for the first time since 2001.
“We didn't have any come-to-Jesus meetings in that aspect among seniors or among players,” Farrell said of the start that included a demoralizing one-point loss at Virginia. “We just maintained that idea that we were just going to refuse to be denied.”
Penn State won seven of its next nine games, and the team that was not allowed to play in a bowl game turned into one of the stories of the year in college football.
Players, however, chafed at the notion that Penn State would play with house money in the regular-season finale since it already had guaranteed itself a winning record.
Mauti, after all, had taped Slater's speech from more than two months earlier inside his locker for a reason.
“Charlie Mike” indeed.
The night before the final game against Wisconsin, O'Brien asked every senior to address the team.
Morris talked about his father, Roman, who had raised him after his mother tried to give him away at age 2 and how much Penn State meant to both of them. Hill told the team about his father, who had suffered a stroke a couple of years earlier and taught his son the real meaning of perseverance.
Mauti talked about everything he had been through at Penn State, which included three season-ending knee injuries, the firing and death of former head coach Joe Paterno and the fallout from the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
The next day, Penn State placed the 2012 team in the school's ring of honor. The Nittany Lions wore No. 42 on their helmets to honor Mauti, who could not play against Wisconsin after injuring his knee the previous game. Outside linebacker Gerald Hodges switched from No. 6 to No. 42 as a tribute to his teammate and close friend.
Hill, who had suffered two knee injuries earlier in the season, dominated the game on one healthy leg. Maligned kicker Sam Ficken booted a 37-yard field goal in overtime. The Badgers couldn't match the field goal after Hill wrecked yet another Wisconsin possession.
A glowing scoreboard on a bitterly cold night at Beaver Stadium said it all: Penn State 24, Wisconsin 21.
“Charlie Mike” officially had turned into completed mission.
In the glow of a victorious locker room, Zordich spread the two words. They were the password to get players and their families into a private party later at a popular State College restaurant.
More than six weeks later, “Charlie Mike” offers the most succinct summation of a season that won't soon be forgotten.
“We understood that it was just bigger than us and having gone through so much in our careers and more adversity than any other team and program in history, we came out with our guns blazing and with our hair on fire,” Mauti said. “That's the only way I want to be remembered. We lit our hair on fire back in July, and we just played as hard as we could on every play until our last play.”