Q&A With ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit, Part 2
ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit is one of the most respected names in college football today. After joining the College Gameday crew in 1996, he quickly became one of ESPN’s most well-known personalities. Onward State had the chance to talk to Herbstreit about all things Penn State football.
This is part two of a two-part feature. In part one of our interview, we covered James Franklin’s first year, the outlook for the 2015 season, the offensive line struggles in 2014, NCAA sanctions and scholarships, College Gameday returning to Happy Valley, and Penn State’s student section. You can read part one here.
Onward State: Many people have expressed concerns about Penn State hosting satellite camps in non-Big Ten states around the country. What’s your stance on those? Do you think Penn State coaches should be allowed to do that, or that it gives schools an unfair advantage?
Kirk Herbstreit: I live in Nashville, and there’s been a lot made of these camps down South. I think it’s a lot to do about nothing, personally. I think it’s fine that schools in the North want to come down and expose their coaches and brands to regions down South or out West or wherever it might be. I don’t know if having a camp is going to change a kid’s mind that grows up in the South, and all of a sudden, after an introduction to a Penn State or Michigan coach, it’ll completely change his thought process. Let’s see what kind of impact these satellite camps have on trying to lure kids up to play for teams in the North.
I do think that all the coaches, conferences, teams, should all play by the same rules. Whatever the rule is, it should impact everybody. I don’t think the SEC and the ACC should have a different set of rules compared to everybody else. I think you should be able to have them wherever you want to have them, or they should only be allowed to have their camps on campus. I don’t think it’s fair for some schools to be able to get out and about and for others to not be able to. But I think overall, it’s a lot of noise about very little.
OS: You touched on Christian Hackenberg a little bit and how he’s played. He had a “down year” last year compared to 2013, but he’s been projected to go in the first 10 picks of the 2016 Draft. Do you see him as a top prospect in the Draft? What do you think would translate well to the next level, and what does he still need to work on?
KH: I think the first year is when most people saw what he’s really about, and saw the potential of what he can do. He’s big, he has a presence in the pocket, he has great vision downfield, he throws a nice ball and can throw it with touch, he can throw it downfield, he reads coverages well. He seems to have a moxie about him, where the moment never gets too big. There’s a lot to like about his game. I think, if you put him in the situation he was in last year, it makes it really tough. You have a new head coach, new system, he had some frustrating moments. I don’t blame him for having moments where he got a bit frustrated with his situation. I don’t think it takes anything away from him or what his potential is. I think this is a big year for him, if his goals are to be a first round pick or the first pick overall. A lot of people see raw potential with him and what he can do, but because it’s a team game, he needs his linemen, his backs, his receivers to step in and make plays to take some of the pressure off of him. I’m very impressed with him as a player and as an individual, and I’m really excited to watch him play this year.
OS: You talked a little bit about the Jerry Sandusky scandal when it came out, but you’ve maintained a neutral perspective on the situation for the most part. Some analysts have changed their public opinion on the situation, but others have been unwilling to reassess their initial reactions. How do you see Joe Paterno’s legacy today? How has your stance changed in the few years since the scandal broke in 2011?
KH: The reason I have not gotten involved in that is just because it’s such an ugly story. The whole thing, for me, is just beyond sad. Not just Joe’s legacy, but some of the stories that were talked about made my stomach hurt to think about. For some of the stories initially to come out, I don’t remember the exact details right now, but in the late 90’s there was a story that this was known, that there were reports that this might be going on, and I don’t think you or I or anyone else will ever know how much Joe knew or didn’t know. I think that’s what the big debate in this whole thing is, you know, did he know about, not so much what went on with [Mike] McQueary and the shower and all that, but even before that, did he know stuff that was potentially going on? And still allowed this guy to come in and lift weights and exercise? Even though he was no longer the defensive coordinator, just because he was still a friendly face to the program. Did he know about that?
And the Joe that I knew, I just can’t imagine him knowing that. And I don’t know, my thing has always been, of all the programs in the country, I don’t care if you’re talking to guys from the 60’s, from the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, into the next millennium, there’s something about a Penn State former football player that played for Joe Paterno. That they have such a look about them, they’re such quality guys. The guys that I’ve met anyways. I’m not talking about Penn State grads in general necessarily, just the guys that played football. I’ve always been so impressed with how they all conduct themselves and carry themselves. That’s my legacy, that’s going to be my memory of Joe. Not just what he did as a football coach, but the people that he consistently turned out at Penn State. Whether they were sports reporters, or lawyers, or doctors, or entrepreneurs, or accountants, or whatever they are, they all kind of look and sound the same. You’re gonna tell me he didn’t have a big part of that?
