I’ve been fortunate enough over the last six years or so to cover a large amount of Penn State sporting events.
I’ve covered national championship wrestling and volleyball teams. I’ve watched both the men’s and women’s basketball teams struggle with inferior opponents, and I’ve seen the football team thrown into a whirlwind that nobody could have seen coming.
Throughout that time and during those events, nothing quite matched the atmosphere in the press box at Beaver Stadium on Saturday evening as Penn State clinched a Big Ten East Division title and a trip to the conference championship game in Indianapolis.
Now, as most of you know, there’s no cheering in a press box and occasionally the atmosphere can be a bit subdued. That being said, Saturday evening was anything but subdued. The box was filled with a mixture of curiosity, excitement and a lot of confusion. Not because those covering the game were necessarily rooting for Penn State to win, but because with a Penn State win came intrigue.
What can this program become? Where do they go from here? How did this happen?
Each of these questions regularly passed through my mind as I watched the game play out in front of me. Penn State wasn’t supposed to be here. Hell, in a perfect world Penn State wasn’t supposed to hit rock bottom. And make no mistakes, they absolutely hit rock bottom. While the records may not show it, the feeling around the program sure did over the last four years.
I want to address how this all happened, so we’ll work in reverse order here:
The short of it is simple. Penn State was thrust into the spotlight as the community was rattled by horrific crimes of a former defensive coordinator and the failure, by a number of people both inside the university and out, to address and stop the matter at its beginnings. The result, both for the program and most importantly for the victims was devastating.
This caused what was, for Penn State, a complete tear down of the program. Values questioned. Coaches and administrators ousted. Sanctions handed down, and the introduction of a young NFL offensive coordinator looking to make a name for himself and help a community heal.
For two years he did just that, as Penn State steadied the ship in the face of crippling sanctions. But then, in a flash, it was gone. The coach was headed to the NFL and the questions returned as loudly as ever. Those questions remained until Penn State brought in one James Franklin. Franklin, a young, up-and-coming head coach with Pennsylvania roots, was every bit the cheerleader Penn State fans needed at the time. He came in and from day one with his introductory press conference, like a mother with her child, coddled Penn State fans and told them everything would be all right.
But questions quickly arose as fans awoke to the realities of the situation that the program was faced with. Franklin, try as he may, was thrown into a boxing match with one arm tied behind his back. The young, outspoken head coach lie in wait against the rope, taking body shot after body shot as his opponents grew larger and larger.
Then, the 2016 season came and after two massive right hooks, Franklin looked out on his feet. But like any good fighter, he composed himself. First, he started to work his jab, building in confidence. He followed with a big knockdown to get him back into the fight. And he finished with a flurry, taking the lead heading into the late rounds. So here we are, in Franklin’s corner with a late round lead watching with bated breath.
Where do they go from here?
The simple answer says Indianapolis, where the Nittany Lions will take on Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game. Again, however, like any fighter, Franklin has two routes he can take. He can build on the momentum and seize the opportunity to return the program to prominence and bring with him a fan base crying out for something to get behind. Or, he could wilt, returning to those fans the questions they held when he was hired. Whatever the answer may be, we won’t know this year and we may not know next year as Penn State continues a long and arduous ascent.
What can this program become?
This is the question that most sticks in my mind. I have vague memories of the mid-1990’s Penn State teams, but my most deep-seated memories are those of the 2000’s in which the Penn State football program felt like a roller coaster of ups and downs.
Franklin, to me and many my age, represents a breath of life into an all-too-stale program. He brings energy, and youthfulness and different perspectives. All of these things have been long-needed in Happy Valley.
The changes at Penn State allow the brand to become “cool” again. The changes are why a 5-star recruit from an area that has never been kind to Penn State before may now be in play. They’re why people with no ties to the program enjoy watching the offense, and why I think Penn State can finally build a new identity. It’s not about burying the past, but rather creating a sustainable future. All of these questions and changes both bring life to the program and add intrigue.
For the first time in my covering of Penn State athletics, we were left asking “what is this Penn State program and where is it headed from here?” And that’s exciting.
This season has represented growth. It has represented the value of patience. It has represented progress. But perhaps most importantly, this season has represented change.