Several moons ago, a poster at Black Heart Gold Pants by the screen name of The Director posted a gorgeous fanpost series on that blog. The series was his own personal history of Iowa football, colored with many anecdotes from his own long life and time as a fan. It was remarkable, and a work of genius. Here is the first installment.
It must be noted that I am not always the most serious of posters. After all, my own personal internet blogistani policy consists of the following: 1) It's the internet, and everyone is dumb, so why should I care what people think? If I run for President in the future, I can just distract the media from the horrible scandal of my internet self by having sex with prostitutes and then apologizing (Boom! I'm like Mark Sanford, only more hardcore!). 2) Merle Haggard. Nonetheless, my own interests compel me to engage in the project into which I now devote my full attention. It is humorous, it is serious, it is non-serious, it contains bits of outlaw country, it is the work of my mind, it is the history of Penn State football. How fitting, I say, since college football is both a mere game and a very serious window onto humanity - and, vitally, American humanity - as a whole.
G.K. Chesterton's A Short History of England (which is quite good despite his typically Chestertonian demands to believe that Protestantism is responsible for 97% of everything bad in Europe) has absolutely no relevance to this project aside from one: I like his notion that a true "popular history" should go backwards; that history is just as well understood by reading from the present day back into the past. And so I shall write this project in such a manner.
Let us begin...
On September 1st, 2012, I went to ESPN's website and checked the score of the Penn State game that day. I called the Old Man to confirm that the Lions had indeed lost to one of the lesser scourges from the awful Midwestern abyss to the west of Penn's lands. This was the first time ever that I had not made an effort to watch or listen to a Penn State game in approximately ten years. And you know, I wasn't upset. I was almost happy. I was almost happy that Penn State had lost a football game. The guy who had cried after the 2008 Iowa game, who had smashed stuff after the 2010 Alabama game (even though he had expected that loss), well, he was now bitter. Something he loved had been torn apart and destroyed.
Penn State football, quite literally, was one my first serious objects of affections. I had loved it and wanted more whenever it gave me anything. My reasons for affection were both serious (and even philosophical and) and simply aesthetic. It was as much a part of my life as my own family. And now here it was: I was one of those people who compared their sports teams to an ex-girlfriend (1). Oh my word, this damned scandal and its after-effects had turned me into, like, Bill Simmons. Save me, Lord.
After the scandal took the only coach I had ever known (the start of the break-up), this unknown character from parts unknown was hired by an athletic director I loathed. This constitutes the part of the break-up where the girl gets a tattoo and finds a new boyfriend whom is just, like, kinda creepy and probably from Denmark or Lativa or something.
I was at my Dad's house during the press conference. My Dad, who is just as diehard as I am, was watching it on the TV. I plugged my ears so I couldn't hear it. That's how emotionally shot I was; I plugged my ears like a little kid. I didn't want to believe the past was being cut away from me so violently. O'Brien wasn't a new head coach, he was a new program, a new way of doing things, and he wasn't what I grew up with. He wasn't what I had fallen in love with. Most of all, he was a culmination and an ending. After Carthage had been burned and salted, he was the new king, said to be in charge of a program which was claimed to be basically the same Carthage I knew. I didn't believe in that. The uniforms, the stadium, and much of everything would be the same, but nothing would ever feel the same. I knew I could never change that. Because of the way the Paterno era ended, Penn State football now no longer felt like Penn State football. It's an entirely different animal. It died and rose again, looking similar to the old life, but with enough changes and enough painful scars to put me in a state of undefinable and hardly describable unease.
And, thinking about it, all of this leads to one of the reasons for why I personally hate seeing those names on the uniforms so damned much. In part it's because I can't forget myself in the game anymore. The namelessness of our jerseys means so much to me, in part, because it was our identity. It was our identity for over a century of athletics. It was our identity before Paterno's family had even left Italy. Penn State football was about the ideals represented by nameless jerseys before my great-grandfather was born. Maybe I'm just crazy, and sometimes my ability to write convincingly about this issue is even more flagging than it usually is (like right now), but, damn, it's crazy to see my first love with that weird-ass tattoo on her back.
So, anyhow, what is Penn State football today? The first thing to remember about Penn State football under Paterno was that it was simultaneously complex and simple. It was a Grand Experiment with all kinds of rich and deeply bitching philosophical, sociological, and historical ramifications. But it was also just a bunch of football players doing whatever it is football players do anywhere (getting discounts on Frosties at Wendy's until Joe finds out). Trying to put my finger on a proper description is never easy, but I have managed and so have others.
