The best quarterback in Penn State history feels like he lucked out getting to play for the Nittany Lions.
"Absolutely," Kerry Collins said. "I wasn't heavily recruited. That was the best school I could go to."
Penn State, it turned out, was lucky to land a player of Collins' caliber. Fifteen years after he led the Lions to an undefeated season, Collins continues to show off his skills as an NFL starting quarterback with the Tennessee Titans.
Whether it's college or NFL success, for one season or spread out over a career, there's no debating Collins sits atop the list of all-time Penn State signal callers.
"Without question," PSU football historian and author Lou Prato said. "Collins has been consistently good throughout his collegiate and pro career."
Penn State has had 13 quarterbacks play in the NFL or AFL, with eight starting at least one game. The Mirror's Quarterback U project on Page C6 researched the Super Bowl era and found that six Lion signal callers have started in the NFL since 1966, though only two - Collins and Todd Blackledge - have done so in the past 25 years.
Best QBs in Nittany Lion lore
Penn State football historian Lou Prato ranks his top five quarterbacks in program history, based on success in college, the pros or a combination of both.
*1. Kerry Collins 1994 Maxwell Award; 4th in Heisman; 164 NFL starts; 2 Pro Bowls
2. Milt Plum 13 NFL seasons; 129 NFL games (103 starts); 2 Pro Bowls
3. Chuck Fusina 1978 Maxwell Award; 2nd in Heisman; superb USFL career
4. Todd Blackledge Led PSU to first national title in 1982; 7 NFL seasons (29 starts)
5. Richie Lucas 1959 Maxwell Award; 2nd in Heisman; 2 seasons in AFL
* - Still active
Even Collins was surprised about that last tidbit.
"You would think there would be more," he said. "But for whatever reason, it hasn't turned out that way. It's hard to put your finger on it, hard to come up with a reason.
"I guess you'd have to say that we've always been a run-oriented program," Collins added. "But I think a lot of places that are that way have sent guys to the NFL."
Virginia, Maryland and some other ACC schools were interested in Collins coming out of Wilson-West Lawn High School in 1991, but he considered Penn State "a class above" the others. It didn't matter to Collins that the Lions were a traditional running program.
"My thinking was the better players you have around you, the more chances you have to be the best player you can be," Collins said. "It was the best of the best, and that's how I wanted it."
Collins helped PSU become the best of the best in 1994 as the Lions featured an explosive offense that averaged 47 points per game. To this day, anyone associated with the Penn State program contends that 12-0 squad was the best team in the nation, but Nebraska finished No. 1 in the polls and won the national championship.
"That '94 team was as good an offensive team that ever played college football," Penn State coach Joe Paterno said. "We averaged over 500 yards a ballgame in a pretty good league. We could have averaged 600 yards if we had done what some people like to do."
Collins set the PSU single-season passing record with 2,679 yards in 1994 and won the Maxwell Award as the nation's best player.
"He had everything," Paterno said. "He was smart. He was tough. He had the arm. If he had to run, he could run. He had great leadership qualities."
Collins still remembers the qualities he learned from JoePa.
"The lessons that Joe taught - never get too high with the highs, never too low with the lows, be accountable, be responsible, be on time - all things that have helped me in my pro career," Collins said. "They're little things, but they're not little things. They go a long way. More so discipline and mental toughness, being able to handle anything that comes your way on a football field."
As the 1995 NFL draft neared, Paterno was contacted by NFL personnel about Collins. The legendary coach loves to tell stories about former players and shared the following one during Penn State's recent media day.
"Kerry was a terrific guy," JoePa said. "Bill Polian, who worked for my brother [George], an assistant coach for my brother at Kings Point, they were on my back about Kerry. He and the big guy, Mike McCormack, who had been at the Browns with a teammate of mine, he called me about three times. I said, 'Look, will you guys get off my back?'
"Finally, they called me the fourth time. Bill gets on the phone. He said, 'Joe, look, will you talk to the owner about Collins?' I said, 'What in God's name does the owner know?' I was told, 'He just has one question to ask you.'
"So, I think his name was [Jerry] Richardson. He gets on the phone. He said, 'Coach, I have one question: I want to ask you about Kerry Collins.' I said, 'Go ahead, but one question.' He said, 'Will he still want to play when we give him a $5 million bonus?' I said, 'Well, if he's smart, he won't.' But he's a heck of a guy."
Collins went to the Carolina Panthers with the No. 5 pick in the draft and also has played for New Orleans, New York Giants and Oakland. He led the Giants to the Super Bowl during the 2000 season - losing to the Baltimore Ravens - and his 164 NFL starts are more than any other Big Ten quarterback during the Super Bowl era.
Collins is a two-time Pro Bowl selection, but it hasn't always been easy going for him in the NFL. He has made news for his battles with alcoholism and alleged racial slurs against two Panthers teammate in 1997.
Still, Collins' skills have kept him in the NFL, primarily as a starter, for 15 years. In 2008, he took over for Vince Young early on and led the Titans to a 13-3 regular-season record.
"He has overcome a lot of personal obstacles," Prato said. "To be able to do that and be where he is now with all the respect he has and to be such a leader, there's something to be said about that guy."
SUBHD: QBs 2 through 5
The No. 2 spot on the all-time Penn State quarterback list, according to Prato, goes to Milt Plum. His 129 NFL games and 103 starts from 1957-69 are second to only Collins among PSU signal callers. He was a two-time Pro Bowler who played for Cleveland, Detroit, the Giants and Los Angeles Rams.
"Milt had better success than he's given credit for for a lot of different reasons," said Prato, referring to a longtime feud between Plum and former Lions teammate Alex Karras, who allegedly didn't hold the quarterback in high regard.
"Milt was not a great pro quarterback," Prato added. "He will tell you he wasn't a great pro quarterback. But he was good. He was [darn] good."
There could be a debate about the No. 3 spot on the list, which Prato gave to Chuck Fusina over Todd Blackledge. Fusina led the Lions to a perfect regular season and No. 1 ranking in 1978, but the team lost the national championship game against No. 2 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, 14-7.
"If Penn State had not lost that game to Alabama, that team in '78 might be looked upon as the greatest team in Penn State history and Fusina the greatest college quarterback we've had," Prato said.
Fusina won the Maxwell Award in 1978 and was runner-up for the Heisman Trophy to Oklahoma's Billy Sims in a close vote (827-750). He didn't have much of an NFL career - 14 games and no starts - but did enjoy an outstanding three-year run in the USFL (see related item).
Blackledge led Penn State to its first national title in 1982 and was the No. 7 pick in the following NFL draft. He did not enjoy a distinguished pro career for such a high draft pick, though, and started only 29 games for Kansas City and Pittsburgh.
"Blackledge was a great guy and took them to the first championship," Prato said.
The final spot on the PSU top five goes to Richie Lucas, the 1959 Maxwell Award winner and Heisman Trophy runner-up to LSU's Billy Cannon. He played two seasons with the Buffalo Bills in the AFL from 1960-61, appearing in 22 games and starting four.
"Richie didn't have the greatest passing skills," Prato said. "He was a running quarterback, and his nickname was 'Riverboat Richie' because he gambled a lot on the field. Quarterbacks called their own plays back then. He wasn't the greatest passer, but boy, he was a great thinker and a great leader."
Cory Giger can be reached at 949-7031 and email@example.com.