Penn State joined the Big Ten in 1993, won the league title in 1994 with an 8-0 conference record, and hasn’t won an outright title ever since. The program has never achieved the dominance of its new conference home that partisans expected two decades ago, but those same fans have to be looking back wistfully now at those interim years of New Year’s Day bowl games and double-digit victory seasons. It’s been a while.
In fact, it’s been seven years since the Nittany Lions went 11-2 and won the Capital One Bowl after the 2009 season. This decade has been a succession of mediocre campaigns, coaching controversies and Pinstripe Bowls. The cause of the recent mediocrity, of course, is not a mystery.
Five years ago Joe Paterno was fired in the aftermath of the sordid Jerry Sandusky criminality, rocking the Happy Valley community’s beloved football program to its foundations. It is certainly not my purpose here to rehash that saga. The perpetrator is behind bars and the coaching legend is six feet under. Still, controversy rages, and the football program staggers on.
What made the Sandusky story and the resulting media orgy so unnerving to college football fans at the time was the way dirty, nasty reality had rudely invaded their Saturday afternoon escapism from dirty, nasty reality. How dare it do that? They reacted much like Paterno reportedly did when, in 1976, he was confronted by witness JohnDoe150 with the story of an early Sandusky abuse, “I don’t want to hear about any of that kind of stuff, I have a football season to worry about”
Then just this past September, the still somewhat deluded Penn State community decided to commemorate Paterno with a halftime ceremony at the Rutgers game, and the media reacted much as they did five years ago…by trying to out-outrage each other. One wonders what the Penn State fan base thought would happen. They’re not over him. Neither is the football team.
Bill O’Brien presided over an 8-4 team in 2012 and a 7-6 team in 2013, both years with a roster severely depleted by NCAA sanctions. O’Brien won nearly universal praise from media types for righting the ship in troubled waters, but over time he grew frustrated with administration politics, and the never-ending battles with the faction he called “the Paterno people”. He bolted to the NFL’s Houston Texans after 2013, and if my Twitter timeline is a reliable indicator, that has embittered some Nittany Lions fans. As far as I know, his first name does not begin with an “F”.
Franklin does however, and Lions’ 3rd year head coach has not escaped the wrath of a football community impatient for a return to glory. He entered 2016 coming off back-to-back seasons of 7-6. In the eyes of his detractors, the Lions’ non-conference wins over Kent State and Temple this fall aren’t enough to balance out getting drilled 49-10 by Michigan and dropping one to cross-state rival Pitt.
Like the dreaded vote of confidence, the periodic assurances by PSU officials that Franklin “is not on the hot seat” merely reflect the fact that much of the community feels he is right there on it.
With a 4-2 record going into this weekend’s nationally televised matchup with #2 Ohio State, James Franklin has a chance to back up the predictions of Bill O’Brien and others, who have forecast a return to college football’s elite under his leadership.
After the Buckeyes visit, the remainder of the schedule is not daunting. Penn State avoids the two best teams from the Big Ten West, Wisconsin and Nebraska, and plays Iowa and a flailing Michigan State team at home. The roster is back to a full 85 scholarship players, and a respectable bowl game is well within reach. The administration counsels patience. The coach asks fans to trust the process.
An upset win Saturday could get the program’s fans finally looking forward with optimism rather than back with mixed emotions at the man in the white shirt and the black glasses. It’s about time.
E-mail Dan at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @dwismar.