Penn State's football heritage is sprinkled with remembered names—Charley Way, Glenn Killinger, Lighthorse Harry Wilson, Rosey Grier, Lenny Moore, Richie Lucas, Dave Robinson are recalled most often—but Bob Higgins is the only Nittany Lion to make All-America twice, first in 1915 and again in 1919, the year he came back from the war as a captain after playing on the 89th Division team that won the AEF championship.
Off the field Bob Higgins was easygoing and something of a joker; on it he was uncompromising. His battered leather helmet pulled down snugly over his ears, he would stand at his end position ready to swoop in on an unsuspecting ballcarrier. Often he would trail an opponent halfway across the field before bringing him down from behind. His exploits in 1919 were legendary.
That was a vintage year for eastern football. Harvard was undefeated and beat Oregon in the Rose Bowl. Colgate, Dartmouth, Navy and Penn State each lost only one game. Most of the players were war veterans, and the football they played was tough and uninhibited. Although Notre Dame had popularized the forward pass in 1913, most eastern teams regarded the weapon as a cowardly stratagem employed in desperation by effete Midwesterners.
Nevertheless, the one play oldtimers still love to talk about when they gather at University Park is a forward pass that Higgins caught in the Pitt game. Dick Harlow, later head coach at Harvard, was one of Coach Hugo Bezdek's assistants, and he had scouted the powerful Panthers for weeks. Harlow noticed that Pitt almost always put nine or 10 men on the line when opposing teams, deep in their own territory, went into punt formation. He was sure that a pass would catch the Panthers by surprise. Bezdek was afraid to try it, but Harlow gave the team the play one day when the coach was absent from practice.
Early in the game the Nittany Lions were pinned down on their own eight-yard line and went into punt formation. Pitt responded characteristically by putting 10 players on the line. The mighty 10 came storming in, but Bill Hess, the kicker, flipped a short screen pass over their heads to Higgins, who ran 92 yards for a touchdown, a play which still stands as Penn State's longest pass completion. The story has it that when Bezdek saw the play coming, he ducked under the bench and did not come out until an assistant manager assured him that Higgins had scored. The Lions went on to win 20-0 for a 7-1 season.
"Anyone could have done it," protests Higgins today. "I just happened to be the guy who was supposed to catch the pass."
But not anyone could have done what Hig did to a favored Penn team earlier that season. In that game, played in a driving rain, he harassed the poor Quakers so thoroughly that Penn State won 10-0. The next day the Philadelphia Sunday Press reported admiringly, " Higgins proved himself one of the most brilliant players in the country. He was in every play, his quick brain working all the time. His anticipation was amazing. He did all the punting, and did it well, caught forward passes like a big league outfielder snares a baseball, and broke up every attack aimed at his end. He was truly magnificent."
Later, as the Penn State coach from 1930 to 1948, Higgins relived many of his glory days. His unbeaten 1947 team still holds the NCAA record for the least number of yards yielded per game—17—and his 1948 club tied SMU in the Cotton Bowl. Higgins retired after that season and, in 1960, suffered a stroke which partially paralyzed him. However, he still gets out to see most of the Penn State home games.
One Nittany Lion whom Bob Higgins will enjoy watching this fall is Dick Gingrich, a 5-foot-11, 183-pound safetyman and a relentless tracker of pass receivers and runners. Gingrich was not always a defensive star, however. At Chief Logan High in Burnham, a small mill town the other side of the Seven Mountains from University Park, he was an outstanding left-handed quarterback. When he came to Penn State, Pete Liske was the No. 1 quarterback, so Coach Rip Engle made Gingrich a split end and he caught six passes in 1963 and doubled on defense. Last year he became so good at defense that his coaches think he will be the best safetyman in college football this season.