Dutch Point vs. Martin Luther King.
Residents of those Hartford apartment complexes used to go to battle in football at the nearby church yard.
Helmets? Eh, sometimes. Pads? Nah.
“And I swear that game to me was bigger than Penn State Ohio-State, right?” said Sean Spencer, the Hartford native who was on the Martin Luther King squad and later at Bulkeley High and Clarion University. “There would be about 75 people there, and I’ll tell you that game prepared me for any game I could ever be in in my life. The characters I grew up with and having those type of competitions made you a fierce competitor, and I think that kind of helped me to where I am now.
From the streets of Hartford to the No. 2 position at one of the most storied football programs in the nation — at 47 years old. Sean Spencer officially became the associate head coach at Penn State last month. He is also the Nittany Lions’ defensive line coach as well as defensive run game coordinator.
“I think about the competition back then, man, going against the older guys, being tough, getting pushed around, having to bow your neck up sometimes; that upbringing kind of helped me to where I became a fearless football player in college and a fearless coach. I didn’t know any better. Growing up in Hartford taught you to be tough. That’s all you knew. Still today, you meet somebody from Hartford, they have a little edge to them. I joke with the guys around the office ‘I can pull that Hartford out on you’ and they laugh.”
Nobody’s laughing at Spencer’s ascension up the coaching ladder. His goal is to be a head coach. Nittany Lions coach James Franklin made a big move in getting him there one day.
Spencer will enter his 22nd year as an assistant, fourth at Penn State this fall. His career includes stops at Wesleyan, Shippensburg, Trinity, UMass, Holy Cross, Villanova, Hofstra, a second stint at UMass and Bowling Green, where Franklin first pulled Spencer from and added him to his staff at Vanderbilt in 2011.
“All of those moves got me to where I am now and gave me a great appreciation for hard work,” said Spencer, a 1988 graduate of Bulkeley High and later Clarion University. “People thought I was crazy. ‘What are you doing going way the heck out to Bowling Green, Ohio? Why are you taking that job?’ But every job I took assured me I was doing the right thing, that I was moving upward. I was meeting great coaches and people I got to work with on the way that helped prepare me for the situation I’m in now.”
Eric Mangini, Spencer’s former teammate in high school who helped him get a coaching position at Wesleyan, was among the first people he called when his new job title became official. Mangini could not have been more pleased, but he wasn’t surprised.
“When I spoke to him, he sounded great,” said Mangini, who had Spencer in an internship program with him while he was the head coach of the Jets from 2006-08. “I couldn’t have been happier for him. It’s a pretty amazing journey he’s been on, pretty impressive what he’s done. … He’s always had that level of determination you want. He had that level of persistence as a player and has it as a coach. He is determined to be successful but does in a way that’s not abrasive at all. He’s easy to cheer for and easy to support. He’s such a good dude.”
And by all accounts, he is an outstanding defensive line coach and leader of Penn State’s front, the “Wild Dogs.”
“Coach Chaos,” said new Mississippi State head coach Joe Moorhead, who just left Penn State as its offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Moorhead previously held those titles at UConn.
“That’s what they call him. He is a phenomenal person with a demonstrated level of expertise at his position. You look at his time at Penn State and Vanderbilt before that and his players have always played hard and had a high level of production. If he keeps on the path he’s on, he’s going to be a coordinator or head coach in a short amount of time.”
The Nittany Lions, who beat Washington 35-28 in the Fiesta Bowl on Dec. 30, ranked 17th nationally in defense and tied for seventh in sacks with 42. Penn State lost to USC in the Rose Bowl (52-49) in 2016 but wound up there after three starters up front were drafted into the NFL. It was a year in which Penn State ranked seventh in tackles for loss and 19th in sacks at 2.86 per game. Both were critical in the Nittany Lions’ run to the Big Ten title. The defensive line led an overall unit that ranked No.1 in the FBS in sacks at 3.54 per game and sixth in tackles for loss (8.2) in 2015. In 2014, his first season in State College, Pa., Spencer was a finalist for Football Scoop’s defensive line coach of the year as the Nittany Lions finished third in rushing defense (100.5 yards allowed) and second in total defense (278.7). Vanderbilt’s defense line helped the Commodores finish in the Top 25 in each of the three seasons Spencer was there.
“We have unbelievable kids here that believe in the process that Coach Franklin has put forth, and the kids bought into it,” Spencer said. “He is a guy that is process- and detail-oriented and the kids bought into it, and it was a formula we created when we were at Vanderbilt, and really those victories there stem from us believing in the process dating back to the first day we got on Vanderbilt’s campus to the first day we got on Penn State’s campus. We kept the same formula.”
Spencer may have come up in the rough and tumble, but he sure is affable. Mangini said he can only imagine what Spencer is like on the recruiting trail.
“I don’t know but I would imagine he is a fantastic recruiter,” said Mangini, an analyst for Fox Sports 1. “What mom and dad isn’t going to talk to him and say, ‘OK, I trust this person inherently with my son. I know he’s sincere, and I love the traits he represents.’ You don’t get any used car salesman with him. He’s going to tell you the truth and let that honesty … a lot of people want to know what they can fix and what they can do better, and Sean will tell them but make them understand he could help them get there, too. I think he would be a great coach.”
Of course, Spencer is focused on making the best of his opportunity in his new position.
“It’s really a prestigious honor for Coach to give me this responsibility and that title,” Spencer said. “I feel as though I’ve put in the time and the work where Coach Franklin felt comfortable giving me this new responsibility. It’s a great steppingstone in becoming a head coach, but right now, I will assist Coach Franklin the best I can.”