This past weekend the Penn State football team closed out its 8-4 season with an over-time win against Wisconsin. Of the four losses, two were against major teams (Ohio State and Nebraska) and two were the first games of the season, when the team was taking baby steps after the year-long media blitzkrieg over the nightmarish Sandusky situation. I recall how awful I felt after the second loss to Virginia, when the team clearly played well on the road, should have won, but got torpedoed by special teams play, particularly numerous missed field goals by placekicker Sam Ficken, who was replacing Anthony Fera, one of the high-profile starters who left the team under the NCAA open-door policy.
There was a lot of black humor floating around, with the team 0-2 and headed for the dismal season that everyone was predicting, and a lot of people were hoping for as some type of karmic punishment for the university. There were jokes about Ficken trying to commit suicide the morning following the game, but the six times he fired the pistol, he missed wide right.
Well, a strange thing happened after that. Ficken was still the kicker, and it took him a few more frustrating games to get his bearings. (He eventually won the game against Wisconsin.) Those first few games when he still could barely function as a place kicker, the team rallied around him. He wasn’t ignored, or treated like an outcast. Guys would gather around him, pat him on the back, tell him not to give up because he was needed. Coach O’Brien didn’t give up on him, kept him in there despite fans calling for his head (although I suspect the team’s penchant for routinely going for it on fourth down had a lot to do with this).
Ficken is emblematic of the team, the program and the season itself. He failed terribly, and he hung around. And he got better, as did the team, visibly with each passing week. To the point where a team everyone had left for dead ended up having a solid season, far better than anyone had hoped for or predicted. While not a perfect season, it was enough to show everyone Penn State football was not going to be a wasteland of harsh NCAA sanctions and marquee players jumping ship every other week. It was crucial for the program to have a season like this, with nearly every game receiving more media coverage than it warranted, and the entire country seeing that these guys were fighting every step of the way, growing more confident with each game. It was the perfect advertisement for recruits: a team that in no uncertain terms had been told to go fuck itself by the NCAA (and the sports world at large) managing to have a solid year against enormous odds. An exciting team with a no-holds-barred offense and traditionally solid defense.
From a fan’s point of view? Barring the two years Paterno guided them to national championships, this was the most rewarding season I’ve had as a fan. In ways, it was more rewarding, not just because the team overcame such steep odds, but because Bill O’Brien clearly fell in love with the town and program, sensed the community was behind him as head coach and made the best possible transition from what can only be described as a world of shit to a competitive football program still facing sanctions that are going to make his job difficult for years to come. Where once I could never imagine a Penn State football team without Joe Paterno, I now look forward to the next decade with Bill O’Brien.
Even before the world of shit blew into town, I was hoping Paterno would hang it up. It seemed clear that his offensive and defensive coordinators were running the show, and he was hanging around because he simply couldn’t envision life without being the head coach of a powerful Division I-A college football program. As much as I had trained myself to dislike Paterno’s main competitor Bobby Bowden, I couldn’t help but see the guy in retirement and think, “Bowden has it right: relax, rest on your laurels, god damn it, in your 70s, with nothing to prove to anyone anymore. Go fishing and dote on the grandchildren. That’s what you’re supposed to do.”
And he stayed too long, too! Knowing when to leave is an art form worth cultivating.
I don’t know. Should I feel guilt-ridden now that I’m still part of the “Penn State football culture that glorifies sports over academics, even over morality”? I’m still not quite sure what people mean by that, what judgment they hope to impart over someone who either goes to, watches or listens to these games. (I’ve spent the past two seasons listening on the radio as I had no cable TV while living in temporary housing after the house fire.) I sure don’t feel like a lesser human being for being a fan. I know I’m not. This team had nothing to do with that shit. Frankly, the only person in the whole program who did was Paterno, and from what I’ve seen thus far, his greatest sin was not being proactive enough and using his power to correct a wrong situation with a former coach still using his premises.
I’ve got no mea culpa regarding the Sandusky situation. It was a horrible thing to happen on anyone’s watch, and we’re going to learn a lot more in the new year about what really happened. I’m sure the moral vanguards who were carrying on earlier this year are going to start tree-stump speechifying again come January and the upcoming trials. It’s been pure pleasure the past few months to have these jerk-offs butt out and let the football team stand or fall on its own merits. I’m sure there have been many other moral crises since then requiring the profound wisdom and guidance of the sort only hack newspaper columnists can provide. I suspect after the trials they’ll be gone for good from the Penn State landscape, unless it’s to write puff pieces about what a decent man O’Brien is, the same way they did about Paterno for decades, and then wonder why there was a culture of reverence surrounding him.
This has been a great season to be Penn State football fan. Which I surely did not see coming. After the first two games, I thought, “Here were go. This team is going to suck and have a lopsided losing record. All these dogshit sports columnists who crucified Paterno are going to take it a step further and make some stupid, hackneyed connection between the Sandusky mess and how poorly the team performed this year, and will do so for years to come, as spiritual punishment for men of power who did nothing when they had the responsibility to correct a horribly criminal situation.”
Well, that didn’t happen. I saw my team move forward into a new era (with a coach everyone thought was nuts for accepting the job), play with heart, against all odds, with the world hoping they would fail. They didn’t, and they reinforced that it makes sense to go on living with a vengeance when you’ve been left for dead, unless you quit all together, which more than a few people suggested was a viable option for this team and football program. I’m glad these guys didn’t.