But what is O'Brien? Is he just running a standard, albeit classier, college football program? To me, some of his quotes, which stress a connection to what made Penn State football so, um, Paternoian (I made a word!) and grand, show a coach who hasn't developed the identity of his own program. That's fine, considering his coaching youth.
The other question is: will he make a program that is as unique and idealistic as Paterno's? Will he, like Paterno, be as much a character for virtuous (or snobbish, if you're a detractor or Barry Switzer) ideas (though in his own crotchety Boston Irish rather than crotchety New York Italian way) as for football activity? Obviously, only time can tell. I don't know about O'Brien's background; did he read Virgil? In any event, I suspect that most Penn State fans will care more for consistency rather than looking for any new kind of visionary experiment.
So far, the most visible thing about modern Penn State football is that's it awfully freaking ballsy and cocky. This is why the definitive O'Brien player so far is one Matt McGloin.
By the time the Iowa game rolled around last year, I had dropped enough of my emotional baggage to feel comfortable with my first love, despite her sporting ugly tattoos and that gross new boyfriend. She had finally become less important in my life (how healthy), but, well, I suppose maybe you never truly get over that first one. I still told myself I could never watch Penn State football so long as they had name plates on the jerseys, but I followed the game on ESPN's gametrack thing and watched as Penn State utterly humiliated a foe Paterno had never so ruthlessly punched again and again in the kidneys.
By the time the Ohio State game rolled around, I had returned to actually anticipating Penn State games. Although, in this case, it was more because of my absolutely unshakable hatred for Ohio State.
When Wisconsin came to State College, I watched my first Penn State game. My reasoning was that I was supporting the seniors, or some crap. Real reason: her boyfriend had stopped bothering me so much, and she always wore dresses to occasions like this and she looked gorgeous and sexy in that green dress she wore last time I saw her, and her toes looked cute in those sandals she always wore, and I missed her voice, and we could look each other in the eyes again and she always had capturing blue eyes that made me feel like I was falling into a love song, and another friend had invited me and I didn't want to say no to him, and there are worse things than being around a beautiful woman, no matter what. Translation: A team called Penn State may not be the Penn State I fell in love with, but they're still my team. I can't change that. Plus, to Bret Bielema, I say this: From Hell's heart I stab at thee. For hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee. Ye damned land whale.
Somehow it's entirely appropriate that McGloin did his best under O'Brien. Arrogant bastards weren't often the most important leaders under Paterno. When we think of great Paterno leaders, we think of Posluszny telling Morelli to stop showboating by doing a throat cut motion. We think of John Shaffer, who was so disliked that we thought Matt effing Knizner was a better quarterback (2) (3). We don't think of someone who says things like, "I got my second degree in being awesome." We don't think of someone who does the Aaron Rodgers belt thing after diving like a graceless salmon for a touchdown.
But though I am myself a person who grew up with and most love the non-celebratory attitude of Paterno, heck, if I was a former walk-on whom everyone criticized, sure, I might be a bit of a douche if I was suddenly tearing Big Ten defenses to shreds.
And I'll end with this: whatever O'Brien's Penn State turns out to be, O'Brien's most masterful move last year, whether it was really deeply intentional or not, was to unleash the dragon of cocky football players. Mauti. Zordich. Hodges. Scranton Moxie Man. These are all the guys who decided to respond to the NCAA by saying, "What? You want us to not be awesome? Sure, pal. Sure." While no Paterno team was ever in the same situation that our guys were this past year, I still don't see a Paterno team responding in the same, totally flippant way. It was probably the right shot of whiskey needed for them. And, who knows, trash talking worked for us against Miami in '87. Quoth Duffy Cobbs to one of the Blades brothers: "Stick a diaper on him and send him back out here!" The future of Penn State football may lie in Scranton. Dang, my ex-girlfriend is stepping out nowadays.
1 - In this case, the ex-girlfriend I use for my purposes is entirely a product of imagination. My only ex-type thing would never get a tattoo, though, like all girls I've ever known, she hints about it because she pretends to be wilder than she actually is.
2 - "We" being used loosely.
3 - If you've never seen Matt Knizner's old games at Penn State, I don't know what to say but this: think a shorter, slightly less competent Morelli. He threw like one good pass against Alabama in '85 after Shaffer got hurt and the fans, geniuses that we are, decided that here was the son of John Hufnagel and Todd Blackledge, the man who should lead us to glory in 1986.