Tim Benz: Ex-Steeler Hartings looks back at College Hall-worthy career at Penn State
As an offensive lineman, you don't get a lot of signature moments. Yet, Jeff Hartings was part of one as a Steeler. He was the center on a perfectly blocked run play: 34-counter pike.
The flawless execution from one end of the offensive line to the other was able to spring Willie Parker on his record-setting 75-yard touchdown run in Super Bowl XL against Seattle.
Hartings stuffed Chartric Darby on the nose. Alan Faneca wiped out two guys on a pull. Max Starks jumped out to the second level on Lofa Tatupu.
And Parker was gone.
That helped bring Hartings a championship. Something he was deprived of in 1994 when he was a junior at Penn State. The guard was one of five All-Americans for the Nittany Lions that year.
Two of them, Hartings and receiver Bobby Engram, were named to the College Football Hall of Fame ballot last week. Hartings was also an All-American as a senior in 1995.
That '94 Penn State team was undefeated. It also finished second in the polls behind Nebraska without a chance to play the Cornhuskers because it was prior to the college playoff era.
"I wish the system was different," said Hartings via phone last week. "(Nebraska Coach) Tom Osborne had never won a national title. So there was sentiment towards giving him a national title at that time. And Joe Paterno, having won two of them, I think played into it unfortunately."
Maybe Hartings can look back at the '94 season more fondly if he gets inducted into the Hall of Fame, which is in Atlanta. He'll find out if he made the cut on January 7th — before the college football playoff championship game.
"I will always say that I would've rather lost to Nebraska, than get voted second place," Hartings said. "I would always have rather played for it than not get the chance."
Hartings is 12 years removed from his Pro Bowl playing days. He lives in Columbus, Ohio, but still works with Urban Impact Foundation on the north side of Pittsburgh. During an extended conversation about his nomination, it's clear Hartings still feels a lot of ties to his former stops in Pittsburgh, Penn State and even back to his high school days at St. Henry (Ohio).
Growing up as a devoted Notre Dame fan, Hartings laughs at the thought of how his Penn State days might have never happened.
"It wouldn't have even been a recruiting process for me if Notre Dame had recruited me," Hartings said. "But I didn't have the physical stature at the time."
Hartings left high school at 245 pounds. He'd go on to play in the NFL at nearly 300.
Hartings credited his high school quarterback — future NFL player Bobby Hoying — for being a featured recruit who drew eyes toward his teammates. What sold Hartings on Penn State was reading about John Cappelletti and his Heisman Trophy dedication to his dying brother. Hartings said that background is what made him want to play in State College.
That and following in the footsteps of other great linemen like Steve Wisniewski, who is also on the Hall of Fame ballot.
"Talking about guys like Steve Wisniewski and Mike Munchak — guys who came before me — you definitely wanted to carry on that tradition," Hartings said.
That's where Hartings' comments became pointed. He admitted in the years following the Jerry Sandusky scandal that sense of cohesiveness around the football program waned. He alluded to how the fabric of consistency and familiarity around the program dissipated after the Paterno era ended.
"I was just there for a Blue-White game, and it still feels awkward," Hartings said. "They replaced everybody. When you go there now, you don't really see any familiar faces. So that makes it more difficult. But coach (James Franklin) has been unbelievable. He welcomes us when we come there. All of the assistant coaches do.
"It's changed but you've got to get used to it."
For any athletic alumnus, a change of that magnitude would be strange. It's especially true for Penn State players. After all, they had one coach for 45 years. Then longtime assistant Tom Bradley was the interim coach. Then Bill O'Brien for two seasons. Then Franklin took over with some thinking maybe he wouldn't want to stay long.
"I would say it's recovered as a program," said Hartings "As far as the alumni, we've always been together; probably stronger than ever. Especially going through something like that. We're the foundation. We're the tradition."
That's a tradition that would be fortified even more if Hartings — and maybe some of his fellow Nittany Lions — are inducted to the Hall of Fame next winter.
Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at tbeah
firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @TimBenzPGH.