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July 3, 2013

Loran Smith: McWhorter finds plenty to like about Penn State

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — After 37 years and 13 coaching stops, Mac McWhorter — whose lineage traces back to the University of Georgia football program’s first All-American, Robert Ligon McWhorter — thought it was time to retire following the 2011 season and take life easy.

At the time, he was a member of the coaching staff at the University of Texas, where success is not only the goal, it is expected. In Austin, if you win 10 games but don’t beat Oklahoma and win a championship, it is not considered a good year.

The Longhorns had been through a couple off years, but overall the annual accomplishments were at a level the doting alumni of many schools yearn for. Ten wins and a bowl invitation were commonplace. Nonetheless, Mac believed the timing was propitious, convinced that he could be satisfied playing golf and puttering about the house.

It turned out he was wrong, which is why he warmed to the job offer from his friend Bill O’Brien to coach the offensive line at Penn State, which had undergone overnight humiliation with the Jerry Sandusky scandal and subsequent NCAA sanctions.

Why would Mac go from retirement with a good life coming into view to the mess that had come about at Penn State?

It was simple — he wanted to help an old friend. And not to be overlooked in the assessment, he made his plans to un-retire before Penn State was hit by those intimidating NCAA sanctions. Furthermore, McWhorter was moved by the challenge.

However, he had also harbored something deep inside; he recalled yesteryear’s Penn State — he remembered the Nittany Lions’ glory days with Joe Paterno.

“Then my wife, Becky, and I visited here and were blown away,” McWhorter said. “This is the most beautiful setting you can imagine. Under coach Paterno, Penn State had an elite campus and tradition. They competed for championships, they graduated their players and they did things right. As a coach, I knew how respected the Penn State program was by everybody in the profession.”

McWhorter doesn’t talk much about the controversy that befell Penn State as he joined O’Brien, who was ensconced as the offensive coordinator with the New England Patriots before taking the job as head coach of the Nittany Lions.

“The past — we didn’t have anything to do with, it is over, and we can only look ahead and do our best,” McWhorter said.

As he drove by the campus creamery, he noted, “Anytime you want the best ice cream, you can come here and get a cone or a bucket to take home with you,” a reminder of the days in Athens when the same kind of operation existed on south campus.

There is a likeness about college campuses that are in small communities. Collegiality is addictive and you find a warmth of brotherhood permeating campuses throughout the country.

For a Georgia boy who had never coached anywhere north of Clemson, McWhorter knew this meant he would have to deal with a different climate. He would have to adjust to the cold and snow.

“It is not too bad,” he said with a grin. “The roads are always managed to perfection. We have an indoor facility that has two full-length football fields, so we are never concerned about the elements. What we like most of all is the beauty and the setting. It is inspiring to work here.”

O’Brien — when he is not talking positively about Penn State and how he believes his program can emerge from adversity into a championship contender — echoes McWhorter’s chamber of commerce-type reflections. From his office, O’Brien points to the refreshing view of Mount Nittany in the background.

“If you come to work and see that view every day, you have to think positive and believe that this program will rebound,” O’Brien said. “We will be back.”

Football, like so many sports, has a gripping hold on its constituents. First you would rather play, but that option runs its course with conclusive alacrity in most cases.

You can coach deep into your golden years, though. It’s like the birdie that brings the golfer back for another round.

When McWhorter walked off the field following Penn State’s 24-21 overtime upset of Big Ten champion Wisconsin last November, he was choked with emotion. That euphoric high was the birdie that had brought him back for more.

Loran Smith is a contributing columnist for The Daily Citizen. You can write to him at loransmith@sports.uga.edu.

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