April 17, 2009
By Larry Watts
Some college students just have too much spare time on their hands.
Take Penn State's Paul Cianciolo for instance. Somehow, working on a master's degree in business administration and serving as a backup quarterback on the Nittany Lions football team just wasn't enough for the Charleston, S.C. native. So he decided to approach head football coach Joe Paterno and head baseball coach Robbie Wine with the idea of coming out for the baseball team in the spring of 2008.
"Baseball is probably my first love and I wanted to see if I could still do it," says the 6-foot-4 right-handed pitcher. "The coaching staffs were very supportive of my endeavors. They worked out a schedule, working it around my academic load as well."
Although baseball was his first love, football was still the first obligation for the former three-sport athlete (football, baseball and basketball) at Fort Dorchester High School. After redshirting in 2004, he saw spot duty (three games each) in the 2006 and 2008 seasons, finishing his career with 10 completions in 17 attempts for 145 yards with two touchdowns.
The highlight of his career came in the 2006 season, when starting quarterback Anthony Morelli and backup Daryll Clark both suffered concussions against No. 4 Michigan and Cianciolo entered the game in the fourth quarter with his team trailing 17-7. He threw a 43-yard touchdown pass to Tony Hunt to close the gap to seven but was unable to work the same magic in the final 1:54.
"In the books it says 43 yards and that's what I will always tell my kids and grandkids, but it was really a screen pass and Tony did a great job avoiding tackles and he got some outstanding blocking downfield," Cianciolo says. "It was a neat experience in a big-time atmosphere on national television. I never have been one to get excited over playing in mop-up time, so to get into a game in a crucial and important time certainly meant a lot to me."
Although he only played in six games during his collegiate football career, Cianciolo has no regrets about his decision to come to Penn State. The Nittany Lions were the first school to make an offer.
"Coming from South Carolina, it was the best opportunity for me; I didn't want to go to the ACC or SEC," he says. "I could have gone to a less competitive school in a lower division, but my dream was always to play Division I football. There were older players on the depth chart at quarterback at Penn State and it offered me the best opportunity for both athletics and academics.
"It (not playing) was tough, but unlike wide receiver or the line, where there are four or five guys playing, there is only one quarterback and he'll be on the field nearly all the time. The quarterback probably gets too much credit for the team's success and too much blame for the failure, but it comes with the territory. But that's what I wanted to do and I stuck with it, hoping to make the most of every opportunity I got."
There was also the opportunity to play for one of the most legendary coaches in college football history.
"Being in the position I played, he was probably on my game more than most (players)," he says of Paterno. "There may be 110,000 people watching you, but that isn't a big deal because you get used to the noise and you really don't see the people. But there's probably not a more intimidating guy you can have watching you. You don't really see him, but you can feel his eyes watching you and sense him walking up behind you.
"When you start feeling comfortable with him, it feels like you're prepared for a lot more things. He is a great guy and we had a very good rapport. It will be something to tell people that I played for a guy like that."
Joining the baseball team after its spring trip and working around his 2008 spring football schedule, Cianciolo made 12 appearances for the diamond squad and posted one save with an earned run average of 6.27. This spring, working as a midweek starter and out of the bullpen for Big Ten games, he is 3-0 with an ERA of 4.02. He is 2-0 in the Big Ten, including a win in relief over Michigan.
"Pitching is a lot like playing quarterback," he says. "The ball is in your hands and you have control of the game. Any success I have is because of the guys behind me because I'm not a strikeout pitcher. But at least I don't have a 300-pound lineman coming at me trying to take my head off."
Although he would like to make a start in a Big Ten game, he is very satisfied with his current role. Starting a Tuesday game means he can probably go five or six innings while he is on a pitch count for Wednesday games so he can be ready in relief for the weekend.
"It's fun knowing I can be doing things at both ends of the week," he says. "If I were a weekend starter, that would mean I would probably get one appearance per week. I might get a little too antsy if I had to spend that much time on the bench."
The way Cianciolo sees it, he is getting one last chance to live out his dream at 23 years of age before heading out into the real world of finance.
"I'm probably the oldest sophomore playing baseball in the nation," he says. "The guys on the team are always asking me, 'What are you, 27 or 28?' Unless the NCAA gives me a sixth year of eligibility, this will be it."
Cianciolo admits he will be a little torn April 25 when the Penn State football team concludes spring drills with its annual Blue/White scrimmage. The baseball team will be hosting Illinois later that afternoon.
"Last year I played in the spring game and then came over for the end of the doubleheader," he says. "The two homes I have known at Penn State, Beaver Stadium and Medlar Field, are right next to each other.
"I've had the best of both experiences being out there with the guys in football and baseball. I certainly don't miss all those (football) drills, practices, early wakeups and winter conditioning. This is my first spring when I haven't had coaches standing behind me and barking at me. It's been nice to just focus on baseball."
And he still has to focus on landing a financial job in New York City.
"I don't have a family to support, so I figured why not give it (New York) a try for a couple of years," he says. "It's a different world, but the fast pace and competition appeals to me. If I can take the things I have learned from my athletic career and make a few bucks, I'll be all right."