Wednesday marks the two-year anniversary of former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno’s death. In what seemed like a blink of an eye, Paterno went from one of the most revered figures in college football to the face of a scandal that rocked the State College and NCAA football community. Regardless of how much involvement one pegs on Paterno for his involvement in the Jerry Sandusky sexual harassment case, fact is that the opinion of the former all-time winningest coach in NCAA football came crashing down as the Penn State program crumbled at the seams. Toward the end of his final year coaching the Nittany Lions, a season in which the team went 8-1 in games coached by Paterno, the findings in the case surrounding the longtime defensive coordinator of Penn State immediately shifted the focus away from another winning season. Days after Sandusky’s arrest the Penn State Board of Trustees, despite pleads from the student body and even the coach formally announcing his retirement for the end of the 2011 season, relieved Paterno of his duties effective immediately on November 9, 2011.
Late that night and into the following morning, rioting students littered the streets of State College in protest of the swift decision. Defensive coordinator Tom Bradley was named interim coach as the team finished out their season with a dark cloud hanging over the normally tranquil Beaver Stadium. Instead of focusing on another winning season for the Nittany Lions, legal proceedings and backlash towards the incident put an unfortunate spotlight on the small, central-Pennsylvania college town. They would drop four of their last five games, including a bowl-game loss to end one of the darkest seasons in school history.
Rather than keeping Bradley in charge of the program, Penn State decided to distance themselves from the previous regime and select a head coach with no ties to the program. They would tab Bill O’Brien, previously the offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots, as Paterno’s predecessor. Paterno would show his support for the hire, insisting the move would allow the community to move forward with a new leader. Despite a strong presence and an impressive resume, O’Brien would have the NCAA investigation hanging over his head in his first offseason as a head coach, usually a time reserved for recruiting and building up a team.
While the case against Sandusky and the rest of the parties involved moved forward, Paterno’s well-being quickly deteriorated in the following weeks. The Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins would conduct a lengthy interview with Paterno just over a week before his passing. The frail former coach tried to make peace with the incident, appearing genuine and heartfelt in his remorse of the incident that occurred with him in power. Perhaps no excerpt from Jenkins’ article captures the remorse of Paterno better than the following quote.
“I didn’t know exactly how to handle it and I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was. So I backed away and turned it over to some other people, people I thought would have a little more expertise than I did. It didn’t work out that way.”
Eight days after the Jenkins article was published, by word of a statement released by his family, it was announced that Paterno had passed away at 85 years old. As the State College community and those affected by Paterno mourned the loss of the coach who spent his entire career in charge of the Nittany Lions, the true damage to the program had just begun.
The following months were a whirlwind of speculation and debate as to what the future would hold for one of the most prominent programs in college football. As more and more devastating details of Sandusky’s wrongdoings and the cover-up that allowed it to happen for as long as it did, Paterno’s posthumous legacy continued to take more and more hits. Finally, nearly over eight months after Sandusky’s arrest, the NCAA landed a crippling blow the the Penn State program. In addition to vacating over a quarter of Paterno’s wins from the record books, the immediate ramifications of the penalty was devastating to the Nittany Lion football family.
With players given free-rein to transfer without sitting a year, substantial scholarship reductions, and hefty financial penalties the program was down, for certain. O’Brien reaffirmed his commitment to bringing the team and community out of the dark days, solidifying his spot as a beacon of a new direction in State College. It would not be easy for the first-time head coach. Considering a significant fall-off in talent and the weight of following a coaching titan under some of the worst circumstances, it would have been tough to blame the Nittany Lions for turning in a sub-par season. They had nothing to play for, with a postseason ban preventing the team’s remaining seniors from playing for a bowl. They would have to answer questions all season long about something that did not even occur during their time at a school many figured would help them pursue dreams beyond college football. From his first day donning the blue and white as coach, O’Brien would have to deal with the detractors and old ideals that would become what defined his tenure in charge.
After a rocky start in O’Brien’s first season, including losses to Ohio and Virginia to start the year, the Nittany Lions put forth a spirited effort to finish the season with an 8-4 record. Considering their quarterback, Matt McGloin was originally a walk-on; the loss of Silas Redd, arguably their best player, to transfer; and the growing pains of breaking in an entirely new roster 8-4 was a miraculous effort by the new coach. He would be named the Paul “Bear”Bryant coach of the year and, just over a year after the darkest time in program history things were looking up in State College.
O’Brien brought more good news to the program when, after some speculated he would bolt for the NFL, he returned for a second year with a substantial pay raise. Christian Hackenberg, one of the top quarterbacks in the class of 2013, would join the Nittany Lions in O’Brien’s second season. In addition, after revisiting the case and acknowledging the progress of the program, the NCAA decided to reduce some of the scholarship limitations and readjust the penalty. The Nittany Lions would have a more normal offseason and a chance to carry some of the good feelings of the year prior and a better-than-expected returning crop of players into the 2013 season.
