(Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
(This week in the Maize n Brew Big Ten preview we work our way out to the conference's eastern-most outpost to look at the Nittany Lions of Penn State a year after a tramatic scandal rocked campus that shook up everything from the university administration, the student body, and the longest tenured coach in college football. We aren't here to talk about the scandal -- although in some cases it is unavoidable -- but instead we will do our best to make this week about football while acknowledging the elephant in the room.
If you aren't already reading SBN's Penn State site, Black Shoe Diaries, on a regular basis then you are missing out on one of the networks finest sites, and some of the best coverage of the Sandusky scandal on the interwebs. You'll hear more from them later this week, but add BSD to your rotation. You'll be glad you did.)
I'm not an evolutionary psychologist or anything even approaching that -- I took psych in high school, so formal training in the discipline is lacking -- but I have to imagine that one of the first traits to develop alongside complex human emotion was the ability to cope and eventually move on from those things -- heartbreak, loss, tragedy, death -- that do such a remarkable job of throwing our lives into a tailspin. There isn't always a clean break with the past. These things ultimately take time to sort out, and down the road we all look back at least once and think, "I can't believe I did that" in response to something or another that (something that I am sure a good deal of those involved will do in the coming years when shown tape of the rallys in support of Joe Paterno last fall).
Now Penn State and the surrounding community are finally able to turn away from the horror and begin the process of moving on in earnest. Justice has been served and more is almost certainly on the way given what we now know about the cover up. The process starts almost immediately, and for the Penn State community it will involve a long, hard look at itself and the culture that has existed in the small town of State College, PA. For once, football is secondary.
It certainly takes a lot to overshadow football in central Pennsylvania, and for long stretches, the game on the field was, rightfully so, put aside while the human tragedy was dealt with. The Joe Paterno era ended in a whimper as the 8-1 Nittany Lions limped to a 1-2 finish, relinquished the two game advantage in the Leaders division race, and struggled to avoid the distractions cropping up everywhere but between the white lines last November. The bowl loss to Houston, a 30-14 shellacking that was much worse than the score indicates. It was a sad end to a forgotten season.
I'm not sure everyone is on board with the idea of "moving on". There seems to be a lot of talk about shutting the doors on the football program, removing PSU from the Big Ten, and getting the NCAA involved for penalties (something akin to bringing a plastic knife to a tank battle). This is all an overreaction, a blurring of lines in a fit of anger -- albeit justifiable anger -- at the brutality and inhumanity of one of the worst sexual abuse scandals in American history.
Spreading blame where it isn't deserved is unproductive, and despite the misguided loyalty present in some of Penn State's fan base, or the proximity of the players and lower staffers who were present at the time, there is noguilt by association. Only guilt by inaction. This guilt lies with the administrators who covered up and coaches who protected the institution over children. It isn't the institutions fault, and punishing the innocent rarely works out the way we intend. However, that doesn't mean that change is all bad, and Penn State's football program is in for a healthy dose of it.
Bill O'Brien is in every way possible a break from the past. For years it looked as if the Penn State dynasty would pass from Joe Paterno to either his son Jay or long-time defensive coordinator Tom Bradley. The status quo had worked for so many years that it would have been foolish to shake things up. Even with short downturns and disappointing seasons, Penn State has consistently bounced back to the upper tier of the Big Ten more often than not.
The scandal completely changed any planned coaching progression, and fairly or not (depending on what they knew or didn't know and just how far to the "burn the damn thing down" side of the spectrum you fall) Jay Paterno and Tom Bradley are out. Even the desire to stay within the extended family was largely untenable due to the severity of the scandal and how unattractive the job looked in the wake of the announcement and Paterno's messy exit. The most stable program in America had, over the course of a weekend in early November turned into the least stable.
O'Brien has no connection to Penn State. He spent the 90s as a position coach at multiple college stops (Brown, Georgia Tech) before receiving a promotion to offensive coordinator, a position he would hold at GT for two years, then later Duke for two years. His time at GT was med with solid results, while his two years at Duke went about how you expect two years running Duke's offense to go (i.e., not good).
O'Brien's next stop was in the pro game as an assistant for the New England Patriots. He moved up through the staff to eventually run the offense in 2011. There were ups and downs -- namely O'Brien's terse-seeming relationship with starting quarterback Tom Brady -- but the Patriots made the Super Bowl in 2011 and O'Brien joined the team after that.
Penn State now moves forward with a group of coaches that are largely different than what had come before. The offensive staff is a collection of NFL position coaches (and long-time Texas OL coach Mac McWhorter, and the defensive staff retains two of its better position coaches from the Paterno era, Larry Johnson for the DL and Ron Vanderlinden for the LBs, but now take direction from Ted Roof (commence laughter).
The future for Penn State football is now. After years and years be being defined by what it was, who was in charge, and the platitudes of doing it the right way, Penn State is forced to redefine itself. The new coaches are representative of this. There is new blood in the football offices and on the sidelines. Cleaning house was necessary.
The failure of those in charge when it came to dealing with Jerry Sandusky is many things, but to the fans and alumni that love the university, and the players that show up every day to work their tails off, the most important thing today is that this failure is a chance for Penn State to move forward as a community, to learn from the past, and to better itself as an institution. Rooting for the Nittany Lions in 2012 and beyond shouldn't make anyone feel dirty. Those responsible for the heinous acts and the misguided cover up are now gone to rot in prison or sit unemployed as pariahs in their chosen profession. What remains are the innocent bystanders, the people who believed in the platitudes that Penn State was supposed to idealize, who care about right and wrong, and ultimately were just as disgusted with the sick acts as the rest of us*.
This could be a wonderful season for Penn State football. It is a chance for everyone who was left behind, everyone who did things the right way, and everyone who represents what Penn State is really about to help create a better future. In life you aren't defined by the bad things that happen to you and around you. You are defined by how you respond to them. The entire Penn State community was confronted with pure evil and administrative malfeasance. Now it is time to learn lessons, come to terms with the past, and move on.
Penn State, your future is now. Learn from your past and build a better tomorrow. To do otherwise would be yet another tragedy.
*(some are beholden to the idea of certain figures as more than men. This too is a very human thing that comes from getting too close to the situation. It is another thing that time softens.)