So, that’s the way I’ve kind of looked at this. I’ve really decided not to get involved with some of the specifics of what happened and what didn’t happen, because I don’t know if anybody really knows, but I’m just more of… The guys that I know that played for Penn State, I don’t know, you tell me. I’m sure there’s a bad apple here and there. But for the most part, aren’t you pretty impressed when you meet guys that played football for Penn State? Aren’t you pretty impressed with the guys they’ve become? I think, sometimes, that’s overlooked because we’re all so competitive with who’s winning the games and all that. So that’s, to me, the legacy he leaves behind. [Fellow Gameday analyst] Lee Corso always said, “When a CEO retires or dies, he leaves money behind. When a head coach retires or dies, he leaves pieces of himself all over,” because these players are kind of like his kids if you coach the right way. That’s, to me, what Joe did. He left his legacy. Look at his players, talk to his players, find out what kind of people they are. That’s who Joe is to me.
OS: Do you think, for the media as a whole, the narrative has changed since the story broke four years ago? How so?
KH: I think so. It seems to be [fairer]. When the initial report first came out, to me it seemed like “Okay, that is the gospel. There it is. They took the time, they did it. There’s the report, and it is what it is.” And it seems like there’s been a lot of different parties — pro-Penn State, anti-Penn State, and everything in between — it seems like that report’s significance has lessened more and more. I’m no different from you as a consumer when it comes to this stuff, whether it’s the story you see online, or something you see on SportsCenter. It just seems like, from what I’ve heard, the longer we get removed from the ugliness of the story, the more people are trying to put their arms around, “Where does JoePa fit into this? And what’s his legacy? And Penn State as an institution, how should they be penalized?” It seems like more and more we’re hearing, as far as Penn State and Joe Paterno are concerned, it should be softened, and that some of the initial thoughts for the most part have definitely been tempered back from the initial thought based on that report.
I think everybody kind of looked at that report when it first came out — and again, it was just so daunting and so disgusting — that I think everyone’s initial reaction was, “Whatever it takes to penalize the school and Jerry and Joe, that’s what it should be.” And I think a blinded Penn State fan was defending everything that had to do with Penn State, and I don’t think that’s fair either. I think it’s somewhere in between. This is uncharted waters. You’re talking about a guy that did some cruel acts, how much of this falls on him? The only problem I ever had with this is, because this guy [Sandusky], what’s happening to him is what should happen to him. But my thing was, how much did Penn State know about, and still let him on their campus? That’s the part that, I just couldn’t get past that. If they knew about this, and they let him continue to come around, I gotta tell you, I would have a big problem with that.
But like I said, I don’t know if we’ll ever really know that, one way or another. So it’s hard to take a strong stance against or for when you don’t know. You don’t know, I don’t know, nobody out there knows how much Penn State or Joe Paterno knew about it, and therefore, you’re not going to see me, one way or another, take a real strong stance on it. There’s just too many holes in the story. You probably see both sides of it up there. You probably see your buddies that are Penn State guys that are like, “Penn State, Penn State, Penn State, JoePa, JoePa, JoePa!” And they want to defend their own, and I get that. But I think when you’re objectively evaluating it, you have to take your own bias away from it and look at what you know. And I don’t think it’s fair for people to be on the other side and just condemn Penn State, condemn Joe Paterno. How do you know? There’s probably two or three people that really, really know, and one of them has passed away. So I don’t know. Until we really know, you have to be fair. That’s the only way I look at it.
OS: Finally, we always end an interview at Onward State with this question. If you could be any dinosaur, which dinosaur would you be and why?
KH: I’d have to be a T. rex. Just because, I grew up with Jurassic Park, and in June the next one comes out. My kids [and I], we go to those movies and we watch those movies. I’m always just so impressed with the T. rex, especially with the graphics we have now. It’s like wanting to be the lion out in the jungle. He is just so powerful, no one can mess with him. The raptors are cool, just because they’re quick, they use their speed, they’re a nuisance, but I think the T. rex is just a dominant presence among the dinosaurs. I’d have to pick the T. rex.
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