The best all-around quarterback in Penn State history was a 1959 All-American, but a Heisman Trophy was not in the cards
by Lou Prato
Richie Lucas will always be remembered as "Riverboat Richie," a colorful if contrived nickname that emphasized his gambling instincts when calling and running plays, often featuring an impromptu scamper by the quarterback himself.
But the memorable nickname does not begin to define why Lucas is the best all-around quarterback in the 118-year history of Penn State football.
Joe Paterno still calls the 6-foot-1, 185-pound Lucas Penn State's "best running quarterback ever," but he was more than that. He also was a fair passer, particularly in clutch situations, a very good blocker, and, as Paterno once remarked, "a tremendous leader, a clever faker and a very, very fine ball handler." His play-calling was often daring, and in those less intense days of 1957-59, quarterbacks called most of their own plays. Quarterbacks also played defense back then, and Lucas was an outstanding safety with nine career interceptions. In fact, his defensive skills made him the fourth overall selection in the 1960 NFL draft (Washington Redskins). What's more, he also was Penn State's prime punter for three years, averaging 36 yards per punt, and he occasionally ran back punts and kickoffs.
Coach Rip Engle, who rarely went overboard in complimenting his players, called Lucas, "the modern version of the old triple-threat player. He runs, passes, punts, blocks, holds the ball on extra-point attempts and is an excellent defensive player both against running and passing. … He's the complete man, the player who does it all."
Lucas almost won the Heisman Trophy in 1959, finishing behind Billy Cannon of LSU, but he did win the Maxwell Award and was a consensus All-American. It all climaxed in December 1986 when Lucas became the first PSU player of the Engle-Paterno era to be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
"It was an honor because that was pretty unusual for Penn State back in those days," Lucas recalled recently. "But back then Rip was pretty close to the Hall of Fame and I think he politicked to get me the award."
His subdued reaction almost 20 years after his Hall of Fame induction is not false modesty. It tells a lot about the self-effacing, humble nature and character of this steel mill progeny.
In fact, what he remembers most about the Hall of Fame ceremony in New York relates to his father, Charles, the hard-working mill hand from the Pittsburgh suburb of Glassport. "This was the first time my dad flew in an airplane and the first time he rode in a cab when he wasn't driving," Lucas said.
Back in Glassport, Lucas never dreamed of being one of the greatest players in college football history. He was a good high school player but not heavily recruited. Cincinnati flew him in for a visit. ("The first time I flew on an airplane," he once said.) North Carolina State wanted him to visit and so did Miami. Neither Penn State nor its chief rival for western Pennsylvania talent, Pitt, were interested until the Penn State coaches were watching film of a hot quarterback prospect from another school.
It's one of Paterno's favorite recruiting memories, and he has frequently retold the story over the past five decades.
"The top-rated quarterback in Pennsylvania that year was a kid named Jerry Eisman of Bethel," Paterno wrote in his book "Paterno: By The Book." "Everybody wanted him. If they couldn't get him, they wanted Ross Fichtner of McKeesport. One day, watching a film of Eisman in combat, my eye was caught by his generally unnoticed opponent, the Glassport High School quarterback, Richie Lucas. Lucas seemed to do everything right. I said so to Rip Engle, who responded cautiously, 'Okay, let's go after both Eisman and Lucas.'… My simple inquiry of Glassport's coach got the rumors flying that Penn State was after Lucas, and that put the kid on the map."
Pitt suddenly showed interest, as did a couple of other schools. Eisman told Penn State he would join the Nittany Lions, then changed his mind and went to Kentucky, and was never heard from again. Fichtner committed to Miami, then switched to Purdue where he became an All-Big Ten back, and later a star defensive back with the Cleveland Browns. Lucas turned down Pitt and chose Penn State.
"We had a few people from Glassport who went to Penn State, and they seemed to have a great time up there," Lucas remembered thinking at the time. "Then once you saw the school which had about 15,000 students back then, you knew it was really a nice place."
Freshmen were ineligible in that era, but the coaches soon realized what they had at quarterback even if Lucas didn't. "Once a week we would have a scrimmage or some sort of competition with the varsity, and I soon found out those guys were bigger and faster and much more mature than we were," Lucas recalled recently. "I was pleased not to be able to play, and I really didn't want to."
