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Oct. 25, 2011
By Rob Daniels, Special to theACC.com
Like so many in a 50-mile radius of Pittsburgh, Rich Novak was born with Penn State, Pitt or West Virginia football on the brain. He'd have gladly played for any of the three. When they all came to the same independent conclusion, Novak took his 5-foot-8, 158-pound frame to the University of Maryland, where convention mattered less than conviction.
And if nothing else, Rich Novak was convinced in 1958 that he could play college football. The fit turned out to be tight and lifelong for the quarterback-turned-executive, who thrived in the relatively new thing called the I-formation and in the business world thereafter. And as the 70-year-old will still admit, his size wasn't conducive to pro football.
"I broke any number of bones," recalled Novak, Maryland's ACC Legend for 2011. "I suppose maybe it would have been nice to have the luster of playing at the highest level. But a huge regret? No."
It's not that Novak lacked suitors. By national standards, he was heavily pursued. Most of the Ivy League, Army and Navy offered. Even Arizona State, represented by a newly promoted son of Pennsylvania named Frank Kush, made a home visit to Uniontown, Pa. ASU ultimately wanted him to play football and baseball.
West Virginia offered a visit and had legendary lineman Sam Huff take Novak to lunch. But when the locals declined, Novak followed a pipeline of sorts to College Park, where five friends from his youth would wind up starting along with him. All he wanted was a shot, which was appropriate for a guy born six miles from the town of Fairchance, Pa.
As it turned out Maryland was one of the best options available to any prospect. The Terrapins had won the national championship only a few years earlier, in 1953, and had spent four more weeks at No. 1 in 1955.
By the time he first took the field in 1959, Novak was under the direction of two esteemed offensive leaders. Tom Nugent, whom most historians credit with creating the I-formation, was the head coach. His assistant in charge of quarterbacks was a 24-year-old iconoclast from Miami named Lee Corso. Together, they found ways to maximize Novak's talent.
"As a 5-9 drop-back passer, it was difficult to see over the line," Novak said. "I would roll out and have the option to throw or run. My passing stats were no great deal, but I could run the ball."
The I-formation, which had attracted the attention of Notre Dame's Frank Leahy, among others, was considered revolutionary in some quarters but not at Maryland, where they weren't averse to much of anything.
"Nugent was a creative guy," Novak said. "The I-formation was cool. And then we had that huddle kickoff, which was crazy."
In that chaos, several Terps would congregate around the ball as it neared the ground to confuse the defense about who would take it out. On a half-dozen occasions, Novak remembers, he came out with it, dashed up the sideline and again pondered his options.
On Nov. 19, 1960, it worked to perfection.
"All I did was receive it," he said. "I ran up to the 10-yard line, and with everyone running after me, I threw it across the field to Dennis Condie."
Condie caught the ball back at the goal line and went all the way for the first 100-yard kickoff return in ACC history. In the record books, both men are credited with the play.
"We did that four or five other times, and I was always annihilated," Novak said.
Things were more benign in traditional offense, as Novak helped the Terrapins to an 18-12 record in three seasons. Splitting time with another acclaimed player, Dick Shiner, who represented Maryland in the ACC's 2007 Class of Football Legends, limited his individual numbers, but he did lead the team in total offense in 1959.
Perhaps to Novak's greatest satisfaction, he beat West Virginia three times and Penn State once. The Terrapins' 21-17 victory over the Nittany Lions on Nov. 4, 1961 remains their most recent win in a series that has since featured 28 losses and one tie.
In all, 12 of Novak's teammates went on to play in the NFL, and he had a chance to try out for a Canadian Football League team but declined. He figured he had maximized this football thing, and he went into the working world. Jobs in various commercial products took him and his wife to Washington, Cleveland, New York, St. Louis, San Francisco, New York (again), Indiana, Philadelphia, North Carolina and now Greenwich, Conn.
A 25-year career in health care included service as chief operating officer of LabCorp, a drug-testing company with 220,000 clients based in Burlington, N.C. For a decade, Novak lived as a Terrapin in Tar Heel country, residing in Chapel Hill.
The work has put Novak in position to become an important benefactor to his alma mater. His contributions sponsor the scholarship of current Terrapin quarterback Danny O'Brien, the 2010 ACC Rookie of the Year.
Novak, his wife, Laura, and daughters Emily and Ashley will be in attendance for the Night of Legends in Charlotte on Friday of ACC Championship week.
"As much as my athletic career was a good one, it ended after college," he said. "My accomplishments are more known on the business side. I'm proud of that, and my family is proud of that."