Feb. 21, 2011
By Larry Watts
Bob White first stepped on the Penn State University campus back in 1982 and other than short stints with the San Francisco 49ers (1987) and Cleveland Browns (1988), he hasn’t left.
“Coming out of high school looking for places to educate and compete, I have been very blessed and fortunate,’’ says White, who has been associate director of development at his alma mater for the past 10 years. “Everything I saw and believed in, I was impressed by Penn State and I’ve had multiple opportunities to reaffirm that my original decision, as an 18-year-old, was the right one. It keeps paying back in so many ways.’’
When he was 15, White and his family moved from Haines City, Fla. to western Pennsylvania, where he became a standout in football, basketball and track at Freeport High School, just north of Pittsburgh. He was a 6-foot-1, 210-pound running back as a sophomore and grew to 6-2½ and 220 pounds while playing fullback and linebacker during his final two seasons. In track, he competed in the high jump, 4x100 relay and shot put, where he won the state title with a heave of 61-9 in 1982. His high school record still stands today.
“I was heavy, but I was always blessed with lean mass,’’ he says. “I could dunk a basketball. My success in the shot put was due to a combination of strength and speed across the ring.’’
But football was his ticket to college. White estimates he had “100-plus’’ offers before narrowing his list down to six official visits, starting with Penn State.
“I divided my visits up between north and south,’’ he says. “I also took trips to Pitt, Ohio State, Georgia, South Carolina and Florida State. Most of the schools were leaning to me being a linebacker/defensive end, but I was also hearing tight end and nose tackle.’’
White would be the first member of his family to attend college, making his decision even more difficult.
“The college thing was kind of foreign to me,’’ he says. “But (head coach) Joe Paterno and his staff were very convincing in their approach. Their conversations made me more comfortable in believing I would be taken care of here as opposed to other places. I was very at ease with their sincerity and genuineness.
“I was much more attracted to the setting at Penn State. I grew up as a Boy Scout and did a lot of outdoor activities. There was just something about the terrain and surrounding environment that really appealed to me.’’
The Penn State coaching staff slotted White in at defensive tackle and he red-shirted his freshman year. He got all of his action on the scout team as the Nittany Lions rolled to a national title with a 27-23 victory over Georgia in the Fiesta Bowl.
White, who would log 140 tackles and 18 quarterback sacks in his career and serve as co-captain in his senior year, would get two shots at a national title as a starter in his final two years. In 1985, the Lions bowed to Oklahoma 25-10 in the Orange Bowl, but the 1986 squad completed an undefeated run with a 14-10 victory over Miami (Fla.) in the Fiesta Bowl, otherwise known as the “Duel in the Desert.’’ However, White claims the ring he received as a member of the scout team in 1982 means just as much to him as the ring he received as a senior.
“They both have special meaning,’’ he says. “The first one, here you are as a freshman getting acclimated socially, in class and how it needs to be done on the football field. You’re the ones (scout team) going out there every day against the starters, the ones who will win the championship. Your job is to make them better and at the same time you are making yourself better, so you have a huge stake in it.
“Next year, those guys will be gone and we’ll be in the driver’s seat, helping the team achieve what needs to be achieved. The guys who redshirted in 1982 were the same ones who would be running for the two championships in ’85 and ’86.’’
The Fiesta Bowl matchup couldn’t have brought together two more opposite teams. For a pregame dinner, the Hurricanes, who were ranked No. 1 and coached by Jimmy Johnson, came dressed in combat fatigues. The Nittany Lions were dressed in suits and ties.
“They had Vinny Testaverde, Jerome Brown, Alonzo Highsmith and Michael Irvin — guys who would later become All-Pros,” White says of Johnson’s crew. “They tried to bully people, but it didn’t work with us.’’
With the Nittany Lions clinging to a four-point lead, Testaverde led the Hurricanes on a 72-yard drive inside the five-yard line with 45 seconds remaining. On fourth down, Testaverde tossed his fifth interception of the night to Penn State linebacker Pete Giftopoulos in the end zone.
“The thing that stands out about the whole experience with Penn State football more than anything are the relationships that are formed,’’ White says. “Even greater than the victory in the championship game itself is the chase in getting there and the relationships you form during that chase. It was a fun thing being around guys you enjoy being around and working hard together, pushing one another week to week while figuring out how to break the next team.’’
White earned a liberal arts degree in criminal justice with a counseling emphasis and was selected by San Francisco in the sixth round of the 1987 National Football League Draft. Moved to linebacker, his rights were shipped to Cleveland during the winter. He would later end his professional career during training camp with the Browns.