"We were opening the season against Missouri, which is riverboat country. So I asked Al for all the negatives and when I did releases I
would always use pictures of Richie in his 'Riverboat Gambler' outfit." -- publicity director, Jim Tarman
That all changed the next year. When Penn State opened the 1957 season against Penn, Lucas was the second-team quarterback. But in the first half of the fourth game at favored Syracuse, starter Al Jacks dislocated a shoulder. The Lions clung to a 13-12 lead as they kicked off before a regional CBS audience. Minutes later, the defense trapped Orange quarterback Chuck Zimmerman at the Syracuse 1-yard line, forcing a punt that gave Penn State the ball at the home team's 27. What happened on the next play made Lucas an instant star.
Lucas faked to fullback Babe Carpara, and then appeared to hand off to halfback Dave Kasperian. The CBS cameras followed Kasperian as sportscaster Lindsey Nelson described Kasperian running for an apparent 5-yard gain. Penn State's radio play-by-play broadcaster, Mickey Bergstein, did the same thing. Suddenly, the CBS cameras switched to another scene, and the 35,000 fans in chilly Archbold Stadium watched dumbstruck as Lucas, running an option right, threw a perfect pass to end Les Walters, who had streaked past the befuddled Zimmerman. The touchdown and extra point gave the Lions the final margin of victory as State's defense dominated the rest of the game.
"Those who saw it are still talking about [that play]," wrote Ridge Riley in his popular Football Newsletter that was distributed to Penn State alumni. "Lucas faked to Kasperian through the line and he did it so well we have a notion that Dave himself really thought he had the ball. … It sure fooled your reporter, who wondered why the heck the teams were lining up for the extra point."
From the second half of that game in 1957, Lucas was effectively Penn State's starting quarterback until he graduated with his accounting degree. But an abrupt decision in the next game against West Virginia at Beaver Field would forever define his image. State was holding a 7-6 lead in the second quarter with a fourth-and-6 at its own 40-yard line and Lucas dropped back to punt. The Mountaineers had a reputation for blocking punts. When Lucas saw the defensive ends playing up close, he took the snap and darted around right end for a 19-yard gain that was the turning point of the game. The Lions won 27-6 and everyone was talking about the gambling nature of the imaginative sophomore quarterback.
When Penn State opened the 1958 season at Nebraska, Jacks, a redshirt senior already drafted by the Los Angeles Rams, was the actual starter, but Engle made Lucas part of the first team, too, to get him into the game more. By midseason, Lucas was the established starter. It was obvious he was the best player on the field, but the team, which was loaded with talented sophomores and juniors, never seemed to click. A 25-21 upset victory at Pitt Stadium salvaged a 6-3-1 season, and Penn State fans eagerly awaited 1959.
Penn State's last All-America back had been "Light Horse" Harry Wilson in 1923. Even Lenny Moore's outstanding performance from 1953-55 had not generated the type of nationwide buzz that fuels the All-America voting. State's relatively new publicity director, Jim Tarman, was looking for a gimmick over the summer to help ballyhoo Lucas when he got a telephone call just before media day from his old boss at the Harrisburg Patriot-News, the irascible sports editor Al Clark.
"Ever since that West Virginia game in 1957, Al referred to Richie as 'Riverboat Richie, the Riverboat Gambler,' " Tarman recalled, explaining that leading into the '59 season Clark sent a photographer to University Park, along with a gambler costume - striped shirt, a garter for the sleeve, a derby and a big bowtie. Lucas wore the costume, and completed the scene by holding the five cards making up a royal flush, in a series of publicity shots.
'We were opening the season against Missouri, which is riverboat country," Tarman said. "So I asked Al for all the negatives and when I did releases I would always use pictures of Richie in his 'Riverboat Gambler' outfit."
That might seem a little corny in today's media climate, but it was typical of sports publicity of that era. And, most importantly, it worked - thanks mostly to the fact that Lucas lived up to the hype.
Missouri was expected to challenge Oklahoma for the Big Eight title and the league's Orange Bowl slot, and the Tigers ultimately would play Georgia in that 1960 Orange Bowl. In his pregame analysis of the Penn State game, Bob Boerg, the well-respected sports editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, took the photo Tarman sent him and printed it in three columns under the headline " 'Riverboat Richie' Lucas a Gridiron Gambler-M.U. to Call Bluff."
