The life of a Penn State football fan has been full of ups and downs since the ouster and death of long-time head coach Joe Paterno.
Let’s face it, the scars left by the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal have left an enduring impact on a program that was known for being squeaky clean. Paterno was elevated to the status of patron saint of college football coaches. He even gave incoming freshmen reading lists as a “prerequisite” for playing football.
The message: Never forget that you are a student first, a college football player second.
The events of Nov. 8 and 9, 2011 forever changed the landscape of Penn State University. And, the university’s sudden announcement that Paterno was fired and that a Paterno-requested press conference to air his side of the story was cancelled, further added an element of mystery (and obfuscation) to the developing story of Sandusky (who ran a non-profit for children called The Second Mile) sexually abusing young boys as early as 1977.
That’s a long time for a scandal (and a big story) to fester and marinade. Then, long after Sandusky retired from his assistant-coaching position that he held from 1969 to 1999, Paterno’s right-hand man was granted unlimited use of the university’s athletic facilities until the details of what allegedly happened broke like a wildfire.
Paterno died the following January.
In the weeks and months that followed, the media and social media declared open season on Penn State University. Some called for the football program to be abolished. The NCAA dished out a hefty $60 million fine and banned the program from bowl eligibility for four years (the NCAA reduced it to two years, which drew the ire of the self-righteous among us, who were eager to cast the first stone).
Even my grandson, who was three years old, wasn’t spared the “evil” eye when he drew the stares of an elderly couple at the Montgomery County Fair. His crime? Wearing a Penn State T-shirt.
Bill O’Brien was tasked with bringing the program out of the ashes. He did. The Nittany Lions went 8-4 in 2012 and 7-5 in 2013. O’Brien left for an NFL head coaching position with the Houston Texans, and James Franklin, an East Stroudsburg alumnus whose coaching resume was as long as the grocery list of a large family but finally ended (so far) at Penn State.
Franklin turned the fortunes of Vanderbilt around in his first season, and the Commodores played in bowl games his first three seasons. Back-to-back 9-4 seasons were like an oasis to a university that has experienced the depths of losing for as far back as the sport has existed at the Nashville, Tennessee school.
But Penn State is not Vanderbilt.
The standards set by “Rip” Engle and Paterno dating back to 1950 have made it virtually impossible for coaches to duplicate; and, if they did replicate continued success, such would become the bare minimum.
Franklin not only maintained the success that O’Brien obtained after a severe reduction in recruiting numbers, but he also bettered it. After a 7-6 record in 2014 that also saw Penn State beat Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl, the Nittany Lions repeated that 7-6 record in 2015.
That wasn’t supposed to happen, and Franklin began feeling the heat from alumni and long-time fans who were demanding new blood in Happy Valley.
The PSU administration stuck with Franklin, and the next four seasons saw the fruits of the increase in scholarships and the quality of recruits. In 2016, Penn State won the Big Ten Championship and finished 11-3.
In 2017, the Nittany Lions finished 11-2, followed by a 9-4 record in 2018 and another 11-2 campaign in 2019.
Then came 2020. And 2021. During those two seasons, Franklin’s head coaching record was 11-11. That didn’t impede the university from extending Franklin’s contract.
A 5-0 start last season fueled high hopes of a national championship run. But a 2-6 finish to the season left a bad taste in the mouths of die-hard fans, who are not shy about voicing their opinions.
Lost in the debate is two realities: Penn State is not Penn State in a bygone era; and, Penn State is not Ohio State. Or Alabama. Or Oklahoma. It is not, and probably never will be, a powerhouse whose depth and breadth reaches across the college football world and elevates them to the status of “super” program.
That Penn State won 41 games during a four-season span from 2016 to 2019 is probably a case of a program that overachieved. What goes up, must come down, at least for programs that are mortal.
Such is Penn State. Even Joe Pa had some down seasons. From 2000 to 2004, Penn State had one winning season. Paterno might have heard the owl calling his name, but he stubbornly used his “untouchable” status and retained himself as head coach. Then, from 2005 until he was fired, the Nittany Lions experienced another resurgence, followed by another fall and rise that brings us to the present.
One thing is for certain: Penn State begins the season unranked. What happens now is anyone’s guess. Isn’t that what we all love about college football?