“That whole transition from here to there was not as smooth as I hoped or liked,’’ he says. “It was very clear there was a whole set of different ground rules at that level. I got into camp late because of issues in reaching an agreement, went through preseason and then was released to Cleveland.
“In Cleveland, it got to the point where I didn’t like what I was hearing or seeing. I finally went in to see (coach) Marty Schottenheimer and told him thanks but no thanks. I threw my bags in my trunk and walked. I was used to being in a program where your best interests and backside were covered and I wasn’t sure this was the case. I came back here (to Penn State), earned my master’s degree and have held five positions in 23 years.’’
White returned to Penn State in January 1989 to work in admissions, serving as a recruiter up and down the East Coast. He completed his master’s degree in counseling student personnel in 1992 and then landed the job as the school’s director of legislative affairs in Washington D.C.
“It wasn’t the traditional idea of a lobbyist,’’ he says. “I was more of an educator. I was learning what the interests of the university were and then spending weeks on Capitol Hill interacting with staff and keeping my finger on the pulse of legislation that could positively or negatively impact the university. Most of the time I was getting key administrators on campus and getting them together with key staffers in Washington to further explain how things impacted us.
“A large part of it was doing detailed research for the government in defense. For example, if the government wanted to make submarines quieter so enemies couldn’t detect them, I would come back to our school to see if the research could be done to fulfill dual purposes and be used in the private sector as well. Could we come up with a quieter dishwasher and vacuum cleaner as well? Night vision for cars first came out of defense contracts for the military.
“No two days were the same. Each day would take you down a different path in terms of what you may be in the middle of, but it was very fascinating work.’’
As stimulating as the work was, the back and forth travel between Penn State and Washington was starting to wear on White after three years.
“I was living two lives, splitting my time between here and an apartment in Washington,’’ he says. “In that last year, there was a huge change in congressional power and with the “Contract with America’’ things started getting very nasty and intense. It became much harder to do your job and the staffers I was working with were exhausted from all the extra work and hours.’’
White had served on the search committee for a new director of athletics at Penn State and when Tim Curley was appointed, he was asked to come back to athletics. For the next five years, White oversaw the eligibility of all the incoming freshmen across Penn State’s 29 sports.
“It was a natural fit for me because I had already worked in admissions and I also worked with the NCAA on clearing house issues,’’ he says.
Then in 2000, his career at Penn State took on another change.
“The commander in chief (Paterno) came to me one day in my office and said he wanted me to consider coaching,’’ White says. “I told him I had never coached before, but he thought I would be great with the kids. I did it (defensive line/special teams) for a year and really liked teaching the techniques, but there were other elements and aspects after being in an administrative role that didn’t fit with my routine.
“There really isn’t much difference between playing for and working with Joe Paterno. He is one of those bigger than life figures you respect and feared in a healthy way. We always had a good relationship. As long as you take care of your business, you never have to worry about getting your wires crossed with him. The only guys who had issues were the ones who occasionally tried to do their own thing in ways that didn’t fit with the program, and that’s when problems would arise.’’
With a $93 million expansion and renovation planned for Beaver Stadium, White was appointed associate director of development in February 2001. The plans for Beaver Stadium would be to add 12,000 seats, making it the second largest college stadium (107,282 capacity). Included in that expansion were 4,000 club seats at the south end of the stadium and 60 suites with another 1,000 seats on the east side.
“It absolutely was a challenge,’’ he says. “Here I was in the middle of selling premium seats and 9/11 hit. Then the economy dipped and the team had a couple of lean years. I took two to three years to get all of those suites sold and until October 2007 to get all 4,000 of the club seats sold. Because those club seats were in the end zone, it took awhile to get fans acclimated to the idea. Now they enjoy them.’’
With 10-year leases on the new seating coming to an end, White is now heavy into a campaign to get fans to renew their seating.
“We’re still going to be maxed out for the suites because I had a waiting list, but I have between 300 and 400 of the club seats to sell,’’ he says. “It’s a challenge because you are never done managing and serving your current customers.’’
White’s job also includes managing special events other than the football games. He figures to book up to 70 events by June.
“I show the space and orchestrate the prices, which includes the cleanup after the event,’’ he says. “But we don’t allow anyone to hold an event on the field.’’
White did make one exception to field rule, when a local car dealer wanted to hold a big event and line up high-end cars on the 50-yard line.
“The only reason I allowed that was because the field was being ripped up and re-sodded the next day,’’ he says with a laugh.
Having spent approximately 28 years of his life at Penn State, White doesn’t envision himself being anywhere else.
“I built my first home here (in Happy Valley) seven years ago, so I guess that made it kind of firm,’’ he says. “I’ve been working here 23 years and I’m getting close to a key point (25 years), so it’s been everything I could have asked.’’