But on this warm September afternoon, Lucas wasn't bluffing as the Lions won convincingly, 19-8. Missouri didn't score until late in the game as "Riverboat Richie" completed 10 of 11 passes for 154 yards and a touchdown, and led all rushers with 48 yards on eight carries. "There was one play late in the game when we had to punt the ball and didn't want to give back the ball," Tarman remembered. "The snap from center wasn't good. Richie grabbed the ball off the ground and started running toward the left side of the field. And everyone thought he was going to try to run for a first down. But as he got right near the line of scrimmage, he punted and it went out on the Missouri 1-yard line. I remember Boerg yelling at me in the press box about voting for Richie for All-American."
In his postgame column, Boerg raved: "If he isn't the best quarterback in the country, he'll sure do until a better one comes along."
Before Penn State's chartered airplane left St. Louis, Tarman upped his All-America ante. He bought 10 oversized postcards with a scenic view of a genuine riverboat plowing the Missouri River and convinced a reluctant Richie to write a personal message to the Eastern sportswriters who covered Penn State football. "All those guys got that postcard, and they really loved it," Tarman said.
Behind the passing, running, play-calling and defensive prowess of Lucas, the Lions won seven in a row before losing to eventual national champion Syracuse, 20-18, in one of those redundant "games of the century" before the largest crowd ever at New Beaver Field, 34,000. "We couldn't make our extra points, but we had them on the run with about five or six minutes left and they just ran the ball down our throats," Lucas recalled.
Old nemesis Pitt tarnished the Penn State season with a 22-7 upset at Pitt Stadium that some sportswriters blamed on low team morale caused by political shenanigans that ultimately forced the team to play in the first Liberty Bowl in Philadelphia rather than another bowl in the South. The Lions redeemed themselves by defeating a higher-ranked Alabama team coached by Bear Bryant in the Liberty Bowl, 7-0, and Bryant said after the game his players "were very fortunate we weren't beaten by four or five touchdowns." However, it had not been a good day for Lucas, who was the leading rusher with 55 yards on nine carries but left the game for good early in the second quarter with a bruised hip. Sophomore Galen Hall took over and was instrumental in the fake field goal at the end of the half that gave the Lions the victory. The torch had been passed.
"I don't think we realized how important that game was at the time," Lucas said. "Back in those days, the Liberty Bowl was the sixth bowl after the Rose, Cotton, Sugar, Orange and Gator bowls. Now there are 25 or so bowls. Now when we get together we're pretty happy to be known as 'The Liberty Bowl Team.' "
Lucas finished the season as the team leader in rushing (325 yards), passing (913 yards) and total offense (1,238 yards on 216 plays). He also set a school record for most interceptions thrown in one game - four against Illinois - that was tied by Bob Parsons in 1970 and Todd Blackledge in 1982. "That's the one game I look back on and feel I could have done better," Lucas said with a smile. "At least we won."
The Heisman runner-up announcement came as a surprise. "I actually had no idea what the Heisman was," Lucas admitted. "We didn't have any big celebration beforehand about the banquet like they do today. I found out I came in second when I was at an airport. It was in the paper."
Lucas has some regrets now that he didn't join the Redskins as a defensive back but chose to sign with the Buffalo Bills of the brand new American Football League. He thought he could be a pro quarterback, and the Bills told him he would. "Pro football was different than it is today," Lucas said. "I was kind of hoping for a three-year developmental plan but it didn't work out that way. They wanted me to play sooner than I wanted to play and I was practicing on defense, too. They were playing me at running back my first year and that would have been fine, but then I hurt my foot and ankle and it took me time to recover. … Then I was called back to the service in the middle of my second year, and after that everything just felt apart."
Lucas had fallen in love with Penn State and returned to work for the university rather than go back to Glassport. He and his wife raised two children in State College as Lucas worked in the athletic department, eventually retiring in 1998 as the assistant athletic director overseeing most of the men's varsity sports teams.
He is now in his mid-60s, a few pounds over his playing weight. Two partial knee replacements have slowed him and hampered his golf game. But to Penn State football fans, he will always be the young, talented and handsome "Riverboat Richie" - the fancy dan gambler in a striped shirt, arm garters, a derby and bowtie, the kid with a royal flush who was the best all-around quarterback in Penn State history.
Lou Prato is director of Penn State's All-Sports Museum.