It struck me late on Tuesday night, perhaps for the first time, that it was all over. College football as I have always known and experienced it, I mean. And Penn State football as I have always known and experienced it, too.
Despite all of the "us against the world" talk, despite all of the promises made by fans like you and fans like me and fans far and wide, despite the belief that Penn State football can still be Penn State football despite all that has happened and all that is yet to come, I realized all at that one moment that, because of the scandal and because of the sanctions, our collective college football reality up in Happy Valley has been fundamentally and undeniably altered. And in a very specifically football sort of way.
See, the he blunt and honest truth of it is this: For the next four years, Penn State football is playing for nothing.
It won't be playing for championships.
It won't be playing for bowl bids.
It certainly won’t be playing for the national title.
Penn State won’t be playing for anything, really, outside of those clichéd old football-talk things like "pride" and "team" and "unity" and the rest of it. I don’t doubt those things matter. I don’t doubt that teams can and do play for them. But let’s face it: They aren’t tangible. They don’t really exist.
Not like Pasadena exists. Not like the Big Ten Championship Game exists. Not like the crystal football exists.
But such tangible things—the actualities of college football, if you will—are of course now out of the picture for us. Far, far out of the picture.
Because the reality is that we as Penn State fans are going to spend the next four years watching a whole lot of glorified exhibition college football. College football hollowed out. College football stripped of its meaning. College football without ambition. College football outside the world of college football.
As I have written before, one of the greatest and most unique things about college football is that there are so many different things to play for—that every team and every program of pretty much every standing in the college football world can aspire to something.
For the Alabamas and the USCs and the Ohio States of our world, there is the holy grail, the national championship, or at the very least, the bragging rights that come along with a league title. These things matter.
For the second-tier programs—the Michigan States and the South Carolinas and the Texas Techs—there is the hope of that occasional big-time bowl bid, the rare opportunity to shine in Padasena or New Orleans or Tempe and bring home a trophy of grand and historic significance. These things matter, too.
And for the bottom-feeders—those perpetually stuck-in-the-mud programs that so rarely get off the mat, your Indianas and your Wazzous and your Mississippi States—there is, forever and always, the hope that a .500 season really can happen, that a bowl bid can actually arrive, and that the holiday season can be spent in some warm and sunny place where they can pretend, for a day or two or maybe three, that, because they have made it to the Sun Bowl or the Liberty Bowl, they can one day run with the big boys.
See, what college football offers—what separates it from the relative dullness of America's other major sports—is hope. Hope for everybody. Hope that our beloved programs can one day rise to new heights. Hope that the brand new season to come will finally be the season when the big breakthrough happens. Hope that the bowl bids will come, that the recruits will notice, that the one good season can lead to many more.
This is the dynamic that sustains the sport: The idea that no matter where you currently stand in the college football universe, you really do have something to play for—because no matter what you’ve accomplished in the past, you really do have something to aspire to in the future.
It's a wonderful thing. It really is. And I'm convinced this dynamic is the very reason why college football is the only sport that is so universally beloved here our in great nation.
Go to any corner of this country and you'll find college football fans. Serious college football fans. You can find them in Idaho and Delaware and Wyoming just as you can find them in Texas and Florida and Ohio, because college football, unlike any professional sport, really is played everywhere. It's a game that unites the nation, because even while the Wyoming Cowboys aren't playing for the same prize as the Texas Longhorns, the Wyoming Cowboys are still playing for something. So is pretty much everyone else, too.
But Penn State?
Well, for the next four years, Penn State is playing for nothing.
So we basically now exist in a vacuum.
The fans will fill the stands and the band will play and the team will take to the field. We will watch three hours of football each and every Saturday. We'll watch Bill O'Brien's Nittany Lions take on Navy and Ohio State and Wisconsin and we may even see those Nittany Lions win a few games. They may thrill us on occasion. They will certainly frustrate us on occasion. There will be big plays and massive letdowns and blown coverages and perhaps an offense that does not give the game itself a bad name. There will be wins. There will be losses.
What there won't be, of course, is any meaning to any of it.
It's a strange feeling, being a Penn State fan at this moment. Here we stand, on the very cusp of the first season of the post-Paterno era—an era that some of us have been waiting for now since, oh, 1999 or so, and most of us have been hoping for since, at the very least, say, 2009. This should be an exciting time. And in some ways, it is an exciting time.