Even with one less win than O’Brien’s first season, the Nittany Lions continued to show an exciting brand of football with a noticeably less talented roster than some of their conference foes. Hackenberg, one of three true freshman to ever start a season opener for Penn State, fit the billing of his lofty ranking and the team appeared to be taking to some of O’Brien’s pro-style ideals. Highlighted by a riveting comeback, overtime win over Michigan at home, the dark days at State College seemed like a thing of the past and there was once again excitement surrounding the program.
They would finish the season with a 7-5 record and, once again, the NCAA would soften the blow of their initial penalties; vowing to restore their scholarship total by the start of the 2014 season. Once teetering on the brink of possibly losing their beloved football program, Penn State was once again an emerging power on the cusp of competing with the top programs in the Big Ten.
Change would come to the Penn State program once again in the offseason of 2013-2014. As many imagined he would at some point, Bill O’Brien bolted to the professional ranks in the form of a head coaching job with the Houston Texans. Despite a contingency that felt stung by O’Brien’s departure, he proved himself to be the perfect hire given the circumstances. The coach notorious for a sideline argument with the teflon Tom Brady, had gone into a program so deeply rooted in its tradition and showed them that building the program back from the ground up in a new image was the only way to put the unfortunate end of Paterno’s tenure behind them.
The following coaching search was world’s different from the selection process that landed O’Brien. Penn State was once again a destination. After having big names from both the college and professional ranks, the Nittany Lions honed in on who they figure to be the long-term solution to bringing the program back all the way to national prominence. After even having his name attached to NFL coaching jobs, Vanderbilt’s James Franklin, a Pennsylvania native, accepted an offer to coach Penn State. A man who had brought success in the SEC to the Commodore program would be the man placed in charge of the latest chapter in Penn State football. The confident Franklin, at his introductory press conference, captured the hearts of the Nittany Lion-faithful.
“We’re going to build this program the right way and we’re going to do it for the long haul. We plan on being here for a very long time. This is my dream job. This is where I want to be,”
So with an up and coming coach, a quarterback as promising as any in the country, and a full bounty of scholarships, things are certainly on the upswing for the Penn State football community. They appear fully committed to forging a new era in the prestigious past and doing everything possible to put the stain of the Jerry Sandusky scandal out of the hearts and minds of all associated with the program.
But, is that a realistic endeavor from a school whose rise to prominence is almost solely accredited to a man who was in charge of the program during one of the darkest scandals in NCAA history? Even two years of success later, there are still reminders of the impact that Paterno has had. Whether it was Bill O’Brien exclaiming his frustration with the ‘Paterno People’ upon his departure of the school, or the fact that there is a flavor called ‘Peachy Paterno’ at The Creamery, the longtime head coach’s presence still serves as a reminder of a different era. The University can take down statues, they can remove his name from buildings, and whatever else they deem fit in removing reminders of what the community once was.
I can say with 100% honesty that I am not a fan of the Penn State football program. In my younger years, I never cheered against them and enjoyed their success for friends and family that supported the program. There was even part of me that had a soft spot for Joe Paterno and his old-school approach to a game that, at one point, seemed to have passed him by. After Jerry Sandusky scandal blew through State College and seeing the effect it had on some of those same friends and family, my inability to cheer for the team will never change. No matter how much success and happiness James Franklin brings to the State College community, I will never cheer for Penn State football.
That said, I will never curse someone or bash them for choosing to cheer for the Penn State program. When the program was at its lowest point, the fanbase and community could have packed it in and felt sorry for themselves. They could have brought in a coach that would have helped them fly under the radar while the firestorm of the scandal blew over. They could have talked about the ‘Good ole’ days’ under ‘JoePa’ and accepted the fact that a single, sick mind managed to derail a marquee program.
This was not the case, though. Instead, sticking to their rallying call of ‘Fight On State’, the Penn State community has done just that. There was no empathy requests or excuses for losing games they normally won. Instead, there was a resiliency and support within the program that was unlike what defined the tail-end of the Paterno era. Once again, there was fire within the sidelines and student section, there was a swagger on the recruiting trail that almost defied the sanctions handed down by the NCAA, there was a direction that one can be proud of. The wounds left by the Jerry Sandusky scandal may never ‘heal’ in the traditional sense. That said, the Penn State football community and its supporters have reminded the rest of the country of something that most of us have forgotten after such sustained success. This is a community that chooses to fight on and, in the face of adversity, have emerged as something one can be proud of. I am not a Penn State supporter, but I support those who decide to rise above instead of lying down. So if you are one who follows and supports Penn State, I implore you to keep fighting On. You will get no resistance from this writer.