History Of Penn State-Themed Sports Illustrated Covers

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Last week, Penn State star tailback Saquon Barkley appeared on the cover of a special edition of Sports Illustrated commemorating the Nittany Lions’ 25th season competing in the Big Ten.

The story accompanying the cover highlights Joe Paterno’s vision to help Penn State football grow by joining a conference and details each of the Nittany Lions’ four conference title-winning seasons.

However, this isn’t the first time Sports Illustrated has featured Penn State on the cover of its legendary magazine. Since beginning circulation in 1954, SI has featured the Nittany Lions on the cover in some capacity 17 times, capturing both the highs and lows of football in Happy Valley.

1973-1986: Pre-Big Ten Play

Penn State established itself as a national power in college football during the 1970s and 1980s.

Icons like Chuck Fusina, Todd Blackledge, and Gregg Garrity all helped Penn State to glory during this period, and the Nittany Lions have two national championships to show for it. The 1982 National Championship was featured on the cover of SI on January 10, 1983, with the headline “No. 1 At Last!” alongside Garrity’s iconic game-winning touchdown against Georgia.

(Photo: SI Vault)

Ironically, two of Penn State’s first three appearances on the cover involved crushing defeats at the hands of Colorado and Alabama, respectively.

In 1970, No. 18 Colorado upset No. 4 Penn State 41-13 in Boulder to earn the cover spot on October 5, 1970, while the Crimson Tide beat Joe Paterno’s Nittany Lions in the national championship game for an appearance on the cover on January 8, 1979.

The 1970 cover is the first time Penn State appeared on the cover of the iconic publication.

(Photos: SI Vault)

Prior to the heartbreaking loss against Alabama, star quarterback Chuck Fusina earned a spot on the November 13, 1978 cover after he led the Nittany Lions to a victory over No. 5 Maryland.

The highlight of this era, however, came when head coach Joe Paterno earned the magazine’s Sportsman Of The Year award for his 1986 season. The final cover of 1986 honored Paterno ahead of his team’s national championship game against Miami, which he ultimately won.

(Photo: SI Vault)

During that magical season, Penn State’s DJ Dozier shared the November 11, 1985 cover with Florida’s Ray McDonald as the debate raged on over which of the two teams was the best in the nation. The Nittany Lions obviously proved to the college football world they were the better team by season’s end.

1990-2009: Beginning Of The Big Ten Era

The early-to-mid 1990s were a time when Joe Paterno made his desire to have Penn State join a conference clearly known. The Nittany Lions announced their intention to join the Big Ten conference in June 1990 and officially began play in 1993.

Before beginning conference play, Penn State made an appearance on the cover for its upset victory over then-No. 1 Notre Dame during the 1990 season. The Nittany Lions upset the Fighting Irish in South Bend, moving up seven spots in the rankings from No. 18 to No. 11 as a result.

The game was the fifth time that the top-ranked team lost that year; Notre Dame lost twice as the top seed and Virginia, Michigan, and Miami also went down while holding the No. 1 ranking.

Penn State graced the cover of the November 26, 1990 issue of Sports Illustrated as a result; the team would go on to play against No. 6 Florida State in the Blockbuster Bowl.

(Photo: SI Vault)

Once the Big Ten conference officially began play, it only took two years for Penn State to win it. Though the conference title did not warrant an SI cover appearance, the Nittany Lions’ midseason victory over No. 5 Michigan did.

Penn State’s Freddie Scott made the cover on October 24, 1994 when the magazine declared Penn State the No. 1 team in the country. The team would go on to win the Rose Bowl against Oregon to cap off a perfect 12-0 season.

(Photo: SI Vault)

The Nittany Lions did not appear on the cover again until August 25, 1997, when it projected Penn State was the No. 1 team in the country prior to that season. The team would go on to finish the 1997 season with a 9-3 record, making an appearance in the Citrus Bowl against Florida.

The Nittany Lions received more preseason love from SI prior to the 1999 season, when they were again projected as the No. 1 team in the country. LB Lavar Arrington appeared on the August 16, 1999 cover of the magazine, but the team again failed to live up to national championship expectations.

(Photos: SI Vault)

Penn State started the 1999 season 9-0, but three consecutive losses to Minnesota, Michigan, and Michigan State derailed its national title hopes. An Alamo Bowl shutout over Texas A&M ended that season on a high note.

After five seasons of mediocrity, Penn State was back among college football’s elite in 2005 when the team won the Big Ten for the second time in program history. Joe Paterno made his second SI cover appearance on November 28, 2005, just a week after his team clinched the conference title against Michigan State.

(Photo: SI Vault)

After Penn State’s third Big Ten title in 2008, the blue and white made its final SI cover appearance before the Jerry Sandusky scandal rocked the college football world in 2011. The cover featured QB Darryl Clark and center Stefen Wisnewski and was released on August 17, 2009 as part of the magazine’s season preview.

(Photo: SI Vault)

2011-Present: Sandusky Scandal & Beyond

In November of 2011, Penn State was rocked when former football coach Jerry Sandusky’s years of child sex abuse were made public. The university suffered harsh sanctions as a result, and Penn State’s otherwise immaculate reputation in the college football world was tarnished.

Sports Illustrated released three covers on the scandal: one in the immediate aftermath on November 21, 2011, another on July 30, 2012 after the sanctions were handed down, and one more in the middle of the first post-sanctions season on November 5, 2012.

(Photos: SI Vault)

While the stories released immediately after Paterno’s firing and the handing down of the sanctions focused more on the wrongdoings of the university and the potentially devastating impact the scandal had on Penn State as a whole, the last story focuses on the healing process and how Penn State moved past the scandal.

After five years of healing and rebuilding, the Nittany Lions are back among the best teams in college football and, consequently, back on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

The most recent Penn State appearance on the cover features Heisman trophy favorite and star tailback Saquon Barkley. The featured story attached to Barkley’s cover appearance is not necessarily about the Coplay, PA native, but the magazine did run a separate feature on Barkley over the summer.

Although the appearance may have jinxed Barkley and the Nittany Lions during their heartbreaking loss to Ohio State last Saturday (a phenomena which SI addressed in 2002), it is still great to see the Penn State colors on the cover of one of the most iconic publications in sports.


The current edition of Penn State’s football team has the talent and potential to earn plenty of appearances on SI’s cover in the near future and, more importantly, the potential to win a lot of football games in the James Franklin era.

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About Author

Mikey Mandarino

Mikey is a sophomore journalism major and staff writer for Onward State from Bedminster, NJ. He loves to watch sports, but hockey has always been his favorite. Mikey roots for the New Jersey Devils and, unfortunately, the New York Jets & Mets. If you also #LikeHisSport and want to see more hockey content on your timeline, you can follow Mikey on Twitter @mikey_mandarino. Additionally, you can send him any questions or comments via email at [email protected]

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