How can't you be thrilled the mere prospect of a real offensive system—one that might actually be called "state of the art?" How can't you be curious to see just what this program can and could be with a young, ambitious head coach and a staff full of new ideas? How can't you be thrilled at the prospect of that undeniable gap between Penn State and the true elites of the game actually being closed up a bit?
Bill O'Brien, charged with a truly sisyphean task, has in his first few months seemed to do just about everything right: He's said all the right things at all the right times. He's managed to recruit incredibly well, given the impossible circumstances. He's opened up practices to the media. He's listened to his players, backed his players, pushed his players. He's not yet blinked.
This guy—a guy who I quite frankly believed to be completely unqualified for this job—is suddenly a guy that I really believe in. I think he's actually got what it takes to take Penn State to the next level. I can see Big Ten titles under Bill O'Brien. I can see Rose Bowls under Bill O’Brien. If I squint hard enough and have enough double IPAs, I can see a crystal football under Bill O’Brien, too.
Well, then I wake up and remember that when I think I'm seeing all of that all I'm really seeing is a mirage. Because league titles and bowl games and a recruiting powerhouse and a Penn State in ascendancy—all of that stuff, the very stuff that sustains the game and sustains fan bases and in some weird way justifies all the time and money spent on this silly game we love—are completely off the table.
What we'll watch the next four seasons will look like football. It may, at times, even feel like football.
But it won't be real football.
It will be pretend football. It will be college football, stripped of its collegeness. It will be Penn State football, on its own strange island.
I give you this advice, then, even though I've yet to reach the point where I can follow the advice myself: Accept it.
Accept everything. Accept the penalties, no matter how over the top you may believe them to be. Accept the reality that these past nine months actually have happened, and accept, too, that the very foundations of the game have been destroyed—destroyed, at least, at Penn State.
Starting this season and for the foreseeable future, we are, indeed, playing for nothing. This is undeniable.
So we have no choice but to adjust. We must adjust to a college football life in which there is no ultimate goal—nothing tangible, at least. We must adjust to the sad notion that, when we play Ohio State, or when we play Wisconsin, we are not playing for first place in the Leaders Division, or playing for a better bowl bid, or jockeying for position in the race to play in the Big Ten title game. Instead, we'll just be ... playing. Playing a game, an event unto itself.
Yes, our team will play football. Yes, we will watch. And yes, for the next few seasons, that's going to have be good enough.
It will be hard. It will be frustrating. It will, very likely, drive many fans away. Some will return. Some will not.
I take solace only in this: It's still college football.
True, the meaning of it all—the football side of things, at least—has been eviscerated.
But if we as individuals and we as fans are to endure this unprecedented four-year exile into nothingness, we will have to go back to the basics. We will have to enjoy the game for the game itself—the strategy of it, the physicality of it, the pageantry of it, the profound if admittedly and entirely self-created importance of it.
We will have to love the game for the moments. For the game-winning catches, for the game-clinching pick-sixes, for the everything-on-the-line third-down conversions—needing six yards, getting seven, advancing the chains, running out the clock.
We will have to love the game for the rivalries, which even in the absence of A Greater Goal can and will serve as galvanizing events for a team and a fan base that simply need something to hold on to, to play for, to claim and celebrate. We will have to enjoy playing Ohio State for the simple pleasure of playing Ohio State. Which, when you think about it, should be easy enough; I mean, it's Ohio State.
We will have to love the game for everything that surrounds it and everything that completes the picture of a college football Saturday: The band marching on and the drum major landing his flip, the teams taking the field, the blue-and-white fans set against the deep green field set against Mount Nittany, orange and yellow in all of its October perfection.
We will have to love the game for the Friday nights before, when we roll into town and check into our hotels and hop from bar to bar, reminiscing about old times and, quite likely, moaning about current times.
We will have to love the game for the tailgates—stretching far and wide from the Beaver Stadium gates, out past the baseball field and all down Park Ave, the old-timers doing it with style and the new alums doing their best and the students hopping from one party to the next, taking it all in and thinking it won't ever end.
We will have to love the game for times shared with family and friends, for reunions, for the wonderful tradition that has been and can still be the simple act of attending a college football game in Happy Valley, a place that is battered and bruised but still hopeful and resilient.
The games won't be the same, no. They won't feel the same. We can safely assume that, when the sanctions really kick in, they won't look the same, either.
But they will be games nonetheless. Games at Penn State. Games at Beaver Stadium.
Penn State games.
College football games.
And you know what?
That might just be enough.